A Meditation on Violent Language: Professor's Impassioned Tweets vs The University Memo

The current uproar about the firing of Prof. Steven Salaita by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana revolves around the posting of objectionable tweets. The case involves the extent to which faculty can use violent, disturbing language in their private communications, particularly in social media. Salaita tweeted energetically, passionately, perhaps in somewhat over-the-top ways concerning the war in Gaza.

The Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, rescinded a job offer because, in her opinion, Salaita's language did not conform to some undefined level of "civility." Yet, her letter to the campus was a prime example of violent language -- all the more violent because of its calm, rational, removed tone. This is the kind of bureaucratic language that has the power to do much more harm than an angry expletive posted about a war. This is the kind of language that is sent to immigrants when being denied citizenship. It is the language that is spoken to a potential voter telling him or her that she did not provide enough documentation. It is the letter placed in the mailbox of an employee about to be fired during corporate belt-tightening. Such communications are filled with phrases like "It is impossible at this time;" "We are sorry to inform you..." "It is with regret we terminate..." "It would be inappropriate to take further action..." and the like.

Violence can be done with understated language; with a velvet steamroller smile; and with false regret. At the end of the day, who did more violence? Steven Salaita in tweeting angrily about Gaza or the Chancellor who abrogated academic freedom, seemingly bowed to the pressure of donors and interest groups, and justified her actions by appealing to a vague and impossible-to-gauge standard called "civility." Her language has virtually destroyed the career of one professor and his family who depend on it and wrecked a university's reputation.

What harm was done by Salaita's impatient tweets compared to the shame brought to the university by the Chancellor's measured cadences? Three thousand scholars have now said they will not speak at or participate in conferences at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The American Association of University Professors, The National Lawyers Guild of Chicago, and many legal scholars have all condemned the Chancellor's actions.

This unfortunate decision to place in balance the preciousness of academic freedom against some blurry notion of linguistic etiquette and to choose the latter over the former is perhaps the most violent use of language possible. We must not be lulled by the boring cadences of bureaucratic verbiage that conceal unvarnished authority. If I have to choose between impassioned if somewhat ill chosen tweets and the carefully selected words that mask arbitrary institutional power, I'll take the tweets any day.