You may have seen me if you were present during the last CSG meeting; a visibly upset woman in a kuffieh (Palestinian scarf) and red lipstick, holding up a makeshift poster reading ‘IMPARTIAL!?!” on the sideline for the last minutes of History Prof. Victor Lieberman’s question round after his speech. While plenty of event-related issues are worth extra discussion, my concern is with the one most unsettling to me as an academic; the abuse of a tool of power by someone in the position to know better. Specifically, I wish to question Professor Lieberman’s acceptance to speak as an impartial expert, even after students had pleaded with him not to.
Impartiality is a dangerous tool in that it lends authority to the words of those who can legitimately claim it at the expense of the words of people who — because of their social identities — cannot claim this right. It silences, making certain narratives more valuable than others. The social construct of the modest witness, the unbiased white middle-aged male of academia that crystallized in the enlightenment period, still shapes scientific and public discourse.
Such individuals’ assumed pure rational calculation is juxtaposed to the supposed irrational prejudice of females and ethnic others, and because their culture is the starting point — the non-culture — they’re assumed unaffected by such concerns as opposed to the “exotic” proclivities of the others. As an example, imagine whether the following could happen. Could I, a young, scarf-wearing woman who grew up in the “socialist haven” of Norway be invited to speak as the impartial expert on such a topic, even if I had my Ph.D degree in hand?
My purpose here is not to request to be able to use the claim of impartiality credibly; my point is that it should not be claimed by anyone. Impartiality is a myth, a construct of the powerful. The way we come to learn about something, the books we read, the people we listen to, our previous knowledge, our social circles, and more, shape how we approach and how we teach or talk about an issue, even for said white, middle aged males. The only difference is that the game is built on their rules. This makes sense, really. Try to think of a topic you have sufficient background to speak on, of which you haven’t developed some sort of stance, even if that opinion is not a clear cut pro-or-con.
This is not to excuse academics’ imbalanced narratives. It is certainly difficult, but as university employees with integrity we should strive do justice to the many sides of a contentious topic when presenting it to students who pay sky-high tuitions expecting just that. However, it is quite disingenuous to express or imply impartiality while doing so. When “GSIing” the Arab-Israeli conflict, I made sure to be transparent about my personal and educational background so that students could take into account how my experience shapes the way I approach the topic, while assuring them that their own backgrounds and stances would not affect how I grade them. Not that I’d have the privilege to be perceived impartial in the absence of such a disclosure, of course. Again, I’m young, I’m a woman, I’m a foreigner, and I’m veiled.
However, failing to acknowledge potential biases is risky business if you are of that subset of social identities presumed impartial. While highly problematic in a classroom setting, non-disclosure becomes directly dishonest in a context where we are trusted to present a disinterested opinion on a pressingly controversial issue. As an academic — an individual who enjoys the privileges of his good name and degree and who should have enough self-insight to recognize his possible prejudices — Professor Lieberman had a responsibility not to accept the “impartial” expert role in the divestment hearing from the start. Even if his critical self failed to recognize this initially, his refusal to withdraw when students actively petitioned him to do so is akin to willfully taking advantage of his position of power to influence the outcome of the case.
So I ask you, Professor Lieberman, as a fellow academic; did you not have any qualms with this invitation from the start? What were your motives in ignoring students’ pleas for your withdrawal? For if you had been oblivious to your potential partiality previously, the pro-resolution side made their concerns very clear to you at that point. Were you not embarrassed when the majority of the students present at the hearing never once threw spirit fingers in approval during your speech, while a minority in the back constantly did? Were you not uncomfortable when I, after holding out for your whole speech unable to protest you vocally, grabbed a sign and a marker, scribbled “IMPARTIAL !?!” and stood up during the remainder of your question round? If you were not, you should be.
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