Friday, November 23, 2007

The new Freedom of Speech Warriors

Alan Dershowitz, in fine form:

At Harvard, hard-left radicals, led by Professor J. Lorand Matory ’82, claim that they are being muzzled. At last week’s Faculty meeting, Matory alleged that critics of Israel like him “tremble in fear” when they express their views at Harvard.

...At Columbia University, on the other hand, a group of professors—who are generally in sync with their extremist colleagues at Harvard—are complaining that Columbia’s President, Lee C. Bollinger, has too much freedom of speech when it comes to the Middle East. . . They also want to muzzle students, alumni, and other “outsiders,” who have legitimate complaints about the Middle East Studies Department, which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of radical Islam.

... The hypocrisy is rather easy to spot if you’ve been around long enough to remember when it was leaders of the radical left, led by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who were trying to intrude on the tenure process for political reasons.... when Chomsky campaigned to prevent Columbia from granting a tenured position to Henry Kissinger.

What I don’t remember (because it didn’t happen) are any complaints by these born-again freedom of speech phonies when Summers, as a mere professor, was prevented from making a speech to the University of California Board of Regents this September...

... Nor do I remember... the hard left at Columbia protesting when the University provost defended an anti-Israel professor who was caught by a camera throwing a rock at an Israeli guardhouse. Nor do I remember ... Professor Matory complaining when Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prevented from speaking at Concordia University by a hard-left anti-Israel crowd of violent censors...

I, and many other genuine civil libertarians, have long histories of defending the free speech rights of those we most despise. I supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill forty years ago. I opposed the cancellation of a speech by Tom Paulin, who advocated the murder of Israelis. I defended, pro bono, a virulently anti-Israel Stanford professor who was fired for inciting violence. I opposed Harvard’s attempt to prevent students from flying the Palestinian flag to commemorate the death of mass-murderer Yasser Arafat.

... Freedom of speech to criticize Israel and the U.S. is alive and well at Harvard and most other universities. Matory need not “tremble in fear” of anything except his pernicious opinions being rebutted in the marketplace of ideas.

A comment:

Dershowitz is slightly mistaken about Ehud Barak. It was Benjamin Netanyahu who was prevented from speaking at Concordia by a raging mob who perpetrated what amounted to a mini pogrom. Barak's speech was cancelled by the university, in perfect response to the violence that had prevented Netanyahu's speech two years earlier.

Here is a relatively low key account:

It was there, on September 9, 2002, that pandemonium broke lose. Benyamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minister of Israel, was scheduled to speak to an eager crowd of his fans and opponents alike. A considerable portion of the Palestinian community in Montreal however, had something to say about this, and decided to use violence to express their distaste at Mr. Netanyahu's presence. Property damage and riot police were commonplace for a few hours and the talk was eventually cancelled.

Although no one was seriously injured in those few dark hours, there was one casualty: free speech. Because Mr. Netanyahu was prevented from speaking, one side of an extremely contentious issue was not heard and freedom of speech, a fundamental characteristic of freedom-loving Canadian society, was struck a critical blow.

The New Controversy

Flash forward two years to the present day and a similar problem is once again staring down Concordia University. Earlier this year, the Jewish students' association Hillel proposed to bring Ehud Barak, another former Israeli Prime Minister, to speak at the university. Their proposal was decisively rejected.

This may seem to some like yet another affront to Canada's good friend, freedom of speech, but the university claims that the decision to refuse Barak is a result of security issues, not political motivations.

"The university's primary responsibility is the safety of its staff, students and its faculty, and its neighbors in the surrounding area," said Chris Mota, Coordinator of Media Relations and Special Events at Concordia. "For every speaker that comes through here, a risk assessment is done, it goes through the Montreal Police and the RCMP, and it was recommended to us that we do not host Mr. Barak on campus."

Although her previous answer appears to be impenetrable, Mota did not mention the fact that Michale Tarazi, the legal advisor for Yassir Arafat's radical group--the Palestinian Liberation Organization--was allowed to speak on campus on October 20 of this year.

A Double Standard?

I was a student at Concordia at the time. I had decided not to go to the campus that day because I knew there would be trouble. I had seen the bulletin boards and every wall and fence in the proximity of the university building, which is located at downtown Montreal, papered with posters with inflammatory messages. And I was there the morning after, to see the shattered windows and pile of broken furniture at the Hall building lobby. The Jewish students were shell-shocked by this event.

Here is a documentary about the event (45 minutes):

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The real "fleurs du mal" this event sprouted reached beyond the shock of the initial violence and the university's response. The "received wisdom" on campus in the aftermath of the riots was that the Jewish students were to blame for this paroxysm of sheer hatred, because inviting Netanyahu was a provocation which the pro-Palestinian lobbyists could not be expected to withstand . . .

This distortion of cause and effect, of common sense, seems to be of the same flavour and essence as the argument advanced by Matory in the Dershowitz piece above: That no matter how badly behaved the pro-Palestinian crowd is, how unreasonable, biased, and shrill their response, how hyperbolic the violence, it is the Jews, the Israel advocates who are to blame for any emergence of friction and discord. It is total lack of self-awareness, an absence of critical thinking when it comes to application of universally-acknowledged principles.

Here is an article I found, by Thomas M. Sipos on The False and Lazy Charge of Hypocrisy. I don't know who Sipos is, what his politics are, but I liked his definition of hypocrisy. It is clear and simple, and easily testable:

What is hypocrisy?

