Judith Butler Gets a Taste of Her Own Politics

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Judith Butler has recently been awarded the prestigious Theodor W. Adorno Prize by the city of Frankfurt. The award mandate is to reward someone who reflects the late philosopher’s varied intellectual interests in the arts, culture and music, as well as his engagement with critical theory.

Butler is a feminist philosopher who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a scholar of Hegel. She is an eminent feminist scholar, proponent of queer theory and a passionate opponent of Israel and its policies. The decision to award her the Adorno prize has raised a heated controversy in Germany, with opposition from some left-wing groups and − mainly − from the Jewish community. The leader of the German Jewish community, Stephen J. Kramer, has questioned the decision to award her the prize, which he says would serve as a way to legitimize the brand of virulent anti-Zionism that Butler represents. Others have called on the city of Frankfurt to rescind the decision.

At first blush, the case against Butler seems strong. Her anti-Zionism does not always seem to be fully aware of the tangled history of this country, and her calls to boycott and divest from Israel would disempower the groups most likely to help fight the cause of justice here. More perplexing is the fact that she has made statements expressing partial support for Hezbollah and Hamas. In response to a question at a public talk, she claimed that the two well-known Islamic military and religious groups are members of the global left. The syllogism behind this stunning proposition is that anti-imperialism and anticolonialism, in all its forms, define the global left, that Hamas and Hezbollah fight against Israeli imperialism, ergo they belong to the “global left.” ‏(What is the mysterious entity called “global left,” I cannot say).

Let me be clear from the outset. Intellectually, I have never been particularly interested in Butler’s brand of philosophizing. My intellectual taste brings me closer to feminist scholars like Catharine MacKinnon, Seyla Benhabib, or to the African-American feminism of Patricia Hill Collins. Moreover, politically, I identify more readily with the “old” left ‏(which worries about wages and inequalities, racism, and immigration laws‏) than with the New Left of which Butler is a representative ‏(which preoccupies itself with sexual politics, gender performance and drag shows‏). But as a left-wing Israeli, I am both dismayed and puzzled by Butler’s views.

To call Hamas and Hezbollah members of the global left is not only an insult to the left, but a serious blow to it. Two armed movements, financed by Iran, calling for Sharia law, Jihad, and the murder of Jews, that practice the sexual purity of women, endorse capital punishment, and are self-declared homophobes cannot belong to any left that I and most people know. It is Israel and the Jews that motivate Hamas and Hezbollah’s armed struggle, not a just world order. And whatever Judith Butler did or did not say about Hamas and Hezbollah, however nuanced her declarations may have been, she did not explicitly disavow the sexual, gender, and religious politics of these groups, let alone their anti-Semitism.

Somehow Butler seems to have trouble understanding both that Israel could have a colonial policy, and that, at the same time, this policy is fought by groups that harbor many ideas inimical to the left. That she seems to overlook this not only discredits her struggle for justice in Israel, but, more gravely, weakens the moral authority of the left. The fact that Israel conducts a colonial policy in the territories, and has a morally repugnant policy toward Eritrean refugees and foreign workers ‏(courtesy of Interior Ministry Eli Ishai‏), does not make Hamas and Hezbollah into members of the global left.

Having said this, however, I want to support − and support strongly − the decision to give Butler the Adorno Award. I have, I believe, four compelling reasons for this.

1. An award of this magnitude is usually given on the basis of the contributions a person has made to a field. Having sat on a number of these committees myself, let me suggest that there are two ways for a committee member to choose a suitable awardee: either by choosing someone whose work one is intellectually close to, or by choosing someone whose work has had a significant impact on its field, even if one does not particularly endorse that work.

Contribution to a field is evaluated by such criteria as the number of citations and the level of discussion it generates. On that score, there is not a shred of doubt that few scholars have had an impact as significant as Judith Butler, and this in various fields, such as literature, philosophy, cultural studies, art history, communications, cinema studies, sociology and anthropology.
Whatever their personal intellectual taste, the members of the Frankfurt scientific committee that chose her acted responsibly toward the world scientific community. No one can ignore her staggering influence in renewing the critical theory so dear to Theodor Adorno.

