Monday, September 24, 2007

On Free Speech

There are so many topics that I would like to blog about, but have been too busy to do so. One in particular, the Jena 6, I especially wish to write about. However, as time is short, I will address another topic today: Freedom of Speech.

Today, one of the big news stories concerned an address given by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, at Columbia University, in New York. The University President, Lee Bollinger, made some pretty caustic remarks prior to Ahmadinejad speaking. His remarks were far from polite, or kind.

Of course, Ahmadinejad has made some pretty inflammatory claims himself. This inspired all sorts of objections and protests from New Yorkers. It also all made great copy for papers in New York, Washington and elsewhere. However, beyond all this hype and hyperbole, there is an important point that seems to have been overlooked.

Freedom of Speech is a constitutionally important right in the United States. Organizations like the ACLU continue to work very hard to defend this right in the courts, not least in the face of the silent war against free speech and thought that has been waged by the Bush administration. However, there is a further important issue that needs to be brought to the fore in the current context. This concerns the importance of free speech in an academic context.

Although there are many philosophical theorists that I believe to be wrong, misguided and (occasionally) insane, it is still important that I be able to hear their point of view, in order to be able to show the errors in their positions. To just pre-judge, without considering the evidence, is academically irresponsible. While occasionally moronic academics (like my chair), may do this kind of thing, it is not the kind of behaviour that should be condoned in a serious academic environment.

So, I salute Columbia for their courage in letting Ahmadinejad speak. Perhaps a more interesting perspective can be gained by considering the following lines,

"[T]he life of all of mankind is in danger because of the global warming resulting to a large degree from the emissions of the factories of the major corporations, yet despite that, the representative of these corporations in the White House insists on not observing the Kyoto accord, with the knowledge that the statistic speaks of the death and displacement of the millions of human beings because of that, especially in Africa. This greatest of plagues and most dangerous of threats to the lives of humans is taking place in an accelerating fashion as the world is being dominated by the democratic system, which confirms its massive failure to protect humans and their interests from the greed and avarice of the major corporations and their representatives."

Who said this? Fidel Castro? A Greenpeace spokesman? Al Gore? Actually, it was none of these, it was Osama bin Laden in one of his recent video messages (a transcript is available here). Of course, this was not a part of the message that made the evening news. However, it is not an entirely insane, or problematic set of sentiments.

The point here though is that if we permit the news organisations to to filter our knowledge of the world, then we run the risk of just learning the message intended by the spin masters. Universities have historically been the places where sober and sane reflection and rational debate can take place. However, rational debate is impossible without hearing the words of those with which we may wish to take issue with. Thus, it is my judgement that Columbia University did a good and important thing today.

The CP


Blogger Great Idea said...


Helpful to know who this guy really is and what he really believes.

Who is the REAL Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?


12:16 AM  
Blogger olddeadmeat said...

Permitting someone a venue to speak is one thing. However, not all venues are equal, and American universities give credibility that is not always merited.

Permitting him to speak at Columbia has one effect in the U.S., but an entirely different effect elsewhere - see,0,1222354.story.

Ahmadinejad has more access to more forums than the average American citizen does. How many of us get to speak at the U.N.? How many times is the average American quoted on CNN?

If his views were inaccessible or difficult to obtain, then permitting him to speak at Columbia University might be justified by the concept of free expression of ideas.

I think the argument for free expression of ideas might have been better justified if Columbia had obtained a holocaust survivor and an Iranian homosexual to speak as well. After all, Holocaust survivors are a fixed and rapidly diminishing group (as age takes it toll), and Iranian homosexuals aren't exactly listed in the phone book.

Failing that, free expression in this instance propped up a regime that heartily denies free expression within its own borders - a net loss, I think. After all, free expression is already here, it is not there.

4:51 PM  

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