The Myth of ‘Polite Discourse’

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Naay Idriss Columbia College Class of 2020 | February 21, 2017

On December 23rd, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlement constructions. Danny Danon, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, reacted with anger to the passing of this resolution and has also written in the New York Times that Israel should annex the West Bank, relinquishing even the pretense of the “two-state solution.”[1] On February 13th he came to Columbia to impart these views, but Columbia students chose not to make it easy for him.

The event, organized by Students Supporting Israel, was met with vocal protests. Demonstrators from a wide range of student organizations* staged a demonstration outside Lerner Hall, where Danon was scheduled to speak, and a large portion of the protesters attended the event to protest Danon’s speech by repeatedly interrupting his speech with chants such as “From Palestine to Mexico, border walls have got to go” and “From Standing Rock to Palestine, occupation is not right.”

Since the event took place, I have heard some people praise the protesters’ actions as necessary forms of resistance and displays of disapproval. Yet others have critiqued the protesters, stating that they believe it would have been more beneficial for ‘both parties’ to not interrupt the speaker and rather to ‘engage in polite discourse, and not inhibit his right to speak, impinging on his freedom of speech.’

Event flyer

First, I would like to address this notion that the protest somehow breached Danon’s ‘freedom of speech.’ Protest does not inhibit anyone’s right to speak; it simply displays strong disapproval, which is a crucial and necessary act that directly arises from the right to free speech. If you claim the right to free speech, you recognize other people’s right to it, too. And if you want your speech to be taken seriously, you must admit that it will provoke response in real time. Your free speech is not speech that erases others. Danon was shouted down, not silenced. If he had the floor, he had to recognize that others can have the floor, too. In practice, “polite dialogue” gets used to keep others from having the floor at all.

Second, I would like to address the difference between institutional and individual freedoms. Columbia as an institution may invite Danon, but doing so lends him institutional credibility. We as students, as individuals, have every right to protest that. We are the people in whose name Columbia functions; we get to choose who addresses us and on what terms. We will not “dialogue” with someone who does not accept our right to exist. To ‘engage in rational discourse’ is to legitimize that discourse. Nothing new will be learned from a so-called dialogue: Danon is not just any random speaker coming to Columbia to express his opinion, he is the UN ambassador. His opinions are extremely clear and his actions are even worse. The protesters wanted to make it clear that they would not stand by complacently as a documented racist came to impart his bigoted opinions. When someone’s speech and actions are dependent upon stripping others of their freedom and right to life, then they should most definitely expect to be met with some form of resistance to their ‘freedom to speak.’

Thirdly and lastly, there seems to be an existing fallacy of dialogue and discourse. Contained within it is an argument about the relationship between parties and about the inability of one of the parties to participate. Danon’s talk is not an opportunity to learn anything or engage in “discourse” because discourse — its etymological origin in Latin, discursus, meaning ‘running to and fro’ — presumes some sort of give and take, a reciprocity that is fundamentally prohibited by the existing power imbalance between the Palestinians and the UN ambassador to Israel. Would you argue that one should go and listen to, and engage in dialogue with, the head of the government in Apartheid South Africa in the 1900s? Do you think people should silently sit in front of him while he speaks, legitimizes, and reinforces his views?

This whole argument concerning ‘polite discourse’ ironically mirrors that same argument many Israeli supporters used to justify Israel’s continued inability to ‘reach a peace deal’ with the Palestinians: they claim that the Palestinian officials refuse to engage in polite discourse and would rather do so through violent means. However, several times Palestinians have settled for the bare minimum in complete capitulation, and still no change has come about because the Israeli government continues to ignore the Palestinians rights while simultaneously accusing them of lack of negotiation and discourse. Thus, it has become quite evident to all that polite discourse gets you nowhere when discourse is fundamentally impossible. The oppressed cannot engage in discourse with his oppressor by the very fact that their relationship hinges on inequality. Respectability politics doesn’t get a movement anywhere because it is based on the false premise that the problem is one of recognition, not dispossession. If hegemonic power is solidified through racism then a regime will continue to enact racist policies regardless of how well behaved people are.


*Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace, Barnard Columbia Socialists, Columbia Against Trump, and Students Organize for Syria

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Morningside Post.