When I agreed to present a paper at the 2014 International Peace Research Association conference, I never imagined it would end with me scolded like a child by a room of academics. But there I was, being berated by bearded professors. Sweating bullets, I reflected on how exactly I ended up at war in a conference devoted to peace.
I arrived the previous day for the week-long conference, held at the Istanbul Hilton and beginning with a banquet for the participants. Over dinner, I chatted with a German woman who introduced me to two Africans. They were not proficient in English yet nonetheless eager to converse. “Which country are you from?” I asked them.
“Kenya. It’s beautiful there.”
“I’ve never been to Africa,” I replied. “I’d like to fix that.” The two Kenyans exchanged weary looks and quickly excused themselves from the table. I thought it was strange at the time, but I wouldn’t find out why until much later.
The following afternoon, I was the sixth and final presenter in the conference committee entitled “Peace Negotiations and Mediation.” My presentation concerned interactive problem-solving workshops between Hamas and Fatah, the two major rival Palestinian political factions. The Palestinian situation was especially tense at the time, as Hamas was engaged in a military conflict with Israel. While the bulk of my presentation described the intricacies and logistics of the workshops, I briefly discussed the benefits of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas: I argued that the more diplomatic Fatah would exert a pacifying effect on the relatively aggressive Hamas.
I’d never made such a presentation before. The audience consisted of middle aged professionals with years – maybe decades – of research experience. Meanwhile, I hadn’t even graduated yet. Even though I was nervous, I thought I’d done pretty well.
After I finished speaking, the moderator opened the floor for questions directed to any of the six presenters. As it would turn out, I was now on trial. Several hands shot in the air and their owners’ eyes were all fixed on me. None looked welcoming. The moderator pointed to a man, who turned to me. “You have to be careful about using the term ‘militant’ to describe Hamas,” he said.
Huh? I thought. THAT is his comment? I considered “militant” a fitting adjective: Hamas fires rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian populations. I voiced this argument as articulately as I could and added, in what I hoped was a polite tone, that my characterization of Hamas as militant was inconsequential to the thesis of the presentation. The word was merely used in the opening paragraph as an adjective to describe the organization; the rest of the presentation did not attempt to brand Hamas as malevolent but instead involved them as an integral and legitimate part of negotiations for peace. “They may be militant,” I finished, “but my point is that the path to peace is diplomacy.”
At this last remark, several in the audience grumbled and shook their heads in disagreement and I knew that I was in for a fight. Half a dozen more hands shot in the air, but no one said anything to the other five presenters, who each had more interesting research than me. No, the comments were all for me, and none were “great job!” The moderator called on someone else, who spoke with a wavering voice revealing restrained anger. He replied, “Couldn’t you say that Hamas is exercising its right, as a government, to resort to force when diplomatic negotiations break down?”
“Yes, I could,” I replied. “And that’s exactly why I used the term ‘militant’: they are indeed resorting to force. Even at this very moment, Hamas is firing rockets at Israel. But all governments can be militant at times. My point was that it is now time to engage them diplomatically.” Shaking his head, looking at me as if I was a particularly irritating mosquito, my interlocutor opened his mouth, but the moderator interjected: “We’re short on time. I’m afraid we have to move the comments portion along.”
He pointed at another professor type, who in turn warned of the “politicization of debate”: “When you use terms like ‘militant,’ you’re playing into the hands of Western governments, who want to discredit Hamas at any cost.” There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd. And so it went for a dozen more comments from the audience, each directed solely at me and my use of the word “militant.” Like a retarded Pavlov’s dog, every raised hand conditioned me to involuntarily release twelve ounces of flop sweat.
As the abuse continued, my terror gave way to righteous indignation, and the last few exchanges were barely-contained shouting matches with plaid-jacketed professors emeriti. When the panel moderator cleared his throat and stopped pointing to the audience, the end of my torture was in sight: it was time for for him to wrap up the committee with a summary of the six presentations. Great, I thought. No more abuse. The moderator articulated and linked the themes of the first five presentations, omitting mine. Of course, he didn’t forget about me. Instead, he took the opportunity to break from the traditional interpretation of “moderating” to offer a normative appraisal.
