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Anthony Badami '11: The language of Brown's Israeli-Palestinian exchange

The quandary of Israel and Palestine is nearly inescapable for Brown students. Because of a personal connection, I have been witness to plentiful dialogue efforts, lectures, panels and even had the opportunity to dispute current Israeli security policy through a Janus student debate. The assorted and relevant campus organizations — Hillel, Common Ground, Brown Students for Israel, Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, Puzzle Peace, etc. — ensure no decline in the coverage of this issue in the coming years.

However, I write this column not to comment on the substance of these disagreements. Instead, I would like to remark on the forums, the arenas of language, in which these disputes take place. To make headway on the Israel-Palestine matter, we must be cognizant of the way we converse.

If my endeavor seems unclear, refer to Roberta Goldman's '13 recent guest column ("Brown students for Palestine (and Israel)," March 4). One component of the Israel-Palestine question is the lexicon one uses to engage others. For Goldman, the grievance lies in the use of the term "apartheid." Now, while I agree with the conclusion she states, I take great issue with the line of argumentation she uses.

Her general thrust seems to be this: "All students are entitled to advocate their personal beliefs, but not to the extent that they trample upon fellow students' beliefs." In other words, individuals are free to express their opinions, as long as those opinions do not affront others.

I do not mean to be snide, but this seems to me to be a serious misreading of free speech, a value imperative to political discourse. As Salman Rushdie emphasized in his recent lecture to Brown undergraduates, the right to free speech begins with speech that is offensive — speech that is, in Goldman's words, trampling.

In fact, when speech is restricted, it can be more compelling. Rushdie pointed out that banned speech does not dissipate; it goes underground. At this point, its taboo message becomes even more alluring and attractive.

This logic mirrors closely my objection to Goldman's argument. Why try to get the word "apartheid" proscribed from the public dialogue? I have no trouble believing that it offends many, but that is why free speech is necessary. It is up to those participating in the discussion to delineate useful and constructive reasoning from harmful and unproductive quarrel.

But, by disallowing the use of the term "apartheid," you effectively limit an individual's ability to contribute. You assert a conclusion without having been exposed to the pertinent information.

The conception of free speech theory rests on John Stuart Mill's formulation of the "marketplace of ideas." This model argues for a many-sided meeting of opinions and arguments in the hope that the most valid points will rise to the top. It assumes that all people (or at least those partaking) are capable of rational and reasonable conversation.

I make this assumption too. If Goldman believes that "apartheid" is a fruitless expression in the context of this dilemma, then I assume she probably has some very convincing reasons as to why that is the case. But, if the expression "apartheid" is stricken from the general dialogue, then Goldman's argument will be absent as well. Thus, we lose out on a better understanding of the word's implications.

Yes, "[t]he cheapening of words is a great moral danger." But, a greater moral danger is the exclusion of words before they can reach the discerning light of cogent deliberation.
The controversy surrounding Israel and Palestine encompasses the usage of innumerable, hotly contentious phrases (apartheid, occupation, cantonization, Zionism, etc.). Some of these terms possess legitimacy; some do not. However, we cannot distinguish between them if we allow some and bar others. Moreover, it may be true that one or more of these words becomes applicable later. In this case, why ban today what we can utilize tomorrow?

So, use the word "apartheid." Use it freely and prodigiously. Tie it to trees, paint it on banners and proclaim it from podiums. You have every right to do so. I, as a conscious and intelligent individual, will decide whether or not I take issue with it. And, if I do, you better believe that I will be contesting your view just as vociferously.

Anthony Badami ‘11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at anthony_badami (at) brown (dot) edu.


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