I’m always amused by those readers who, because I’ve blocked them on one ground or another, send me angry emails accusing me of censoring them. But that’s not really censorship; it’s my website and I have the right to determine what appears on it. Those people have every right to start their own website, and, to be sure, it doesn’t cost much! Nor is it censorship for a magazine to reject an article, no matter what it says.
Similarly, the Discovery Institute, when it gave me the huge honor of being “Censor of the Year,” did so mainly because I complained to Ball State University (and the Freedom from Religion Foundation) that Professor Eric Hedin was teaching intelligent design and promoting Christianity in a science class at Ball State University: a double whammy of pushing discredited science and violating the First Amendment. Those people, too, have no idea what “censorship” means. I didn’t prevent Hedin from doing anything: that was the decision of Ball State, after a committee convened by president Jo Ann Gora decided that Hedin had overstepped the boundaries of good scholarship. You don’t have the right to say anything you want in a public university science class, but Hedin still had every right to publish his views in any venue that would accept them, or to give public speeches about how cosmology proves Jesus.
Both my affronted readers and the Discovery Institute should absorb today’s xkcd strip:
The issue of what really constitutes “free speech” came up again yesterday in a New York Times editorial by Nesrine Malik, “Freedom to offend everyone.” (Malik is described as “a Sudanese journalist and a contributing columnist at The Guardian”.)
Malik is writing about Brandeis’s reprehensible decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi, a vocal and courageous critic of Islam. And Malik’s point seems to be this (I say “seems,” because she doesn’t write clearly enough to make her views transparent): if you let Ali speak (there would have been remarks after she got her degree), then you must let everyone speak, and a lot of that speech is not just offensive to Muslims, but to everyone. Those who oppose some “free speech” but not others are simply hypocrites. Here’s some of what she says:
The defense of free speech often hides a multitude of sins. Since Brandeis University withdrew an honor it had intended to bestow on the author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, many have flocked to her defense in the name of free expression — no matter how offensive. But implicitly they are suggesting that Islam and Muslims are worthy targets of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s scorn. And their preciousness about the right to offend won’t be credible until they advocate extending it beyond Islamophobes — to racists, anti-Semites and homophobes, too.
. . . But the accusations leveled at Brandeis show the perils of not sticking entirely to free speech absolutism.
. . .Swapping races and religions to gauge if the response to a particular incident would have been different is an imperfect counterfactual game, but in this instance it is instructive. Had Ms. Hirsi Ali been a widely acknowledged homophobe, or white supremacist, would free speech supporters have rushed so readily to their lecterns to defend her? Probably not, which is why the right to offend should be extended to all. Otherwise, our personal preferences will always dictate that there be exceptions.
But in regards to the Brandeis issue, Ali is not equivalent to a white supremacist or a homophobe. She is not advocating violence towards others or repression of speech, but freedom of speech and the right of Muslim women to be treated as equals to men, as well as not to have their genitals mutilated or have to wear bags as clothing. She has shown considerable courage in this campaign, despite a few rhetorical missteps, and that is why, I presume, Brandeis was going to honor her. There is no reason to honor a homophobe or a white supremicist.
But make no mistake about it: neither Ali nor homophobes nor racists have a right to get an honorary degree from Brandeis. Not giving them such degrees does not constitute censorship. Ali has spoken and written widely, and her views are well known. What does come perilously close to censorship in Ali’s case is first giving her a platform to speak, and then withdrawing it on the basis of the protests of Muslims and purveyors of the “Islamophobia” canard. But even if her invitation had not been rescinded, giving her a platform does not mandate that Brandeis give everyone a platform, no matter how odious their views. A graduation ceremony is not a free-for-all like Hyde Park’s “Speakers Corner.” All Malik’s palaver about the honorary degree is irrelevant to the issue of free speech. Malik’s going out of her way to recount Ali’s “sins” makes me think that she (Malik) is an opponent of free speech in general.
But I do agree with Malik when she notes this:
Earlier this year, a prospective British parliamentary candidate, who happened to be a Muslim, tweeted a cartoon of Jesus and Mohammed, part of “Jesus and Mo,” an irreverent series depicting the two religious figures in everyday situations. Some Muslims saw this as deliberately provocative and there was a backlash, including death threats. When mainstream British media outlets such as the BBC did not show the cartoon, the British press branded them cowards, traitors and free-speech equivocators.
