Jon Pike’s response to David Hirsh’s paper last Wednesday – Antisemitism and Testimonial injustice

Jon Pike's response to David Hirsh's paper last Wednesday - Antisemitism and Testimonial injusticeThis is a response to Hirsh, D, (2007) Anti-Zionism and antisemitism: cosmopolitan reflections. There are a number of examples of the “Livingstone Formulation” here.

In his paper, David makes a lot of the ‘Livingstone formulation.’ I want to argue here that the Livingstone formulation, and similar arguments, exemplify a particular form of injustice. In doing so, I want to draw both on David’s work and on recent work in feminist philosophy. |The form of injustice that I have in mind is a form of injustice that exists on the terrain of epistemology – it has to do with the justice and injustice involved in considering someone as a knower, someone who provides testimony. Its name is testimonial injustice. It is not the worst form of injustice that there is. The injustices that take place on the UCU elist are of an order of magnitude smaller that those that are taking place in Sderot and in Gaza. But it’s a form of injustice that the left has in some ways become attuned to, and in other ways has simply forgotten.

The Livingstone formulation is as follows ‘for far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government’ (Livingstone 2006).

Here is another example. “Pro-Israel and Zionist groups have interpreted intensified criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism as the expression of a ‘new antisemitism’. The [Independent Jewish Voices] initiative leans towards the view that this charge is far too often used in an attempt to stifle strong criticism of Israeli policies.” (Antony Lerman)

Here are three reactions to the Livingstone move:

First reaction. Of this, Hirsh says, “I have found that this response to a charge of antisemitism is a common one yet it denies the crucial distinction between criticism and demonization and it subsumes both into the virtuous category of ‘criticism’.”

I agree that the distinction between criticism and demonization is crucial, but there is more going on.

A second reaction is to regard the Livingstone move as just an example of the genetic fallacy: the fallacy that the truth or falsity of a claim depends on its genesis. Suppose some discussion of a ‘new antisemitism’ is used in an attempt to stifle strong criticism.” Well, get over it. The genesis of the discussion, and the motivation of the charge doesn’t touch the truth or falsity of the charge. Deal with the charge, rather than indulging in some genealogical inquiry. I’m a big fan of the genetic fallacy, and a big fan of this general dismissal of the complaint.

But a third response is to pin down the way in which the Livingstone manouvre represents a significant injustice. The function of the formulation is to establish and cement a credibility deficit on the part of those who have and express concern about anti-Semitism. In this respect it represents a sort of testimonial injustice, to use the term of Miranda Fricker, on whose brilliant book I draw here.

For Fricker, testimonial injustice occurs when “prejudice on the hearer’s part causes him to give the speaker less credibility than he would otherwise have given.” (Fricker p 4) The speaker sustains such a testimonial injustice if and only if she receives a credibility deficit owing to identity prejudice in the hearer; so the central case of testimonial injustice is identity-prejudicial credibility deficit. (Fricker 27)

To fix these ideas, think of the black person who is disbelieved by the police, the woman whose charge of rape is disbelieved, and rejected by a jury, and the person whose accent causes their knowledge claims to be disbelieved, and preventing them form getting an elite academic post.

What sort of injustices are these?

Identity-prejudicial credibility deficit is strongly evident in sexist and misogynist attitudes to women who are victims of rape. Because of the adversarial nature of the judicial system, the prosecutorial role of the police, and because of misogynistic attitudes on the part of juries, it seems very likely that women are victims of testimonial injustice in this way: women are not believed. Why not? The misogynist story is familiar: the woman who cried rape had, in fact, had consenting sex with her alleged attacker, but then regretted it, and attempted to get out of difficulty by making a false accusation of rape. This is the sort of thought entertained by, it seems, very many juries.

The next point in the argument is straightforwardly concessive. One, sometimes, probably, a few people do aim to deflect criticism of Israel, by making false allegations of anti-Semitism. Two, sometimes, probably, a few women do try to get out of exculpate their own behaviour, by making false accusations of rape. It’s not plausible to say neither of these things ever happen.

