Every few months, the main NYU Law student listserv erupts into controversy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re currently in the heat of one of those flare-ups.
People are very upset about this because (1) it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and (2) many feel that this political fighting is an “abuse” of the listserv that is supposed to be used for…anything besides political discourse, I guess.
Thankfully, Above The Law, the preeminent source of irreverent gossip for legal professionals, has stepped in to provide some moral guidance to our helpless student body:
“Do not use giant listservs (let alone one that has the entire student body on it) for anything but their intended purposes. Unless the list is MiddleEastPolitics@lists.nyu.edu, don’t use it to spout your personal beliefs to everyone else. This is a lesson that will serve you well in law firm life too, as sending an email to AllAttorneys@biglaw.com with personal opinions is probably career suicide.”
That seems like reasonable advice, and it is…if your sole ambition is to rise up the corporate ladder (which could actually be a good thing). But for those of us who are willing and privileged enough to take personal risks for what we believe in, ATL’s advice just isn’t very satisfying.
If we accept ATL’s claim (i.e. that a forum designed for trading stuff and sharing events shouldn’t have discussion of social issues) at face value, then twenty years ago, they would have censored those who wished to “spout their personal beliefs” that gay people should be allowed to marry. And sixty years ago, ATL would have condemned those who spouted their personal beliefs that black people shouldn’t have to sit at the back of the bus.
Is ATL ready to condemn LGBT and civil rights activists who engaged in analogously disruptive behavior in similarly “inappropriate” venues? While we’re at it, please tell me, what would have been an appropriate forum to discuss the Rwandan genocide as it occurred? I’d really like to know. Just in case a moral disaster ever happens in my lifetime, I wouldn’t want to upset anyone by spouting my “personal” beliefs about it in a forum that isn’t “intended for that purpose.” Actually that’s okay, I’m sure nothing that bad will ever happen in my lifetime. There’s no way I could ever become a bystander to atrocity. That only happened to…every other generation in history.
In all seriousness, the bottom line is this: virtually everyone is willing to accept that some political issues are so urgent that “abusing” listservs to discuss them would be justified. As much as ATL pretends to avoid a value judgment about the underlying issue, their position is clear: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict isn’t morally serious enough to merit disrupting a listserv. That might be a fair position to take, but they should be honest about it and attempt to justify it.
Now, I’m not going to take a position on that question today either, but I wasn’t the one bullying activists for breaking a rule that nobody would follow when it came to an issue they thought was truly urgent.
To be clear, none of this is to say that disrupting a listserv is an effective tactic for social change. My intuition is that such disruptions are almost inevitably perceived as petty, no matter how important the underlying issue is. My point is that ATL and others who’ve advocated for a similar position are wholly unconcerned with the effectiveness of the tactic and have opposed listserv “abuse” on principle. Their concern is not “how can we best facilitate discourse about urgent social issues,” it is “how can we get annoying activists to allow us to live our lives in peace.” That is what I am opposed to.
I also want to add that it seems that those with the greatest political and economic power have the most to gain from efforts to restrict political advocacy to “appropriate” venues. Such restrictions disproportionately harm those with less political/economic power, who cannot afford or otherwise secure access to the “appropriate” spaces for political discussion (e.g. newspapers, television, congress, courts). Thus, the ATL approach is a great tool for preserving the status quo, if you’re into that.