When academic panels go very wrong

By Niraj Sheth

The November 10 panel on the Middle East, hosted by the Student Committee on the Middle East (SCME) and entitled “Examining National Identity: Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Future of the Middle East,” demonstrated exactly how low a poorly managed event can fall. As a student unsure about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was hoping for some insight into the crisis. What I, and other attendees, received instead was a lesson on ineptitude and intolerance.

There has been much written in the Maroon about this debacle: a news article appearing on November 12 (“Frustrated by Mid East discourse, Sassen storms from panel lecture”) and one panelist’s opinion printed on November 15 (“Saskia Sassen reveals high-handed habits, stifles discussion”). At the risk of repetition, let me recap the evening’s events for clarity. As the title indicates, the event appeared to be a chance for the emergence of new perspectives on an exhausted debate, and I looked forward to an evening of constructive discussion. All went well at first, as sociology professor Saskia Sassen opened the panel with an introduction of nationalism and transnationalism and a suggestion for a third alternative. Professor Peter Berkowitz of George Mason University followed up with a discussion of the historical evolution of nationalism and its relevance to liberal democracies. The debate, however, quickly went downhill from there. Professor Anne Bayefsky of Columbia University proceeded to regurgitate a litany of the unequal treatments Israel has received from the world community since its inception, and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Yale University responded with a denunciation of Israel as a fundamentally unjust state. In resorting to hackneyed criticism, the last two speakers ruined any chance for the emergence of productive ideas.

Sadly, it didn’t end there. In their time to respond to the other speakers, most of the panelists continued and expanded their narrow, one-sided remarks. At times, accusations became personal, with Bayefsky claiming at one point that Qumsiyeh supported Osama bin Laden (when, in fact, the only mention to bin Laden that Qumsiyeh had actually made was as an example of “pan-Islamic transnationalism”).

The notable exception to this frenzy was Professor Sassen. After criticizing the disastrous turn the panel had taken, she left the event, and her bickering colleagues, behind. I commend her for this deed. Of course, abandoning an academic panel is a drastic measure. Yet in this case, it was not only justified, it was right. No person, let alone a distinguished professor, should be forced to be an accomplice to intolerance. When the panel veered off from a conversation of ideas into accusations of unilateral blame, it was no longer a safe forum for discussion. Sassen’s decision to leave is a bold statement that the other panelists should have taken to heart.

Not everyone seems to understand the meaning of Sassen’s exit. In an article printed in the Maroon, Berkowitz concludes that “Professor Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers, that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence and arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes, and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.” It is quite an exaggeration to call the panel “a debate” and the remarks of the panelists “evidence and arguments.” As a law professor, Berkowitz should know that a real debate requires tolerance and compromise on both sides, and that valuable arguments abstain from bias—a level of quality well beyond the reach of the panel. His hypocritical remarks also undermine his attacks on Sassen. By labeling Qumsiyeh a “hate-mongering purveyor of a monstrous falsehood” in his article, he is the one “fomenting the flames of intolerance,” which is exactly what he accuses Sassen of doing. Before Berkowitz can be taken seriously, he needs to practice what he has decided to preach.

The innocent attendees most hurt by the panel’s degeneration have to ask themselves what went wrong and whose responsibility it is. There is, of course, more than enough blame to go around, but I think the ones most responsible are those who organized the event. The panelists’ arrogant intolerance of each other is naturally their own responsibility. They missed their chance to voice beneficial ideas and impress a spirit of cooperation on students. However, the event itself is the responsibility of the SCME. It was they who decided upon these panelists and invited them to our campus, and it was they who brought intolerance into our halls. I am sure that the panelists’ biased positions were not hidden. Even a small amount of research on the part of the SCME would have been enough to deter them if a constructive discussion was what they hoped for, which seems doubtful in light of what happened. As a student group, their foremost responsibility is to their peers, a duty they obviously ignored. I hope they are satisfied with the results, because the rest of us surely are not. The next time this, or any other, organization plans to abuse the academic forum, they can leave my invitation on the printer.