But what is, and what should be, the general attitude of those on the left to such phenomena? What is the case is this: we are attuned to the idea that we ought to listen carefully and sympathetically to women who make charges of rape. We ought to listen to the victims, attend to their concerns, establish an environment in which they can safely articulate their narrative. And we maintain this general stance in the knowledge that, yes, perhaps in a very few cases, the charge may be false.

But the attitude of the anti-Zionist left towards those who make charges of anti-semitism is the opposite. The raising of concern about anti-semitism gets you the Livingstone manoeuvre. This is the general stance, which does not sit carefully with, but fully draws on the idea that, yes, perhaps in a vey few cases the charge may be ill-intentioned and false. The general stance on the left is to attribute a credibility

I want to examine this with reference to a particular example.

My union the UCU in it first public comment on anti-Semitism pulls a version of the Livingstone move against critics of the UCU and its predecessor unions. Paul Mackney argues that:

“unfortunately defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of antisemitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate, and in the context of Higher Education, to restrict academic freedom.” UCUR (p2)

UCU raises this concern again, where it suggests that tackling antisemitism on campus ought to be supported

“provided that charges of antisemitism are not used to stifle debate and inquiry, or academic freedom.” UCU (p. 6)

Transpose this: “we will combat sexual violence against women, provided that charges of rape are not used to exculpate bad behaviour.”

The charge is one of bad faith leveled at, amongst other things, criticism of the boycott campaign within the predecessor unions to the UCU. It is directed specifically at those critics for whom the anti-semitic effect of the boycott is an important argument – there are, of course, other arguments against the boycott proposals. The charge rests on a distinction between the professed intent and the hidden intent of critics.

The professed concern of these critics of the boycott policy is concern that the boycott was, in effect antisemitic. This worry was raised by many Jewish members of the UCU, by Jewish communal organisations and by other anti-racists, because they are concerned about indirect racism, or actions that are anti-Jewish in practice. But, suggests UCU, their hidden intent is to stifle or delegitimise criticism of Israel. No evidence is provided for this charge.

I want to look at two aspects of this analysis of the Livingstone move as a form of epistemic prejudice. First, what happens to someone on the receiving end of the Livingstone move – how is it to be rebuffed?

Suppose – let us say – you oppose academic boycotts of Israel in your union. Suppose too, that you come to see them as a form of indirect discrimination, and you say so. You are then faced with the Livingstone move. What happens next? Making the Livingstone move is enough, because it undermines the activity of rational engagement: the responses are horribly limited. You can simply affirm, contrary to the Livingstone move, that it isn’t your intention to stifle criticism of Israel – you are genuinely concerned about anti-semitism. But you would say that wouldn’t you? If the Livingstone move is made, then any self-referential response to it is called into question: the Livingstone move is designed to erode your credibility. So when you deny the Livingstone move, you confirm it. It goes like this: A You’re a liar, and dissembler, aren’t you? B. No I’m not. A. There, you just lied and dissembled again!

What might the objection be to this analysis?

The objection to the critique I’ve presented is precisely that, a lot of the time, people do use anti-Semitism as a means for stifling criticism. Naturally, the fact that they deny this is not of any consequence. Given that, they dissemble about this, deny that that is what they are doing, and write papers about the process of dissembling.

Let’s look at the sort of set up that Mackney and Livingstone might have in mind:. I want to take this seriously.

Mackney, Lerman and Livingstone say that for “Too often”, for “Too long,” this charge has been made in order to stifle debate. These are quantitative expressions. They suggest the following picture: Suppose you have before you ten expressions of concern about anti-Semitism. But you have some faith in the Livingstone move, and so you think that some of the ten – a sub-set – are fake expressions of concern, designed to divert attention away from Israeli policies. How big is this subset?[1] In order to answer this question, you need a decision procedure to distinguish between the fake, diversionary concern and the real concern. Are seven out of the ten expressions of concern, actually dishonest diversions, or eight, or nine, or all ten? How can we know? If this decision procedure is to track the truth, it must track intentions – the intention to divert or stifle. But access to intentions is hard at the best of times – the best access to intentions is by asking the agent what she intended:

So here is an unserious proposal for a sociological inquiry. Let’s draw up a questionnaire, and address it to people who have raised concerns about anti-Semitism. We could ask: “Dear X, Thank you for taking the time to help us with our research. We are interested in investigating the intentions of those who raise concerns about anti-semitism.

