POINT/COUNTER-POINT: Rescinding Hirsi Ali degree upholds open debate
The Bottom Bunk
On March 31, Brandeis released its list of honorary degree recipients for this year's commencement ceremony, including keynote speaker Geoffrey Canada, and five other hon-orees. Among these other honorees was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose nomination caused an uproar in the Brandeis community, leading to her degree invitation being rescinded. Now, almost a month later, the school, its faculty and student body are still dealing with the fallout from someone, somewhere in the administrative food chain, not taking the time to read the first sentence of Hirsi Ali's Wikipedia page.
Hirsi Ali has done hugely significant work defending women and girls from forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the third world-work which I, along with many on both sides of this debate, find inspiring and praiseworthy. She has also, however, stated directly that she believes the Western world is at war with the religion of Islam. To quote her 2007 Reason interview, "once [Islam] is defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It's very difficult to even talk about peace now. They're not interested in peace."
According to Hirsi Ali, that"they're" is the entirety of the Muslim faith, as she has made clear over the years that she does not distinguish between fringe extremism and the majority at large of those who practice the second most popular religion on earth. Her reasoning is quite understandable. As a child, Hirsi Ali was a victim of many of the human rights violations she now fights against, including genital mutilation. This was a direct result of the militant Islam that surrounded her childhood in Somalia. These are the facts.
Had I endured such trauma, I am not sure I would still be able to mentally function, much less become a successful activist and beacon of hope to so many. Nonetheless, the Brandeis community has Muslim members, Muslim members that are nonviolent, just like the majority of Muslims around the world. Calling for warfare against any member of the Brandeis community, much less a sizable portion of the student body and faculty, is reason enough to at least question whether someone ought to be invited to campus.
But, critics ask, is this not censorship? Is this not forbidding someone from speaking their mind, silencing a debate and forcing an opinion on the majority? These are critical questions to ask. And they are exactly the reason why rescinding Hirsi Ali's degree was the best decision Brandeis could have made.
Consider who invited Hirsi Ali, and for what purpose. This year alone, Brandeis has invited figures as controversial as Max Blumenthal, an advocate for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state to our campus. Brandeis has a large Jewish, Zionist population, but Blumenthal's event was well attended and well received. Why didn't the blustering, pigheaded Brandeis of the recent national news coverage immediately censor and expel Blumenthal?
Because he was invited as a guest speaker, not as a model citizen. He was invited by a club, Students for Justice in Palestine, not by President Frederick Lawrence. He was only representing himself and his own opinions, and after he had finished talking, he happily took questions from the many audience members who disagreed with him. The audience was not forced to celebrate this man, merely to consider his ideas and allow him to consider their own. The debate was civil and courteous, and while many were angered by Blumenthal's opinions, none made efforts to prevent him from responding to student outcry.
This is the heart of free speech. This is everyone having a chance to say how they feel, not being forced to celebrate those with whom they take issue, or being silenced when they voice dissent. Hirsi Ali is a highly controversial figure, but the student body would have welcomed her with open arms had they not been told that they were to exclusively and unequivocally celebrate her.
Now, for clarity's sake, let's take a look at what would have happened had Brandeis not listened to the pressure from within (a faculty petition with 75 signatures) and without (an online petition with 6,800 signatures) to disinvite Hirsi Ali from commencement. Despite misinformed national news coverage to the contrary, and a misleading statement issued by Hirsi Ali herself, she was never going to speak at the main commencement ceremony. The plan was for her to say a few words at a smaller ceremony for graduates of the International and Global Studies program, and even then, none were to be given a chance to argue back and forth with her.
At the main commencement, in front of the whole school, all that Hirsi Ali was going to do was listen to a few nice words spoken about her by the administration, receive the degree, smile for the camera and sit back down. She was never going to engage the student body in the "debate" which the school now supposedly suppresses. At the end of it all, she would have put the event on her resume, hung the degree in her study and that would have been the end of that.
The national coverage of the rescinded invitation has given Hirsi Ali far more opportunities to speak to the world than she ever would have had without the controversy.
And that's exactly the problem. Those who claim that disinviting Hirsi Ali from commencement has silenced debate don't recognize that there was never to be a debate in the first place. Invite Hirsi Ali to campus, sure, but do so in a context where both the speaker and the students can each express their rights to free speech.
If Brandeis has contradicted the liberal arts mandate to hear ideas that make oneself uncomfortable, then how would a non-conversation in which one side is endorsed by the University president before even saying a word be starting healthy debate?
Consider what it means to receive an honorary degree. It is an absolute statement of approval and celebration of everything that the recipient stands for, an assertion that this individual fully embodies and speaks to the values of the institution which confers the honor. A degree recipient is not someone who the student body has a chance to challenge or debate against, they are someone who is only supposed to be wholeheartedly applauded.
Many view the decision to revoke Hirsi Ali's degree as a loss for free speech and democracy. On the contrary, I view it as a sign that the system still works. A huge number of students and faculty members banded together and vocally expressed what they wanted to see happen. They informed the higher-ups that there was a problem in their society, and showed that it was affecting a large number of the members of that society. The administration responded by doing what the vocal body needed them to do, even if it was not what they, the administration, might have wanted.
Is that not the heart of democracy? Is that not the majority opinion of the group deciding what actions the group should take, even if those in power dissent?
My issue is not with Hirsi Ali personally. Far from it. What she has had to endure from the school is unjust and unfair, and I extend a heartfelt apology to her for this embarrassment. My issue is with the University for issuing this degree in the first place to someone who, though a hugely commendable figure, does not embody the values that Brandeis specifically seeks to uphold.