Rather than look to a dictionary, I've applied a Socratic method, considering the word's usage and implications in varied situations, and I've concluded that "hypocrisy" comprises Four Elements, all necessary for a person to be guilty as charged.

A hypocrite is someone who: (1) advocates a standard, (2) publicly applies that standard to himself (3) fails to meet that standard, and (4) hides or denies his failure.

All Four Elements are required,

So let's see if this applies to the freedom of speech warriors:

1. Advocates a standard:

“this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.”

Please note that the motion is done in the spirit of universality.

2. Publicly applies that standard to himself: Well, that is self evident. A person who submits a motion is assumed to be endorsing that motion.

3. Fails to meet the standard: I think Dershowitz furnishes a few examples in which the submitter of the motion has failed to meet his own standard. The silence on the anti-Bollinger campaign, for one. And the more insidious oniony silence about Laurence Summer's muzzling.

4. Hides or denies this failure.

"Professor Matory writes: "My aim here is not to preach but to insist upon my right, and others', to a conversation full of respect and free of intimidation, one that presumes no monopolies on suffering, "

In his submitted motion, Matory defined his aim as his right to full freedom of speech.

In the quote from him above, he produces a nuanced change in his demand. It's no longer the right for freedom of speech but a right for "conversation full of respect". I'm not sure that anyone has an inalienable right to being respected. But that's beside the point. The connivance in Matory's demand is in his defining that a "conversation full of respect" is "one that presumes no monopoly on suffering". If I follow Matory's argument to its logical conclusion, then, any conversation which does not, a-priory, accepts his premise that no one has a monopoly on suffering, is deemed unrespectful, and therefore, is an infringement of freedom of speech. It is easy to understand why Matory feels he is being "muzzled" when his terms for a respectful, free conversation are thus defined.

I'm reminded of a conversation we once had on the now defunct Charlie Rose BB. Bear with me for the tedious details:

A person who has just lost her dog was taking to task another poster, for making a flippant comment about dogs. All her friends (of the same political stripes) flocked to her, consoling her, and castigating the aforementioned delinquent for unusual, inhumane cruelty. End of story.

Some time later, another poster revealed that he was in deep grief over his father's death. One of the comforters in the first story hastened to offer her condolences. In the same paragraph, this Job's comforter told the grieving son to notice how decent she was, that she offered her solicitude. Unlike the other posters, who did not offer their condolences to that other poster who had suffered so much because she had lost her little dog and someone made fun of dogs.

Why am I telling you this story? Because it illustrates the absurdity of Matory's stipulation that a respectful conversation presumes no monopoly over suffering. If we follow his principle, then the suffering over a loss of a dog and the suffering over the loss of father, are objectively equivalent.

What we see, in we closely follow Matory's reasoning, is a devolution of the right of freedom of speech, to a (newly invented) "right" for respectful conversation to a definition of respectful conversation as one that presumes no monopoly over suffering. In fact, he agrees with Dershowitz that his (Matory's) conception of freedom of speech is only applicable in the context of his own particularist choosing.

For the umpteenth time on this blog, I will quote in this connection, Michael Ignatieff:

“Global human rights consciousness, moreover, does not necessarily imply that the groups defending human rights actually believe the same things. Many ... espouse the universalist language of human rights but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes or persons… The problem is that particularism conflicts with universalism at the point at which one’s commitment to a group leads one to countenance human rights violations towards another group.”

(Ignatieff, Michael, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, 2001 p. 9)

When I first read Hannah Arendt's thoughts about hypocrisy, I was not quite sure what to make of it. But as I became more experienced in the way people posit themselves vis-a-vis their principles and the praxis of these principles, her words became frighteningly lucid:

What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.


For a different critique of Matory's claims, you can go here and scroll down to jacksondyer's comment.


At 3:19 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you defend the right of Nick Griffith, to speak at Oxford?

I find that episode fascinating.


At 9:33 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unless I misunderstand completely the meaning of "right", I don't think Griffin has any intrinsic, self-evident right to speak at any institution, unless specifically invited to do so. The Oxford Union which invited him, has a right to exercise their freedom of speech by inviting anybody they please. And I can tell them what I think about their decisions and their choice of guests. That is my right.

In the Middle Ages it was customary for the secular authorities to force people to listen to religious sermons aimed at converting them. Thus many Jews were forced to sit and listen to prists who came to their synagogues on Sabbath in order to srmonize about the delights of Christianity. I think the priests had a right to preach about their religion where they were invited to do so. But not the right to force their way into other people's institutions.

Griffith and Irving did not have to force their way into Oxford. They were invited to do so.

I agree with Oliver Kamm:

"Daniel Finkelstein states concisely exactly what I think about the Oxford Union's invitation to the BNP leader Nick Griffin and my reader David Irving. The initial invitation was an absurd and unprincipled piece of theatre. Bigots have a right to free speech (and contrary to the views of the present government, a right to be bigots), but that doesn't mean they have a right to speak at any particular institution. The Tory defence spokesman Julian Lewis - whom I know and respect, and sometimes deputise for in debates on nuclear deterrence - was right to resign his membership of the Union in protest, and to criticise the Oxford Union President in personal terms. Yet the arguments of some other protestors were pernicious. It is not the case that, as an officer of the Oxford University Jewish Society put it, free speech is "overshadowed in this instance". Once the invitation had been issued, it would have been wrong to withdraw it, and protestors who aimed to prevent the meeting ought - on the press accounts I have read - to have been met with a firmer police response. Griffin is a demagogue and Irving is a racist faker; but the offence you and I are caused by their views is entirely irrelevant to civic affairs.


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