Twitter’s Sound & Fury: the artist and the scholar

How do we read and interpret twitter?

images-11What is this twitter genre? And how was it used as a rationale for the firing of the highly lauded  pianist Valentina Lisitsa by the TSO on the basis of her anti-Ukraine tweets described as bordering on hate speech. Later others would point to pressure put on the TSO by donors who support  Ukraine, but much of the public debate has focused on twitter.images-12

In a very different case that parallels Lisitsa’s, the Palestinian American scholar Stephen Salaita was fired from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana for “incivility” in his twitter feed that he wrote during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. After the firing or “de-hiring,” access to information legal requests yielded an archive of university administration correspondence that illustrated a concerted campaign to dismiss Salaita by Israeli supporters including a Member of the Board of Hillel, an Israeli-funded organization devoted to the support of Israel. This MoB made a substantial donation to the School of Business at the same university and threatened to withdraw his funds like others who wrote to the university to pressure them.

The Case of Valentina Lisitsa, artist

Globe & Mail writer Kate Taylor suggests “the TSO could have handled it better” but she also intimated that there were grounds for the TSO abruptly cancelling her concert on the basis of her twitter feed. Her comment suggests an unsettling hierarchy of incivility and injury that attends to academic and artist: “If a local university had just cancelled a talk by an anti-Kiev academic I might be outraged, but I am less offended to discover that an orchestra doesn’t want anything to do with someone whose notoriety is likely to prove a distraction from the concerts.” And elsewhere in MacLean’s Paul Wells makes another commentary that doesn’t take issue with the cancellation through its mild dismay: “I’m uneasy about the TSO cancelling Lisitsa’s appearance.”

The genre of twitter itself has been analysed to support the pianist’s discussion of the reception of her tweets as a misreading of literary nuances and rhetorical effects like satire and hyperbole that are not identified in the critiques.The pianist describes the tweets here: “You might find some of them offensive—perhaps. Satire and hyperbole are the best literature tools to combat lies. Bear that in mind when reading.” And this cautionary note corresponds with other analyses of the twitter genre that leave room for excess and even misrepresentation. My own reading of Lisitsa’ twitter feed available in a link available here is that they are vile, disgusting and excessive but they are also part of an ongoing international battle of words and propaganda that tracks the terrible violence of regions of Ukraine under siege. And that is not a space geographically or psychologically for calm reflection by those with vested interests, emotional and familial, in the region. That is not to excuse the nasty characterizations of the Ukraine leaders as coloured pig testicles, but it is an explanation.

In a Musical Toronto interview, the TSO CEO explained why Lisitsa’s concert was cancelled: “this is not a free speech issue, but rather an issue of someone practicing very intolerant and offensive expression through twitter.” Michael Vincent, the interview and the publisher of the digital magazine explains his understanding of the contested twitter feed: “After analysing the document, it is our opinion (we are not lawyers) that they do not cross the threshold into hate-speech, and are indicative of the extraordinarily negative political situation surrounding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in which Ms. Lisitsa is involved.”

Between these two commentaries falls a shadow. The editors observations gives a context for the invective, hyperbole and excess. But even if we condemn the tweets themselves as something between disgusting and just this side of hate speech, there is another argument to be made about the way twitter circulates and is perceived as a genre.

The pianist Valentina Lisitsa described her twitter campaign against Ukraine:

…there was another me: not a musician but a regular human being – a daughter, a mother, a wife. And this human being was watching helplessly how the country of my birth, of my childhood, of my first falling in love – this country was sliding ever faster into the abyss. Children die under bombs, old ladies die of starvation, people burned alive…
The worst thing that can happen to any country is fratricide war, people seeing each other, their neighbors as enemies to be eliminated. This is what has befallen my beautiful Ukraine. My heart was bleeding. You all saw on TV screens all over the world a magnificent revolution, the people of Ukraine raising in fury against their corrupt rulers, for a better life. I was so proud of my people! But the ruling class doesn’t let go easily. They managed to cunningly channel away the anger, to direct it to other, often imaginable, enemies – and worse, to turn people upon themselves. Year later, we have the same rich people remaining in power, misery and poverty everywhere, dozens of thousands killed, over a million of refugees.So, I took to Twitter.

The Case of Stephen Salaita, academic

Compare this to an excerpt from Stephen Salata’s “How U of I Destroyed My Career,” an article published in the Chicago-Tribune where he describes the genesis of his twitter:

In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.

“A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.steven salaita poster legal size 30 Dec 11-14 (1)

Salaita spoke on his recent visit to UofA and elsewhere about his twitter campaign. A video of his  January 13, 2015, afternoon talk on “Palestine, Digital Activism, Academic Freedom & The Decline of the Public University” is available here. (And a second talk corresponded with his most recent book: The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan that analyses the rhetoric and myths of settlement in both North America and Israel and “patterns that connect Indigenous writing in both locations.” This video and a short essay will be available soon.)

