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November 21, 2017 2:05 pm

Why Was My Voice Silenced at the University of Michigan?

avatar by Victor B. Lieberman


Michigan Stadium, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Photo: Ken Lund.

On November 14, the Central Student Government (CSG) at the University of Michigan (UM) passed a BDS resolution against Israel, as reported by The Algemeiner. Early in the session, members of the CSG successfully moved to forbid UM history professor Victor Lieberman from speaking during the debate.

What follows is an open letter from Professor Lieberman to the CSG:

On November 14, the [University of Michigan] Central Student Government voted to prevent me from delivering a carefully prepared talk on divestment from Israel. The argument against my speaking was that “a structural power imbalance” within the university militates against the views of UMDivest, which could only be rectified by removing me from the discussion. 

This argument cannot withstand scrutiny for three reasons. First, it was claimed that junior faculty who speak against Israel risk being fired. In fact, no junior faculty have ever been fired for expressing political views, and such views have no bearing whatsoever on tenure or promotion.

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Second, UMDivest could have engaged senior faculty to speak on their behalf. In my department alone, there are six senior professors publicly critical of Israel, four of whom signed an American Historical Association petition against Israel. Nineteen other faculty in various departments, mostly tenured and some very senior, signed the statement of support for UMDivest. If none of these professors spoke on November 14, it’s because they weren’t interested, or UMDivest didn’t ask them. Neither condition reflects a “structural power imbalance” within the university.

Third, UMDivest also could have enlisted outside academics or regional specialists, as they have in past years. The ready availability of such speakers for both sides argues further against the view that institutional factors prevented a level playing field.

In short, one side made better use of opportunities equally accessible to both. Imagine that the Michigan football team showed up to play OSU, but OSU hadn’t bothered to practice. OSU therefore claimed that the game would be “unfair” unless the referee barred Michigan’s starting running back from playing — and the referee agreed. Would that be equitable?

Obviously, the real motive for preventing me from speaking was UMDivest’s fear that it lacked effective counter-arguments, and that I might sway the vote. Free discussion therefore had to be prevented. Thus, we were treated to a surreal spectacle where a community activist from Detroit who knows nothing about Middle East history or politics, and who has no connection to the UM was allowed to speak for at least half an hour — but a UM professor who teaches the subject was not allowed to speak for ten minutes.

Censorship is the instinctive preference of people who “know” in advance that there is only one truth, and believe that entertaining alternate viewpoints is a waste of time. “Objective discourse” means a discourse that excludes views they don’t like.

This is a position unworthy of a university whose raison d’etre is to promote the unfettered flow of ideas. It also runs counter to a lifetime of my own research and teaching, which has always emphasized the open-ended interplay between divergent historical interpretations. Uncertainty is what makes intellectual life exciting. Unfortunately the intolerance that was on display on November 14 is part of a growing climate of intolerance that has led to the shutting down of speakers on college campuses across the country.

Irony of ironies: while student representatives spoke in favor of silencing me, UMDivest supporters in the audience waved signs that read “Do Not Silence Me.”

The fact that the CSG debate was conducted under censorship can hardly have weakened the university’s decision to ignore the CSG resolution.

Victor Lieberman is the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Asian and Comparative History at the University of Michigan. 

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