POINT/COUNTER-POINT: Taking back degree values sensitivity over free speech
Universities offer honorary degrees to recognize a person's achievements in an intellectual field. Since 1953, Brandeis University has taken part in this tradition, which, the Board of Trustees' website states, serves "to identify the University with the values expressed through the work and accomplishments of [its honorees]; ... and to emphasize its own institutional mission and purposes."
One of the honorees for the 2014 commencement was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the noted writer, politician and activist. Hirsi Ali is renowned for her advocacy of women's rights and her particular opposition to the abuses women face in the Islamic world. Through her own experiences with these abuses, Hirsi Ali has become an unapologetic and unequivocal public critic of Islam-despite receiving death threats for her commentary.
Hirsi Ali's career as a worthy public intellectual is indisputable, and her unflinching courage in the face of violent intimidation is admirable. If Brandeis University values the rights and lives of women, and, as stated in the description of honorary degrees on the University website, seeks to honor someone of "distinctive achievement in ... public service, philanthropy ... international understanding, and human rights," Hirsi Ali is-and was recognized as-a clear candidate.
Yet, due to some of Hirsi Ali's provocative statements about Islam, some members of the Brandeis community felt otherwise. On April 8, the editorial board of this paper urged, as is clear through their article's title, that we ought to "Disinvite Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Commencement." The board argues that "graduating seniors should not have to sit in the presence of their University's support for a message that devalues an entire religion." This relies on a bizarre premise: the notion that when a university honors a person's work, it endorses and honors everything in which that person believes.
Honorary degrees have never been a university's version of knighthood or sainthood. Brandeis accepted this idea by conferring honorary degrees on several polarizing figures within recent memory.
Desmond Tutu and Tony Kushner, whose hostile views towards Israel provoked outrage, were duly honored in 2000 and 2006, respectively. Even Whoopi Goldberg, the entertainer who was honored in 1997, is frequently embroiled in public controversy. At no point did Brandeis University intimate that when they honored these people, they were honoring their controversial-and sometimes offensive-views. Somehow, the figment that Brandeis was not only honoring Hirsi Ali's laudable activism, but also her views on Islam, infected some community members. In addition to the editorial, two other articles denouncing Hirsi Ali's honor were published in that issue of the Justice. An online petition to disinvite Hirsi Ali was also circulated, and it was so popular that over 200 percent of the undergraduate "student body" signed it.
The administration buckled under this pressure, and revoked the honor. University President Frederick Lawrence's release on the matter offered the feeble and far-fetched excuse that, in the age of search engines, the University was unaware of Hirsi Ali's statements that do not comport with the University's values.
Yet, Lawrence did not specify why her views are unacceptable to the University. We can infer his reasoning based on the views that he has publicly espoused. Lawrence gave a talk at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management last spring, discussing his view that free expression should not include "hate speech," which he broadly defined as speech which undercuts a person or group's "human dignity"-a term which is undefinable and ripe for subjective interpretation.
This doctrine implies that anyone's emotional response to an argument holds moral precedence over the content of the argument and the speaker's right to make it. The notion that every argument should specially consider any chance listener's feelings is not exclusive to Lawrence; it is the dominant view toward opinionated speech at Brandeis.
Hirsi Ali was disinvited because of this emotionalist zeitgeist. A guest op-ed called "Ayaan Hirsi Ali degree is an insult to Muslim students" in the April 8 issue of the Justice represents this paradigm clearly. The authors of the article, Alina Cheema '15 and Yasmin Yousof '15, argue that "there is a fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech." They say that "Hirsi Ali has shamelessly passed this boundary." They fail to identify what this boundary between free speech and hate speech is, and thus cannot explain how it was breached. Instead, the authors wield "hate speech" as an undefined term of opprobrium to loosely connote that Hirsi Ali is a hateful bigot, without bothering to prove it-some cherry-picked quotes snatched out of context notwithstanding.
In an attempt to justify this, they claim that since "[Hirsi Ali's] remarks [do not only] regard her experiences, but rather condemn an entire religion," they are unacceptable. Religions are philosophies, or sets of ideas that govern the life of its adherents.
As such, they do not possess some sort of moral immunity to criticism. Religions are only treated differently because they are closely-and emotionally-held. Passionate indignation against Hirsi Ali's criticisms was, apparently, sufficient for Lawrence to revoke the honor.
Observe the pleas for sensitivity to their feelings that Cheema and Yousof offer in lieu of arguments against Hirsi Ali's honor. They claim that "many [Muslim students] feel isolated and unwelcomed" by it, later explaining that "[Hirsi Ali] incites and supports insensitivity." The authors explain that "Hirsi Ali's personal tragedies do not give her the absolute right to attack Islam as a religion," and assert that they "deserve respect and rights that every other student has," as if Hirsi Ali's presence would negate these.
The authors are claiming that their religion has the right to immunity from harsh, external criticism-which no one has the right to make.
Their inversion here is clear: Do not hurt my feelings, free speech be damned. Such hidebound demands are becoming commonplace on this campus. We are declining into a culture of chronic hypersensitivity, in which logical arguments are at risk of being smeared and dismissed as "offensive." Consequently, our intellectual discussions tend to lose caustic and controversial-but potentially valuable-insight.
Before offering their opinion in this cultural climate, people tend to self-censor, asking "can I say this?" All of this is perpetrated in the name of tolerance, but it only results in a school of anxious milquetoasts who are intolerant of anything resembling an intransigently certain argument. This is the opposite of the intellectual culture a university ought to strive for.
So long as a person presents their views clearly, intelligently and without threats of open violence, he or she should be regarded as proper intellectual company for any university student. Hirsi Ali's public statements clearly measure up to this test as well as any of Brandeis' prior honorees. The University failed to tolerate her strong difference in opinion, and our administration owes her, at the very least, an apology.