“And, finally,” he finished, as the condescension train arrived at the station right on time, “I think our sixth presenter would do well to remember that certain distinctions are important in rhetoric.” So there you have it: at my first presentation, I was publicly excoriated by a dozen leaders in my field. Even the moderator, whose only duty was maintaining the flow of the panel, took a swipe. Why? Because I had the nerve to mildly characterize as “militant” what most political commentators term a “terrorist organization.”
In the moments following the moderator’s final words, I sat silently as everyone else gathered their belongings to leave. It felt surreal, like I was on a 90s sitcom. Protagonist pratfall, cue the laugh track. Ha ha ha, what a buffoon. Now for my knowing, sideways glance at the camera before I’m saved further humiliation as we cut to a Gold Bond commercial. In reality, my laugh track was a chorus of jeers, and I had to make a conscious effort to leave. Self-conscious, in fact, was a better descriptor; I was hyperaware of my every movement as I gathered my notes, stood up, and left the room to lick my wounds and reflect.
The dictionary definition of militant is “using strong, extreme, and sometimes forceful methods to achieve a goal.” Even without a dictionary in hand, only an idiot would take issue with a description of Hamas as “militant.” But these were not idiots; they were the elite of the field in which I was considering a PhD.
How could a room full of intelligent people be so blinded to common sense as to focus on a single, inconsequential word in a ten minute presentation? I came to a few conclusions. First, the conference had peace in the title. Thus, the crowd it attracted would be, by definition, politically liberal. But this didn’t explain their misplaced mob mentality.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a contentious issue that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. It’s tied directly to identity politics. Academics spend entire careers studying the conflict. And left-leaning scholars are typically not fans of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. The ironic thing is, neither am I. But by applying even a mildly negative word to Hamas, my audience assumed that I was implicitly endorsing Israel’s actions against Hamas and, by extension, disparaging their own research, ideology, or even identity. I treaded on a sensitive topic at a sensitive time. Perhaps I should have been more politically correct and not used “trigger words.”
But I object to political correctness in academia. Ideally, professors steer discourse on college campuses towards open-minded debate, not perfunctory dismissal. However, that’s not always the case. Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, both among the more insightful comedians, have observed that college campuses have become repressive cultures of censorship regarding sensitive issues. You’re free to say whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t offend anyone. In this effort to not offend, one is expected to self-censor, compromising sincere debate. And if you don’t censor yourself, others will do it for you.
I used the politically incorrect word “militant” and prompted blood lust in a dozen peaceniks incapable of restraining their anger with common sense. We might have had an intellectual discussion about the best methods of reconciliation for Hamas and Fatah, but instead I was shouted down on a tangential issue. That day, I discovered that academia is not always an open market of ideas among cerebral men and women. Sometimes, academia is a circle-jerk of close-minded exclusiveness.
I left the Hilton’s conference hall with my tail between my legs. In my suit – soaked in sweat – and toting a professional leather binder, I felt like a kid that had raided his parent’s closet to play Dress Up Like Daddy. Masquerading as an erudite professional, I was discovered, found out, exposed by an angry mob and chased out of the Ivory Tower. Walking down the street, I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting a bearded straggler to be chasing after me, shouting “Wait! I forgot to mention one more reason why you suck!”
I reached in my pocket and looked sadly at the business cards I’d brought to network. After such a verbal ass-kicking, I wouldn’t find any jobs among that group. It was the second day of the week-long conference, and I had already managed to piss off a room full of people. Debating on whether to go back for the rest of the week, or spend the time exploring Istanbul and save what little face I could, I decided to return the next day to show the castle guards of the Ivory Tower that I belonged in academia, and fuck them if they thought otherwise. I was still intent on forcing my way inside, and if they wouldn’t lower the drawbridge, then I’d wade the moat, shoot a grappling hook over the walls, and sneak in during the dead of night. Also, the Hilton offered a free buffet lunch and Istanbul was expensive.
At the conference, a few days later, I saw the German woman I met the first evening. I told her that the Kenyans seemed to be snubbing me when we saw each other, and asked if she might have an idea as to why.
“Well,” she said. “They thought you were ignorant, and a bit racist.”
WHAT? I was dumbfounded. I had barely spent ten minutes with them. I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly have said in offense. “There must have been a misunderstanding,” I told her.
“They heard you say you wanted to ‘fix Africa’. Let me offer some advice,” she said. “Even if you have thoughts such as these, you shouldn’t say them out loud. Try to be more politically correct.”