At the close of an inspiring August 23 address to the incoming freshman class, Yale president Peter Salovey said: “I recognize that all of us here, in different ways, might also like to live in a campus community where nothing provocative and hurtful is ever said to anyone. And that is the part that I cannot — [and] should not — promise you. For if we are not willing to be shocked, then we may not be allowing ourselves to be open to life-changing ideas.” Only three weeks after he delivered those words, they are already being put to the test.
I graduated from Yale College in May. Although I was involved in campus politics and controversial speakers’ programs for most of my four years as an undergrad, I never saw anything quite as frightening as the campus response to the visit to Yale next Monday of the Somali-born women’s-rights activist and critic of political Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Hirsi Ali’s scheduled lecture next Monday on “Islam and the West” for Yale’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program has ignited a firestorm.
It began with a meeting that Yale’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) solicited with the Buckley Program’s student leaders as soon as the event was announced, trying to convince them to cancel her visit. According to the program’s president, Rich Lizardo, when he refused to cancel, the MSA “told me certain national organizations, which I expected to be opposed to Hirsi Ali’s invitation, were interested in her visit to Yale. I took this to mean these organizations might drum up a controversy about Hirsi Ali’s visit.” The MSA representative went on to express her approval of one of higher education’s most infamous recent incursions on free thought, in which Brandeis University canceled Ms. Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree under duress this past May.
Yesterday morning, the MSA, along with 35 co-signing student organizations, including the Yale Women’s Center, the Slifka Center (Yale’s hub for Jewish life), the Black Student Alliance, and Yale Students for Israel, sent a campus-wide e-mail that argued that Hirsi Ali’s history of “hate speech” and provocative statements, which include advocating the “defeat” of Islam, ought to disqualify her from speaking at Yale. They felt “disrespected,” they said, by the very act of inviting her; evidently they found her ideas too dangerous and her words too caustic for the virgin ears of their fellow undergraduates.
Before I even read the text of the e-mail, I made a quick scan of the co-signing organizations. At the very top of the list: the Yale Women’s Center. Though I can’t exactly say that my Yale undergrad experience left me with a reverential view of the Women’s Center, I still gasped when I saw its name on that list.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the world’s most tireless advocates against the physical abuse of women and the practice of female genital mutilation, and she focuses her research and activism on cultures in which these practices are all too common.
Considering the Women’s Center’s enthusiasm for women’s advocacy, its joining the protest against her visit is surprising, to say the least. More than that, its co-signing the MSA’s e-mail (which glibly dismisses Hirsi Ali’s childhood abuse as “unfortunate circumstances”) is positively astounding. The Women’s Center’s shared “concern” with MSA over Hirsi Ali’s visit shows in no uncertain terms what the Center’s priorities are: In a clash between liberal political orthodoxy and the most essential women’s rights — the rights to a secure, self-directed life and safety from physical abuse — politics wins.
In perhaps the e-mail’s most farcical line, the writers claim that Hirsi Ali — an Islamic-born native of Somalia, many-times-published author, think-tank scholar, and active researcher on political Islam — “does not hold the credentials” to “speak as an authority on Islam.”
This makes one ask what the appropriate credentials might be, if Hirsi Ali’s don’t qualify. Does one need to have been educated in a madrassa to speak with authority about political Islam? Or is it merely that one must treat all Islamic institutions with uncritical reverence to be qualified to speak at Yale?
Constraints of space do not allow me to do justice to the incredible silliness of the student organizations’ arguments. But in a more important sense, how good their arguments are should not matter. There is no lack of “academic credentials,” no provocative joke told, no “offensive” declaration made, that should disqualify anyone from speaking at a university.
There are two important reasons why. The first is that if students are capable of thinking for themselves (which they should be if they got into Yale, right?), then they do not need a student organization to tell them whose views are worth listening to and whose are not.
But more importantly, as President Salovey told the freshmen last month, exposure to views that make us uncomfortable is an indispensable part of learning. The university exists to push us to challenge our preconceived notions, and to make unfamiliar experiences hard to avoid. It is precisely unconditional free speech and thought that allow university graduates to be high-functioning, mature adults in a complicated free society, and they are what make universities like Yale laboratories for the next great ideas.
The fact that the writers can feel “disrespected” merely by the presence of someone with whom they disagree is a testament to how imperiled this ideal — of education and free speech as inextricably linked — has become.
In part this is due to the insulation that the university’s focus on diversity provides. The denser the alphabet soup of acronymed identity groups becomes, the easier it is for students to surround themselves with others who think just as they do, and insulate themselves against ideas that challenge their fragile worldviews.
But regardless of where our oversensitivity comes from, it is not the place of any group of students or even the university’s administration to decide whose views deserve a hearing and whose don’t. For a university to disinvite a guest for having the wrong opinions, as Brandeis did last year with Hirsi Ali, is to insult the intelligence of its students, to assume that they don’t have the ability to tell a good idea from a bad one. It is to play the role of babysitter rather than facilitator of debate.
So far, President Salovey appears committed to protecting free speech on campus, including in Ms. Hirsi Ali’s case. It is my sincere hope that Yale’s administration will remain courageous and not allow itself to be cowed by the Women’s Center, the Muslim Students Association, or any other organization that signed the e-mail condemning Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Assuming that the event takes place as planned on Monday, Yale will be able to look back on this episode as a time that brought us to the brink of renouncing our heritage of free and vibrant discussion, but no farther.
— John Masko is a recent graduate of Yale, where he majored in history and music, was active in political organizations, and served as a staff opinion writer at the Yale Daily News.