Everything Old Is New Again: Bertrand Russell and Steven Salaita

By Sean Anderson

Abstract:

The decision by trustees of the University of Illinois to revoke a tenured position offered to Steven Salaita evokes another, long-ago controversy. In 1940, a New York court revoked the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a faculty position at the College of the City of New York, in part because of Russell’s allegedly “immoral” writings. In both instances, the decision makers justified their actions by predicting harm to students if the appointees were allowed to take up their faculty positions. Because most observers today would probably disapprove of Russell’s “dehiring,” I use that event as a lens through which to view the revocation of Salaita’s appointment. I conclude that it is difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously deplore Russell’s firing and support Salaita’s. In order to do so, one must either rely on purely legalistic distinctions or stake out a category of “hate speech” that avoids difficult problems of malleability and unpredictability. In the end, I express deep skepticism about both approaches.

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