2. Let us do a mental exercise. Imagine this award had been given in theoretical physics, with the recipient holding the same political opinions as Judith Butler. I doubt that in that case we would have witnessed the same gross interference in the decision of a scientific committee. In the sciences, the distinction between scholarly work and politics is built in ‏(sciences use a formal language‏), with the result that attempts to interfere in decisions are less legitimate and less likely. The human sciences, on the other hand, seem to be more frequently contiguous and continuous with politics. This is, however, an illusion, for the same separation exists whether the scholar is an historian of the Middle Ages, a philosopher of language or a theoretical physicist. Similarly, there is no direct continuity between Butler’s analysis of Hegel and her political positions. The integrity of a scientific panel is measured precisely by its capacity to separate the scientific contributions from the political positions of the awardee. The members of the Frankfurt committee include scholars of the highest intellectual and moral reputation, and questioning their judgment cannot be done lightly, however unpalatable the political opinions of the awardee.

3. While I fully understand the source of the distress expressed by the German Jewish community, their interference represents a tactical and moral mistake. The place to fight opinions like those of Judith Butler is in the public sphere. Increasingly, Jewish groups inside and outside Israel are using what can be easily interpreted as bullying tactics to silence their opponents. Israeli policies toward Palestinians, Eritrean refugees and non-Jewish immigrants are morally indefensible; the critiques against these policies will be increasingly strident, and among these critiques some will be worthy, some unworthy. Muzzling critiques, even the unworthy ones, cannot be a valid response. In fact, it only proves the main point of the critiques, namely that Israel and the people supporting Israel are increasingly relying on undemocratic politics and tactics. Democracy is nothing more than agreeing to oppose both worthy and unworthy opinions in the same way. Some of Judith Butler’s political opinions are unworthy, but the only proper way to fight them is through argument and debate, not through institutional muscle power.

4. Finally, had the Frankfurt committee had caved in to pressure, it would have opened the door to new forms of scientific and political wars, in which a group strong and vocal enough could contest the legitimacy of scientific awards given to people who hold and express the "wrong" political opinion. Should we for example deny the Nobel Prize to scientists who support Jewish settlements in the occupied territories? This possibility arose with the Israeli Nobel laureate in economics in 2005, Robert Aumann, who justified his opposition to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip by drawing on a theoretical case from game theory he called the Blackmailer Paradox. Should his political positions and his way of mixing science and politics have disqualified him from being granted the Nobel Prize, as many in the European press claimed? The Nobel committee rightly dismissed these claims. If that possibility was rejected then, it should be rejected now, too. ‏(In hindsight, the Nobel committee’s refusal to confer the award on Jorge Luis Borges because of his alleged conservative political opinions put a shadow on the committee, not on the writer.‏)

Let us remember John Stuart Mill’s profound insight on defending the speech of everyone. The famous author of “On Liberty” claimed that we can never be sure that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of truth. Allowing people to air false opinions is productive to society for two reasons. First, erroneous beliefs and ideas are more likely to disappear or to weaken if they are submitted to the free exchange of ideas. Second, debate will compel the holders of the wrong and the right opinion to examine themselves. For Mill, to have an opinion, even if it is the right one, is not enough. Rather, an opinion must be examined. One must understand why one’s belief is the true one. This process of self-examination can occur only if we do not act as censors.

But I cannot fail to notice the many ironies of the situation: Judith Butler is now getting a taste of her own politics of boycott; and her award is here defended by someone who believes in procedural democracy, whose philosophical premises she has dismissed throughout her career. Would Judith Butler have defended giving a scientific award to someone whose political opinions she does not respect? I wonder.

Eva Illouz is the Rose Isaac Chair of Sociology and a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A version of this article was published in Der Spiegel.

Judith Butler. Credit: Lior Mizrahi