Yesterday’s post on Alan Dershowitz‘s attempt to intimidate the Brooklyn College Political Science department into withdrawing its sponsorship of an event on the BDS movement, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, generated some interesting comments. I will offer some brief responses here.
The concern is this: a political science department becomes less hospitable to certain students when it embraces, or seems publicy [sic] to embrace, a cause that polarizes and alienates whole student groups. If the Poli-Sci department sponsored an event titled, “Preserving Jewish Rights in Ancient Samaria,” or “Ways to Protect Heterosexual Marriage in a Secular Age,” we’d have the same problem: certain students (Palestinians and Gays/Transgender, respectively) would feel like the department was not hospitable to them.
As far as I can see, that’s the only issue against the sponsorship. But don’t misunderstand: it is absolutely wrong, and possibly unconstitutional, to prevent BDS from speaking at the college. It is equally wrong to oppose a department sponsoring a particular speaker, no matter what he or she advocates. The worry is about departments taking up very polarizing causes. And it’s a real worry.
Politics being what it is, most issues of interest to political science departments and their students are likely to be polarizing, especially on a campus as diverse as Brooklyn College. How about talks on the Bangladeshi genocide? That would offend our Pakistani students. Or perhaps someone would like to talk about the Warsaw uprising and its role in post-war communism. But that might offend our Russian students? Where does one draw the line? As I indicated in my first post, college campuses are where students should be going to have their older beliefs challenged, to feel uncomfortable when presented with unconventional viewpoints and arguments. If college is supposed to be yet another installation of the familiar, then why not stay at home and regurgitate the received wisdoms of one’s community, ethnicity, religion and race? Describing some topic as ‘very polarizing’ is neither here or there; someone might be extremely offended by a talk thought by most to be offering the most banal of bromides. Should the department then call a halt because one person has been so affected? Is there a magic number of students that need to express such fears of being offended before the department should reconsider its sponsorship? Should there be a screening committee that vets topics for their polarizing potential (PP) before recommending that a department sponsor it?
Your ad hominem attacks on Dershowitz are, to say the very least, not befitting someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy. I offer you a comment that I have found myself writing in the margins of my 100-level students’ papers: Don’t distract from the evaluation of the author’s argument by attacking the author’s character.
Also, how, exactly, do you conclude that Dershowitz is engaging in “advocacy of censorship” when he explicitly states “My sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of DBS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college.” In fact, most of his essay focuses not on the issue of whether the event should take place, but rather whether the event should receive the official sponsorship of Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department. What does that have to do with freedom of speech?
First off, I merely described Dershowitz. I did not dismiss his arguments on the basis of his character; I offered independent refutations of his incoherent fulminations. So the charge of ad-hominem dismissal fails.
Second, I am impressed by the level of naiveté in Murtagh’s inquiry, in his wholesale acceptance, at face value, of Dershowitz’s claims. In case anyone had missed the details: a Harvard Law professor is writing Op-eds in prominent media outlets and enlisting the support of elected officials to pressure an academic department to rescind its academic decision to sponsor an academic discussion on campus. Murtagh asked me: ‘What does this have to do with freedom of speech?’ Let me in turn: Are you so naive as to believe Dershowitz’s tactics do not amount to intimidation or coercion? Furthermore, why should Dershowitz get to decide what the content and format of academic discussions at Brooklyn College should be? How did he get to be the arbiter of what constitutes an exchange of ideas? When you attempt to regulate the content and format of speech, you are inserting yourself into a freedom of speech debate. When you attempt to enlist political and media aids to attenuate the exchange and flow and visibility of ideas, you are engaging in censorship. If you believe Dershowitz is merely interested in getting the Political Science department to back off from its sponsorship then I have a bridge to sell you.