Philosophy prof who likened Palestinians to ‘rabid pit bull’ ignites protest on CT campus

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With all the recent press about allegations of anti-Semitism on American campuses, the news of an outrageously racist Facebook posting by a faculty member at a private college in New London, Connecticut, has thus far escaped national attention. But it’s causing a “firestorm of controversy” at Connecticut College, a small liberal arts college with a mission of “inclusive excellence,” emphasizing commitments to diversity, community service and global citizenship.

A thousand students were packed wall to wall on campus last Wednesday night to attend a forum on free speech sparked by a philosophy professor’s dehumanizing words, described as having “severely impacted students in the community“.

Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, left, and Kaitlyn Garbe, writers at The College Voice, converse before the Connecticut College forum on free speech begins. March 25, 2015  (photo: DAVID DESROCHES/WNPR)
1000 students attended a forum on Free Speech after Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin’s racist Facebook post was exposed. Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, left, and Kaitlyn Garbe, writers at The College Voice, converse before the forum begins. March 25, 2015
(photo: DAVID DESROCHES/WNPR)

The controversy erupted after a student lately busted professor Andrew Pessin, who is the author of several books of philosophy for the general public, over a Facebook post he made during Israel’s slaughter in Gaza last summer in which he characterized Palestinians as “rabid pit bull[s]” chained up and owned by Israel. Here’s the posting:

PessinPost

When the post came to light in February, the student contacted Pessin. Pessin initially apologized and removed it from his Facebook page, perhaps hoping it would all be swept under the rug — but that didn’t happen. The storm has been raging for weeks on the pages of the student newspaper, The College Voice. Michael Fratt and Katilyn Garbe wrote in the school paper:

We discovered information that put [student] apathy to rest; it made us sick. It came to our knowledge that Andrew Pessin wrote on his Facebook page a rant on the nature of Palestinians.  Professor Pessin compared Gazan Palestinians to “rabid pit bulls” who need to be caged.  He described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a cycle of letting the “snarling dogs” out of their “cage” and then beating them back into it.  One person named Nicole commented on the post suggesting the “dogs” be put down.  Professor Pessin responded, “I agree.”  Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people.  A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people.  This post came to the attention of students as well as faculty members and has thus far only been spoken of privately.  It is clear that the imagery used is not only incredibly offensive, but also particularly damaging within the culture of Islam, which has a potent conceptualization of dogs.  We vehemently believe that this deserves the attention of the Conn community: students, staff, and alumni.

So: the dogs should be put down.

Local news has now picked up on the story. Pessin, who is on medical leave for the remainder of the semester, in part due to stress caused by the accusations against him, has now taken the posture of victim, alleging he’s been targeted because of his support for Israel. Students have rejected this charge.

“I in no way hold and do not condone the terrible racist views” attributed to him, Pessin says, according to Connecticut public media WNPR . And New8 WTNH has since picked up the story too, with an accompanying video:

 “At this point it feels to me not a matter of assuaging wounded feelings, but a matter of deliberately trying to silence and even threaten pretty much the only Jewish professor on campus who openly advocates for Israel,” said Pessin.

No wonder he calls the occupied West Bank Judea and Samaria.

For weeks students reached out to the college administration seeking an official statement of condemnation or an acknowledgement of hate speech from administration officials. After WNPR reported the story three days ago, pointing to a lackluster letter from Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron that failed to “address the nature of Pessin’s post” but referred to the free speech issues raised by the controversy, Connecticut College’s history department and Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity issued harsh condemnations of Pessin’s posting.  The departments’ statements knocked Pessin’s

dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality and lull otherwise “well intentioned” people into silence and, effectively, complicity in racism, sexism, discrimination, colonialism and the numerous genocides throughout human history.

In this report on WNPR, journalist David DesRoches reports that Bergeron’s address to the students expressed “solidarity” with their concerns, but refused to condemn the professor’s language.

Connecticut College students await their turn to speak. (photo: DAVID DESROCHES / WNPR)
Connecticut College students await their turn to speak.
(photo: DAVID DESROCHES / WNPR)

DesRoches suggested that Pessin’s invective may have “crossed the line” when he endorsed putting the (Palestinian) dog down. “That’s where the lines over protected speech become fuzzy, according to the ACLU,” says DesRoches “The First Amendment, which protects free speech as a Constitutional right, “doesn’t extend to… speech that incites imminent violence or law-breaking,” the organization states.”

Andrew Pessin plays "The Genius" on Dave Letterman
Andrew Pessin plays “The Genius” on Dave Letterman

Pessin is the author of several philosophy books, and has written a novel under a pen name. He says on his website that he is “most popular with his students for his appearances as ‘The Genius’ on the Late Show with David Letterman,” evidently some time ago. Not so sure those students will be buying that persona much longer.

 

Lamiya Khandaker is the Connecticut College chair of diversity and equity for this school year. She wrote of the incident:

I have had several email exchanges with Professor Andrew Pessin regarding my concerns as an underrepresented student on campus. And each time, his response was more of a, “I’m sorry you misunderstood what I said.” On the contrary, I did not misunderstand. I did not misunderstand his contribution at the Charlie Hebdo panel when he posed indirect, yet problematic questions such as, “How do we tolerate cultures of intolerance?” only to end his portion of the Q-and-A session with an emphasis of hate crimes perpetrated by Muslims. I did not misunderstand the content of this public Facebook post that insinuated Palestinians (NOT Hamas) as “rabid pit-bulls.“ I did not misunderstand when he told me that, “Muslim terrorists were at the top of the totem pole as perpetrators of violence.” Tell me, what part of all this did I misunderstand? The fact that I may be a “liberal animal rights activist” sympathizing with this “rabid pit bull?” Oh no wait, perhaps, I am the “co-specimen” who sympathizes. Because my people are breeds of dogs, and not human beings? Or, perhaps I misunderstood his floods of articles that specifically talk about the failure of addressing “Arab and Muslim terrorism.”

Just imagine if he substituted Gaza for “Ferguson.” Imagine if he spoke of “Ferguson thugs” as “rabid pit bulls” needing to be “caged,” by its “owner” who provides it with “government assistance, affirmative action, and welfare.” But when giving these “Ferguson thugs” a little bit of space to “breathe;” they start “snarling” and “aim for the throat,” and as a result need to be “put down.” And if you sympathize with Ferguson thugs, you’re either one yourself, or a liberal animal rights activist. Just imagine if all his postings were about Black crime. Would you raise an eyebrow?

DesRoches interviewed three students on their reactions to Pessin’s Facebook post before the forum on free speech at Connecticut College Wednesday night. Listen to the interviews here.

Thanks to Marge Fouda

 
 

Correction: Previously the article stated the timing of Prof. Pessin’s leave of absence was coincidental. We’ve since updated to reflect his medical leave was in part due to stress caused by the accusations against him. 

 

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I’m staggered by this. My son went to Conn College; I certainly would not pay tuition to Conn College now if it does not take a strong stand against this. The students, at least, seem to have their heads screwed on straight; the administration, not so much. If Pessin wants… Read more »

The test for hate speech is easy, substitute Jew for Muslim and Israeli for Palestinian. What would the good professor say then?

The good professor would probably be out of a job if he used this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric in reference to Jews.

I have lots of acquaintances there… I guess they’ll remain “only acquaintances”, because not one told me about this. They know my pov on Palestine. Thanks so much, Annie. I’ve got some phone calls to make. This Islamophobe/”Palestinianophobe” named Pessin needs to be further exposed and yes, FIRED! Short of… Read more »

What I take heart from is that such statements will no longer go unchallenged.