Unfortunately for these critics, a few days later, the infamous French comedian Dieudonné Mbala-Mbala was banned from entering Britain because of his anti-Semitic rants. From those who had penned thousands of words warning of the danger of muzzling our voices when it comes to criticism of Islam, I counted one tweet. In the British broadsheets, there was only one article criticizing Mr. Dieudonné’s banning.
It is clearly far more palatable, even popular, to muscularly stand up for the right to offend Muslims than it is to back those who offend any other minority in Europe today. Indeed, when the notorious American Islamophobe Pamela Geller was banned from Britain on account of her vitriol toward Muslims, her exclusion was met with a chorus of objections. This selective attitude toward freedom of speech allows such disparities to become entrenched.
Umm. . . . is Malik aware of how often people self-censor because of fear of Muslim anger? It’s not clear to me that it’s more palatable to criticize Muslims than it is to criticize, say, the Church of England. Remember the Danish cartoon scandal? Because Islam deplores free speech far more than do other faiths, it has effectively muzzled many critics of that religion, just as they’ve muzzled Ali at Brandeis. Nevertheless, no faith or political stand should be legally immune from criticism. Malik is right about the double standard of banning some speakers and not others.
The reaction to the Brandeis affair is a troubling harbinger. It suggests that America, like Europe, might also begin to pick and choose who deserves to be protected from offensive speech. Once that door is open, the Trojan horse of libertarianism will smuggle in intolerance.
Those who fancy themselves defenders of free speech must be consistent in their absolutism, and stand up for offensive speech no matter who is the target.
This is indeed a double standard, and it’s reprehensible. If you allow someone to attack Islam in public, and you should, then you must allow others to attack Jews, blacks, and anyone else. In my view, free speech—which means that you not be prevented by the government or civil authorities from saying what you want, so long as it’s not deliberately designed to incite immediate violence—is an absolute right. On campuses, too, if authorities allow people to give talks criticizing Israel, they must also allow others to criticize Palestine. I’m a cultural Jew, but I would deeply defend anyone who wanted to give a public lecture on the perfidies and covetousness of Jews, or how Jews supposedly conspire to run Hollywood and the American newspapers. If people want to give talks or write pieces—if anyone will publish them—attacking blacks or civil rights, by all means let them.
The remedy for such odious speech is not censorship, but opposing speech. Many college campuses have yet to learn that lesson, which is a great shame given that campuses are where we’re supposed to learn to defend our views against others. And that lesson has yet to be learned by Europe and Canada as well, where “hate speech” like promoting Nazism or denying the Holocaust is a crime. Those unfortunate laws derive from the historical background of Europe (but not of Canada), and, while understandable, are not forgivable.
So yes, the anti-Semitic Mbala-Mbala should have been allowed into England, and those people who defend that exclusion but also criticize the banning of Pamela Geller are hypocrites.
But in the end, it’s not clear to me whether Malik, while properly demanding consistency in our attitudes towards free speech, is actually advocating consistency in the other direction, implying that censorship be uniformly applied: anyone whose remarks are deeply offensive to cultural groups or religions should be muzzled. That is one way of reading her column, and she doesn’t rule it out. (Her use of the phrase “the Trojan Horse of libertarianism” is disturbing.) I will choose to construe her words as an indictment of hyprocrisy and as a blanket endorsement of free speech.
But that has little to do with Ali, whose choice as speaker she criticizes at the beginning of her column. (Malik decries Ali’s characterization of Islam as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and her supposed defense of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.) Ali didn’t have a “right” to voice her views on Brandeis’s graduation platform, but Brandeis surely acted to silence her by rescinding her invitation. As I said, that comes close to a violation of free speech. But even if it wasn’t, Ali still deserved that degree—for her courage, for her outspokenness, for having endured intolerable hardships yet continued to speak out against the world’s most harmful religion and how it selectively mistreats half its adherents.
It is far better to hear something substantive and thoughtful at graduation than the usual bromides from comedians and talk-show hosts about making a better world through empathy after you graduate. Ali, was, in fact, going to talk about how to really make a better world—by eliminating religious suppression of women’s rights.
When I got my Ph.D from Harvard in 1978, the only reason I went to the ceremony was to hear the speaker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And, in fact, while decrying the Communist government that persecuted him so heavily, he also pointed out what he saw as many of the West’s deficiencies (you can read the transcript of his talk here). As an American, it was fascinating—and challenging—to hear his views. What a pity that the students of Brandeis won’t be similarly challenged by the views of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.