Readers of this blog may recall that I am no fan of Prof. Jasbir Puar, who teaches Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers. I think that her constant critique of Israel is exaggerated, distorted, one-sided, and hyperbolic. She recklessly invokes ancient stereotypes by falsely raising the specter of deliberate maiming, human experimentation and harvesting body parts by Israel. Nonetheless, I believe strongly that Prof. Puar is entitled to present her views wherever she may be invited, and to speak without harassment or interruption. Especially at a university, those who disagree with Puar must always afford her courtesy and respect.
Unfortunately, that did not happen at a recent appearance at Dartmouth, where an undergraduate was rude to Puar to the point of disruption, and succeeded in significantly delaying her talk at a symposium sponsored by the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth (GRID). The student, who was a sophomore at the time, set up a video camera right in front of Puar and refused to remove it when requested by the GRID’s director Prof. Annabel Martin. According to an account in The Dartmouth (the campus newspaper), Prof. Martin repeatedly asked the student to remove the camera, explaining that the event was being officially recorded and that no other recording would be permitted. Ultimately, she had to call campus security, and then the Hanover police, who removed the student and his camera from the room.
The student’s behavior was boorish, immature, and unacceptable. As a private institution, Dartmouth is entitled to adopt whatever rules it wishes for academic symposiums, including a prohibition on outside recording. His actions evidently made Prof. Puar uncomfortable, and he should have removed the camera immediately upon Prof. Martin’s request.
The student is lucky that he wasn’t arrested, and his later complaint of unfair treatment was absurd.
But that was not the only absurdity in the room. Following Puar’s talk, the next speaker, Prof. Neel Ahuja of the University of North Carolina, made this statement:
Before I begin I want to thank Jasbir, whose work has been an inspiration to me and to many of us in this room. I also want to note the fact that our space has been disrupted and that Jasbir's space has been disrupted, throughout that last talk. I want to note the irony that controversy about filming or recording Jasbir's talk fulfills a certain algorithmic militarism that is evident from the comments she gave and capitalizes on the fact that black and brown bodies are on display opening critiquing forms of colonialism and racial power.
Comparing a nineteen-year old with a video camera to “a certain algorithmic militarism” is ridiculous. If there was any quasi-military force evident in the event, it was exercised by the police on Puar’s behalf. If there was a power imbalance, it also favored Puar – who was supported by the GRID director, the other symposium organizers, the panelists, and ultimately university security and the police – against a lone undergraduate.
Calling themselves the “Bully Bloggers,” a group of professors from other universities also weighed in on Puar’s behalf. In a letter posted on the GRID website, the Bully Bloggers asserted that Puar’s treatment, including subsequent criticism of her, demonstrated “that queer and feminist scholars, and specifically women of color, face disproportionate intimidation when taking public positions on political matters that we all have a right to freely address.” A kid with a camera may be obnoxious and rude, but he can hardly be characterized as intimidating to a tenured professor with the institution and law on her side. As far as I know -- and according to several Google searches -- there has never been a statement from the Bully Bloggers about the physical intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel students on many campuses, whose events are regularly disrupted and worse, as in this recent situation at UC Irvine.
Universities must be places for robust and respectful debate. Had I been in the audience at Dartmouth, I certainly would have sided with Prof. Puar when she insisted that the unauthorized camera be removed. On the other hand, the rhetoric of Puar’s friends and supporters was completely out of proportion to the offense. Their apparent silence about the actual intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel students seems hypocritical at best.
[Update: this post has been slightly edited.]