On Sept. 15, Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program hosted a lecture by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist and a noted critic of Islam. The event ran without incident, giving no suggestion of Ali being the proponent of “hate speech” that the Yale Muslim Students Association accused her of in an email circulated to the entire university. Some 30 other organizations signed the letter as a show of their “concern.” This debacle is yet another example of the outbreak of polite censorship that threatens to erode the foundation of inquiry upon which great American colleges are built.
In April, Brandeis University offered Ali an honorary degree, only to retract it in the face of a whirlwind of indignation on the part of the Brandeis Muslim Student Association and outside interests. This was purportedly due to certain statements brought to the administration’s attention, among them a 2007 interview with the London Evening Standard in which Ali referred to Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”
If they found such statements shocking, Brandeis had no idea who they were planning on giving a degree. Born into a conservative Muslim family in Somalia, Ali was a victim of genital mutilation and later sought asylum in the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage. Her attacks on Islam and advocacy for subjugated Muslim women and girls are rarely less than vitriolic. Denunciation of any religion is taboo in American discourse, so the college’s decision is understandable, if spineless.
But the Yale MSA’s effort at grassroots censorship is an entirely different issue. For one independent student organization to attempt to undercut the actions of another because it offends them is shameful and insulting. Such behavior can do real damage if others are willing to indulge it.
Religious Activities chair of the Yale MSA Abrar Omeish was courteous enough to explain the incident in the Yale Daily News. Of course, she begins by clarifying her organization’s commitment to free speech. She then echoes the feigned shock and condescension at the root of the Brandeis fiasco, saying, “We were surprised to see that a group of our fellow Yalies would invite a speaker so well-known for her hate speech and assumed that they must not have been aware of the extent of her intolerance.”
This is a frightening sort of doublethink: Omeish extols “free speech” and proceeds to select what is and what is not free speech. Obviously Ali’s statements are deeply hurtful to many Muslims. She condemns a faith that is a major part of their personal identity. But that does not make it hate speech. Disparaging an ideology is not the same as disparaging the people who hold that ideology.
A similar culture of self-righteousness has extended to Geneseo. Upperclassmen will remember how professor of philosophy Theodore Everett was essentially burned in effigy following the announcement of a philosophy colloquium criticizing sexual assault awareness talking points. He was accused of bigotry and victim-blaming before the colloquium even took place. Students who had never heard of him called for him to be fired, all for having the audacity to take a critical lens to a painful subject.
Universities’ endless declarations of their commitment to intellectual freedom are useless and vapid if they are unwilling to defend it. Administrations and students must decide if fostering productive dialogue is more important than making sure nobody’s feelings get hurt.