When you raised concerns about antisemitism did you A) genuinely experience concern about anti-semitism or B) intend to divert attention away from severe criticism of the Israeli government. Or C) Both.

We can expect all the forms to come back with box A ticked.

What are we to make of this? Those who make the Livingstone move will of course say that this show how wide the deceptions goes. Systematically, these people will lie about their intentions. There isn’t an available decision procedure, so it’s back to a default position: don’t believe people who raise concerns about anti-Semitism.

The point is this: the Livingstone manoeuvre does not show or demonstrate that sometimes there is a problem of ‘crying anti-Semitism.’ It assumes that people who complain about anti-Semitism should be accorded a credibility deficit.

But perhaps the objection can be reformulated. Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that all we have is a general disposition to disbelieve. Rather, this general disposition is based on casework. So let’s look at a case – the Boycott

Consider the following as one of the disputed cases one of the ten – and see what we can learn. For years now, since 2003, boycott proposals have been raised in the AUT and the UCU, For years, first people like Shalom Lappin, then David Hirsh, Norman, Geras, Eve Garrard, and myself, raised concerns about the anti-semitic nature of the boycott. We did this carefully – we tried to be precise. We said, ‘in effect if not in intent’ more times than I care to remember. Time and time again, people who raised concerns about anti-Semitism were told that they were doing so because they wanted to silence criticism of Israel. Time and again the Livingstone manouvre was pulled.

Until, until, what? Until the programme of trying to establish a credibility gap ran up against Anthony Lester’s legal opinion of the UCU. This legal opinion suggests that, surprise, surprise, it looks as if the proposals for a boycott of Israel constitute indirect discrimination under the 1976 Race Relations act. You can push and push, but eventually you can’t push any more. Eventually, you come up with the idea that there might actually be something in the view that the boycott constituted a form of effective anti-Semitism.

Those who pulled the Livingstone manouvre over the UCU boycott were as close to demonstrably wrong as you can get in this sort of debate. We were concerned about the anti-Semitism of the boycott, because the boycott was anti-Semitic. We expressed our concern about that antiSemitism because we were concerned about antisemitism.

Now, the dialectical crunch. What is going on here?

In philosophy and contemporary moral theory, in ordinary debate, practitioners work on the basis of a ‘principle of charity’ which draws on Davidson, Dennett, and Habermas and presses us to adopt an assumption of good faith as a prerequisite of the possibility of communication. In contrast, there is a strong tendency on the post-Marxist left to look very quickly – too quickly – for structural, bad faith accounts. And, in this context, the post-Marxist left can rely on stereotypes that generate particular forms of epistemic injustice. The approach here draws on Marxist accounts of false consciousness, but goes much further. There are two versions of this:

(1) (which is reasonable) when good faith understandings based on the principle of charity break down, look for bad faith explanations.

(2) (Just) look for structural or bad faith explanations. This is what the Livingstone formulation does – prematurely, it runs for a bad faith account. An ordinary methodological principle is that the bad faith account ought to lag behind the good faith account. But in the Livingstone formulation, bad faith is substituted for good faith.

This second methodological trope on the part of the left draws on the least successful, potentially conspiratorial, explanatory model in Marx’s work[2]. Rather than interpreting interlocutors and critics with charity and directly addressing their concerns and questions, the left looks for explanations based in advantage. This is the left that continually asks itself: Cui Bono? This is the left that embraces the conservative realists Mearsheimer and Walt. It’s the left that embraces the unfalsifiable psychologising Jacqueline Rose, and bangs on about people being ‘in denial.’ This is a left that has suffered a collapse of intellectual resistance to conspiracy theories.

David Hirsh’s work – both his political work and his academic work – is immensely valuable. But it gets at a larger phenomenon. And that phenomenon needs continued examination, and criticism before it further serious damage to the intellectual life of the left.

Jon Pike
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Open University

[1] Is it really too big, (not, that is, just big enough – let’s leave aside this unhappy formulation – there isn’t, of course, a satisfactory number of times that anti-Semitism is used as a diversion).

[2] (see the debates about functionalism in the 80’s Elster and Marx). – the left and conspiracy theories

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