Massad & the Paradox of Self-Censorship

02.15.2005 | Minnie Quach | The Academy | 2 Comments

From The Torch

In the words of Blackstar’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli, “The Man has programmed my conditioning; even my conditioning has been conditioned.”

These lyrics truly resonate when reflecting on some of the recent academic freedom controversies on campus. One of the most disturbing forms of censorship (though it cannot actually be called “censorship” because no official authority is prohibiting speech) involves individuals who punish themselves by not exercising their right to express their viewpoint—individuals who engage in “self-censorship.” Have these individuals, or people generally, been conditioned to see themselves as “victims” of oppression (or “intimidation”) when, in fact, they still possess the full power to stand up for their beliefs and assert their rights? Or is it that they believe academic freedom is not a battle worth fighting for? By caving in to the pressure of their opponents, these individuals often perpetuate, rather than negate, the idea that what they have said may well be “wrong” by engaging in various forms of self-censorship.

Take, for example, the case of Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad. Apparently, Professor Massad cancelled a controversial course because of “intimidation.” On his website, he states that:

Indeed with this campaign against me going into its fourth year, I chose under the duress of coercion and intimidation not to teach my course this year. It is my academic freedom that has been circumscribed. But not only mine. The Columbia courses that remain are all taught from an Israel-friendly angle.

This “intimidation” seemed to come only from students making accusations against him in a controversial documentary and from a government official calling for his resignation or dismissal—that is, constitutionally protected speech that does not in any way constitute true “intimidation” or censorship. There is no public evidence that Columbia itself has tried to censor Massad or punish him if he did not cancel his course. If there has indeed been such coercion, Massad should give proof of this to the public, to FIRE, and to other supporters of academic freedom.

<>Otherwise, if he is innocent of the allegations against him, why did he not steadfastly defend his academic freedom and continue teaching his course? Is he not serving exactly the desires of those who disagree with him by eliminating his course from the “marketplace of ideas” for potential students—especially those who do want to learn from his viewpoints? By self-censoring (i.e., not teaching a course that he would have otherwise taught if the controversy never arose), Massad (not a university official or outside critic) has done an injustice to Columbia students who actually would have taken his course and would have benefited from his teaching and point of view. Furthermore, if his claim that the remaining courses are “all taught from an Israel-friendly angle” is true, the removal of his course only makes these allegedly ideologically undiverse course offerings worse.

Massad has, as my 10th-grade English teacher used to say, “cut off his nose to spite his face.” To argue that others have infringed on his academic freedom and then voluntarily to remove his course from the marketplace of ideas seems contradictory. If Massad truly has the courage of his convictions, he should have continued teaching his course.


While I found Ms. Quach's article to be a genuine display of intellectual honesty and quite well written, I disagree with its general thrust.

Ms. Quach implies Prof. Massad's reaction is wholly inappropriate since : " This intimidation seemed to come only from students making accusations against him in a controversial documentary and from a government official calling for his resignation or dismissal that is, constitutionally protected speech that does not in any way constitute true intimidation or censorship."

I think this is a mischaracterization. Currently both The Sun and The News have written several pieces calling for his dismissal, and the government official is U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner. Agreed while this is intimidating, this does not constitute intimidation. Yet this atmosphere has also been brought into the classroom, as has been attested to by Ms. Rachel Bloom in a letter to the New York Times:

Professor Massad was unable to speak more than five sentences without being interrupted during his lectures. It got to the point where several of us wished he would tell students to stop interrupting his lectures, but he never did. Professor Massad made sure that every voice was allowed to be heard in his classroom.

And it has even extended into his personal life, as reported in The Spectator:

Since The Sun began its campaign, Massad has received angry letters, including one from Columbia associate clinical professor of medicine Moshe Rubin. An e-mail from Rubin forwarded to Spectator by Massad read, "Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar."

And all of this is occurring in an environment of general intimidation and racism against Arab Americans.

While I disagree with his decision, and have no knowledge of if the accusations against him are true (which are certainly grave) , I do think he has done something important. By refusing to teach his course Prof. Massad has demonstrated just how disenfranchised the Arab population here currently is, and allowed the world to see just how poisonous the current academic climate is. For him to have continued would have allowed us to think it was just the new normality at work.
02.15.2005 | Constatine Constantus
Constantine,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article. I would like to clarify that I personally do not think that Massad's resignation was completely inappropriate. I empathize with how intimidated he must have felt with so many individuals speaking out against him and calling for his dismissal. From a legal standpoint, however, he was never officially coerced into canceling his class by Columbia University itself. (If he were, my organization specializes in defending the right for professors like him to retain all of their teaching and other privileges when falsely accused of viewpoint discrimination or "harassment.)

I actually really admire Massad and his work, but sincerely wished that professors like him who face similar situations would feel empowered enough to stand up for their rights and set the example for their students--many of whom are also from minority backgrounds, like myself, and see these professors as role models.

And that is exactly why the type of self-censorship I describe is so disturbing: the root of it is complex and often lies below the surface of what is publicized mainstream media. While I didn't mention it in my article, I do think that a certain amount of racism and general disenfranchisement often plays a large role in why such battles might not feel "worth" it. I imagine I may struggle with the same difficult decisions if I ever become a professor.

However, I also feel that in order to NOT allow those who oppose one's world view "win" these battles, especially in the long run, more professors like Massad need to be fully conscious of their rights to stand up against such "intimidation" and continue to be heard--if not for their own sake, then for the sake of their students whom they serve. And that is why I feel a certain amount of injustice was done to his potential students.

A part of why I work at the FIRE is to hopefully help change the culture of higher education institutions from one of censorship and such battles to mutually repress others' viewpoints to one of open dialogue and true learning. But, unfortunately, as proven in the situation at Columbia, there is still a lot of work to do.
02.15.2005 | Minnie Quach

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