And several articles have explored Salaita’s tweets including an intriguing analysis by Joseph Levine, a philosopher who asked in the New York Times “Did Salaita Cross the Line of Civility?”  Levine takes up one of Salaita’s tweets that were condemned as anti-Semitic:

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014

The entire opinion piece is worth reading but I will only focus on the final lines which justify the “incivility” of  Salaita’s twitter about the devastating bombardment of Gaza:

expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.

More recently, the distinguished American social historian Joan W. Scott published “The New Thought Police”  in The Nation where she had this to say about the genre of twitter:

“The medium of Twitter is complicated because it provides a public space for private, personal expression. In one sense, it is no different from a speaker’s rostrum at an antiwar rally or any other highly charged political event. In another sense, though, because the public is not physically present, the dialogue can be imagined as limited to one’s followers or, in an even more restricted way, to those interlocutors who are tweeting back. As a result, it may feel like a protected site, one where it is safe to express deep feelings that otherwise must be kept under wraps. A similar assumption figures in the notion of “hidden transcripts” described by the political scientist James Scott. Hidden transcripts are criticisms of the powerful by their subordinates, fantasies of revenge uttered to a small circle (family, friends, trusted members of the group) only outside the hearing of their superiors. (Slaves are one example he cites.) Scott notes that the powerful have hidden transcripts as well: private opinions held beneath an outer mask of civility. Indeed, critical commentators on civilityscott_thought_police_otu_img in the 18th century noted that it consisted of an “outward show,” somehow inauthentic, masking the reality of one’s attitudes and being. Mirabeau noted in the 1760s that civility only presents “the mask of virtue and not its face.”

Twitter disrupts this careful separation of the hidden and the acceptable, blurring the boundaries by offering a public forum for venting private feelings. In so doing, it makes the hidden visible and seems to reveal the “true” nature of the tweeter—the reality ordinarily concealed by the rules of decorum and politesse. They may not realize it, but those, like Wise, who take tweets to be indicators of the “real” nature of the tweeter (and so the ultimate proof of his or her unfitness as a teacher and colleague) are also acknowledging the limits, if not the inauthenticity, of civility as a form not only of political but also of intellectual exchange. For some members of the UIUC faculty, as for the chancellor, the tweets exposed the underlying premises of Salaita’s scholarly work, the hidden transcript of his articles and books. The tweets became not an easily compartmentalized instance of extramural speech (and so of the First Amendment right of the scholar as citizen), but the key to the entire body of his work and to the unacceptability of the politics that informed it.


In the middle of writing this, I fell asleep for a few minutes only to awaken in the midst of a classic nightmare where I was surrounded by a glistening and quickly enclosing web pinned to edges of the outdoor path where I was walking. An invisible spider spun intricate threads to imprison me. Such is the psychological struggle of comparing these two cases. For I can sense very quickly my own bias. And also the point of conflict.

My blog post emerges in fact from a facebook conversation with a  friend, a distinguished writer who objected to the PEN Canada press release objecting to the cancellation of the Valentina Lisitsa’s performanceplaceholder_news. The concern was that the press release did not adequately characterize or respond to the level and effects of anti-Ukraine invective in Lisitsa’s tweets, invective that corresponds with how hatred demeans ethnic and racial groups in poisonous ways.

My response was to comment about the mythmaking that occurs on the Russian side and on the Western side – I was thinking in particular of the papering over of the corruption of the government in place now and the fascist histories of government officials and parties reported regularly on progressive sites.  In reply, writer/philosopher Stan Perskey reminded me of his March 23 analysis of Ukraine where he makes this sensible call for a measured reading of Ukraine:

The point about all of this is relatively simple: there’s a big difference between recognizing and worrying about the role of extreme right wing groups in recent events in Ukraine, which any sensible person ought to do, and the exaggerated description of those events as a “fascist coup.” It’s a description that’s been offered by Putin and his spokespeople, as well as by many Western leftist formations, and it’s inaccurate. Again, there are real questions here that need investigation, and I’m not brushing them aside for a moment, but I refuse to buy into a histrionic account that seriously distorts what most of us see as reality in order to denounce U.S. imperialism or justify Russian policy.

While the case of Stephen Salaita and Valentina Lisitsa are different, Salaita’s passionate engagement in Gaza’s bombardment that led to his twitterfeed that some found anti-Semitic corresponds with Lisitsa’s fervour for Russia’s role in the Ukraine invasion – her own discussion of nationalism suggests her intensity and even her blindnesses perhaps.  However impassioned twitter speech genre should not be read with sensitivity to the genre and context. And there is no question that it should not be the grounds for firing a scholar or an artist.

(note: this post is still in progress and I welcome any corrections, commentary or critiques)

— Janice Williamson

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