Thursday, November 1, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia: free speech??

Though it has been a few weeks since Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University, I still find myself wondering what exactly Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, could possibly have been thinking when he invited Ahmadinejad to campus. To give a respectable forum to such a hateful man, in the process polarizing his campus, seemed an irresponsible action for a university president to undertake. To then treat his invited guest with such disrespect – though I personally share the disgust of Ahmadinejad that Bollinger’s statements expressed – only underscored the absurdity of the whole scene.

One aspect of the event that particularly bothered me was the argument that Bollinger’s invitation of Ahmadinejad was illustrative of just how well Columbia acts on the principle of free speech. This line of thought seems to me a complete distortion of the concept. In their book Denying History, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman refer to editors of undergraduate student newspapers who, when confronted by Holocaust deniers wishing to publish advertisements, feel that given their unflinching support of free speech they must allow the ads despite being repulsed by the content. This, Shermer and Grobman contend, is a misinterpretation of what free speech means. While it would violate that principle to, say, pass a law preventing a Holocaust denier from publishing his or her own materials (or barring someone from endorsing Ahmadinejad’s views), one should not feel obligated to facilitate the presentation of those ideas. We should not feel held hostage to free speech – if we do, then we have, in fact, lost our freedom. The leader of an organization or institution is responsible for the values that body endorses and is entitled, under the principle of free speech, to make choices over what views to tolerate.

Bollinger, of course, took the initiative in inviting Ahmadinejad, but I think Shermer and Grobman’s argument is relevant considering Bollinger called his invitation the “right thing to do” and lauded his and Columbia’s practice of free speech in the context of the event. Bollinger had no obligation under the principle of free speech to invite Ahmadinejad. In doing so, he made a choice, doubtlessly aware of the reaction his invitation would provoke, to turn a respected university into a soapbox for Holocaust denial, homophobia, and many other forms of hatred.

Of course I want universities to invite controversial speakers. Of course I want to hear diverse opinions. But Ahmadinejad’s views are so contrary to the values universities like Columbia claim to treasure that allowing him on campus desecrates, cheapens, and devalues the ideal of free speech which is so crucial in a thriving academic institution. Inviting Ahmadinejad is not a welcoming of diverse or controversial opinions; it is a contribution to the promotion of hatred.


Anonymous said...

I think maybe you misunderstood Ahmadinejad's comments. Or maybe you've only heard what the popular media has told us.

I have at length studied what he's said in his speeches and never does he deny the occurrence of the Holocaust. He asks why of the 60,000,000 people that died in WWII, only the Jews are focused on, and why the Palestinians are paying for the crimes of the Nazis.

The closest he gets to actual denial is when he asks, "If it occurred," why we aren't allowed to research it further. He seems to say that the fact that even further research is not allowed implies that something is possibly being fabricated.

And homophobic? Please, the man neglected to mention the existence of homosexuals in Iran. That's a cultural difference, it's obviously not accepted in Iran. The rest of the world isn't like America. I bet, if you chose any African head of state, for example, they too would deny the existence of homosexuals in their country.

I personally thought that the President of Columbia was very disrespectful toward a man who clearly wished to engage our country in an open dialogue, despite his controversial views.

Will we let our political correctness go so far as to stop people from questioning the possibility of something? I can understand why you'd feel this way,and it's to keep people safe, but sometimes we can't let political correctness impinge on our civil liberties...namely our right to question, whoever, and whatever we want.

Mike said...

Great points about the nature of free speech. One aspect of that freedom is the freedom to act as an editor for a publication or an institution.

The Shadow said...

I don't agree with your analysis. I think Grobman and Shermer are wrong to impose unnecessary limitations on free speech. One of the purposes of institutions such as the university is precisely to expose one to ideas that one normally does not hear, it is a place of intellectual exploration and a marketplace of ideas. In such a setting, ideas can be compared with each other and each can compete on its own merit. So what if "Ahmedinejad's views are so contrary to the values universities like Columbia claim to treasure." That's completely irrelevant. Look, I don't agree with a lot of Ahmedinijad, but if his ideas are ill-founded or untenable then they will not survive in the marketplace. In the end, his reputation will be judged on the soundness of his beliefs and if they are unsound, he will be marginalized.

So, I think that Columbia made the right decision to invite Ahmedenijad, for the very reason that he could articulate his position from his own words. We are contemplating going to war with this guy, at least give him a chance to speak for himself.

Mike said...

As a matter of fact I happen to think that having Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia was a good thing for the same reasons you do. But the reason to have him speak was not for the sake of "free speech". The proper reason to give is "education." Free speech means simply that the government cannot stop us from speaking our minds in public. It does not mean that a private institution should give an auditorium to everyone. Indeed, that wold be impossible to do. Private institutions must necessarily make judgment calls on who is and who is not invited to (or allowed to) speak.

With regard to anonymous' comment that Ahmadinejad doesn't deny the Holocaust I believe that use of the word "if", in the face of unparalleled and indisputable evidence, constitutes denial.

Circling back to free speech... Do I think a university in Germany should give Ahmadinejad a forum for this type of "education". No. Germany's history is different from ours. For understandable reasons it's illegal to deny the Holocaust there.

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