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In Defense of Judith Butler

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On Thursday June 30, 2013, McGill University will confer an honorary doctorate on American philosopher Judith Butler. For many of us who work and study at McGill, and for many others who look to universities such as McGill for moral leadership, this will be a tremendous day, a day when -- even if for only a brief, symbolic moment -- it will seem as if the university is what we imagine it to be in our fondest hopes: a place where thought that is fearless in its devotion to justice is not only tolerated, but honoured.

Judith Butler, Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is a tower of contemporary social and political thought. Her work -- in several books over two decades--on gender, sex, sexuality, queerness, feminism, bodies, political speech and ethics has changed the way scholars all over the world think, talk and write about identity, subjectivity, power and politics. It has also has changed the lives of countless people whose bodies, genders, sexualities and desires have made them subject to violence, exclusion and oppression, by lending recognition, dignity and power to their experience, and by illuminating the contours of an ethics in which we might begin to live well with, and because of, the differences that constitute us. That McGill will recognize her with an honorary degree gives hope to many of us whose faith in the university has been challenged in recent years.

But not everyone feels this way.

Professor Butler, who is Jewish, is an outspoken critic of the state of Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people and its occupation of disputed territories, and a supporter of the international campaign to use Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as means to pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation and extend equal rights and reparations to unlawfully displaced Palestinian citizens. This has prompted Hillel McGill and McGill Students for Israel to issue a letter of protest calling on the McGill administration to reconsider its decision to honour Professor Butler. Their position has been supported in a recent editorial by Barbara Kay in the National Post and in a post to the Open Zion blog by McGill History Professor Gil Troy.

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It goes without saying that it is perfectly acceptable for students, journalists, faculty members, and anybody else, to publicly oppose Butler's views on Israel, to denounce her support for BDS, and to protest against her receipt of an honorary degree from McGill on these grounds, including by demonstrating at the ceremony at which the honour will be conferred. This is what democracy looks like, and the university is especially a place for the spirited contestation of strong views.

What has been so disappointing in these denunciations of Professor Butler and McGill's decision to honour her is the willful lack of intelligence with which they have been expressed. As reported by the Montreal Gazette, the letter from Hillel McGill and McGill Students for Israel accuses Professor Butler of advancing a "pro-terror" position, an allegation that is extremely inflammatory. Butler has spent her entire academic career exposing and criticizing various forms of violence and terror routinely inflicted upon racialized, sexualized and gendered subjects.

With regard to Israel and Palestine, she has explicitly and repeatedly repudiated both state violence and violent resistance. The basis for the malicious claim that Butler is "pro-terror" would seem to be that she endorses the non-violent tactics of the BDS campaign and that, in an impromptu response to a question following a speech a few years ago, she pointed to the complex political roles played by Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East rather than simply denouncing them as nothing more than terrorist organizations. Butler herself has repeatedly asserted, "I have never taken a stand on either organization." For some, apparently, this is enough to establish that she in fact supports Hamas and Hezbollah and that she is, therefore, "pro-terror."

What is so discouraging about all this is that it is doubtful those who have denounced Butler so aggressively, and have protested against her honorary McGill degree so vehemently, have ever read a single piece of her scholarly work, or heard or read any of the published material in which she actually discusses her views on BDS and Israel. Instead, they are content to malign her, and to undermine serious consideration of the difficult issues her scholarship and activism raise, by recycling tired allegations based on willful misconstruals of two isolated sentences ripped from the context in which they might actually have meant something. And all of this simply to police and bully those who might contemplate criticizing the actions of the state of Israel or acting on those criticisms.

While we might be inclined to forgive exuberant undergraduates and thoughtless journalists for engaging in this sort of anti-intellectual and depoliticizing behaviour, we should expect better from a McGill professor. When my colleague, Professor Gil Troy, whose attack also seems to be based entirely on the aforementioned two sentences, accuses Butler of "moral obtuseness and intellectual sloppiness," describes her as "someone who epitomizes...cowardice" and implies that she is an anti-Semite and a bigot, this can only be taken as a confession that he, too, has never actually read her books, or the texts of her speeches on Israel and Palestine, and that he in fact knows nothing about her other than what he turned up by Googling the words "Butler, Hezbollah and Hamas." Either that or he means to assert that moral clarity and courage are established solely on the basis of whether a person categorically denounces these organizations and BDS, and refrains from criticizing the state of Israel.

There are many defensible positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tactics such as BDS, and even organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. What is indefensible is to assume the authority of scholarship without also assuming the responsibility to actually practice it. In choosing to attack Professor Butler with misrepresentation, stereotyping and scapegoating rather than by actually considering and engaging her arguments, Professor Troy dishonours all of us who wear the gowns, and he contributes nothing of substance to public debate on these complex issues.

Supporters and critics of the Israeli state looking for an example of moral acuity, intellectual rigour, and the courage to think seriously in public would do well to read the text of Professor Butler's recent address on the subject at Brooklyn College. Then they should read Professor Troy's attack on Professor Butler's character. And then they should decide who inhabits the agony of thought and who avoids it, who is courageous, and who is a coward.