Monday, September 24, 2007

Speech freed at Columbia

I am very hesitant about banning someone from speaking and laying it down that this or that may not be said, or so-and-so may not speak. If nothing else, it so often sounds like fear that if certain words are uttered to a gathering, it will bring about a collapse in something dear, a crumbling of a revered icon. It sounds like weakness. That's how I read the decision of the Regents of the University of California to uninvite Larry Summers to speak because some feminists were squeeling.

But it is just such a scenario that made me wonder about the invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University and the calls for that invitation to be withdrawn. It's a matter of context. My memories of university 'debates' during the first wave of feminism teach me that they can be an example of anything but free speech since the poor soul who dared to state a point of view at variance with the revolutionary truth of the day was rarely allowed to make a point, or refute an argument. Only those who correctly filled in the template furnished by the most vehement could speak. There could be no debate. There were just correct things to repeat.

I wondered if this occasion at Columbia would be of a similar nature, or its obverse: the supine ceding of the floor to the usual anti-American/Western/Capitalist grandstanding, the legitimation of cultural self-hate. In that case, I would favour a 'ban' just to avoid the embarassment of the whole event.

Yet, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Lee Bollinger exposed Ahmadinejad to an argument and challenged him to answer. The inadequacy of his reponse spoke for itself, just as should occur in a real debate. Heartening.

The text of Bollinger's speech is here. Excerpts from Ahmadinejad's speech are here.

There's a round-up of reaction here.

No comments: