Thursday, December 06, 2007 • 8:42 AM Comments ()

The Ethics of Civic Discourse

posted by David Tebaldi

After nearly 30 years of organizing conferences, symposia, colloquia, reading and discussion programs, and panel discussions examining a vast array of public issues, you’d think I’d be an expert at handling controversy. I’m not.

The conventional wisdom among people in the public humanities business is that bringing the perspectives of the humanities to bear on controversial issues replaces the heat of passion with the light of reason. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way in practice (although, it must be said, there is almost no topic that cannot be rendered harmlessly boring by a rigorous application of the humanities).

In April 2002, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities sponsored a colloquium on contemporary literature from the Portuguese-speaking world at the John F. Kennedy Library featuring the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese novelist Jóse Saramago.

About three weeks before our event, Saramago visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of a group traveling under the aegis of the International Parliament of Writers to observe alleged human rights violations by Israeli military forces. On March 27, after meeting privately with Yasser Arafat, the group held a press conference in Gaza City during which Saramago, referring specifically to what he had observed in Ramallah, said, “What is happening here is a crime that can be compared to Auschwitz.” Ouch.

In the days following the press conference, the story appeared in newspapers worldwide, including eventually the Wall Street Journal, under the headline, “Nobel laureate compares Israeli occupation to Auschwitz.” My phone started ringing that same day.

Donors and other friends of the Foundation, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were deeply offended by Saramago’s remarks and a number of them pressed me to cancel the event at the Kennedy Library. Others recognized the impossibility of canceling the event and simply withdrew their support and refused to attend. There was also pressure applied from outside the organization, by the Jewish Defense League, demanding that the Foundation issue a public statement condemning Saramago’s remarks.

Since we had invited Saramago to Boston to talk about literature, not about Middle East politics, we did not feel it was appropriate for us to make any public statements about what he had said. And yet we also felt that we could not simply ignore what many saw, fairly or unfairly, as anti-Semitic statements made by a man we were bringing to Boston to honor. (The colloquium was billed as “A Tribute to Jóse Saramago” and, ironically, was scheduled for April 19 – the anniversary of the “shot heard round the world.”)

One of our board members, a noted writer and editor, penned an eloquent statement that appeared on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe the day before our event explaining why going forward with the program was the only right thing to do. He wrote:

There are three ways of dealing with a dangerous idea. One is to ignore and hope it goes away. A second is to suppress it and hope it stays away. The third is to confront it, probe it, and expose it, using the perspectives of the history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities [disciplines].

The first two ways are morally empty – and, experience shows, ultimately ineffective. The humanities remain the best tools we have for critically examining issues of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice. Freedom of thought and expression, public debate and dialogue, engagement with ideas – even ideas we find offensive; indeed, especially with those ideas – are fundamental values of American society and of the humanities.

In keeping with this sentiment, the Foundation decided to confront Saramago and force him to reconsider his hateful analogy. We organized a special session to take place after the colloquium proper and we recruited as our interlocutor a scholar we had every reason to believe was perfectly equipped for the assignment. A remarkably accomplished “American intellectual, essayist, lexicographer, cultural commentator, translator, short story writer, TV personality, teacher and man of letters known for his insights into American, Hispanic, and Jewish cultures,” according to his Wikipedia entry. He proved to be no match for Jóse Saramago.

It was painful to watch. What we had unwittingly provided was another stage for Saramago to unleash yet another scathing critique of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. I happened to be sitting right behind a prominent Jewish philanthropist during this “dialogue” and watched as the back of his neck turned from pink to red to purple. I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears.

Saramago was completely unmoved by the effects of his words on others. He was an arrogant, unrepentant, bully. We’d been had.

The lesson I learned from this, and from similar if less sensational experiences with intellectual bullies, is actually one of the fundamental precepts of good parenting: Ignore bad behavior.

Like an unruly child, being ignored is what a self-anointed “political moralist” used to strutting on a world stage fears most.

--David Tebaldi, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

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