Staring down prejudice in your cap and gown

As a matter of principle, I agree with Gabriel Arana when he writes this (fair warning, this is Bill Maher-related):

But he should speak at Berkeley. I won’t argue that prejudice against Muslims isn’t “dangerous.” But bad ideas, like family secrets, are less harmful when exposed. In this case, Maher’s views should be aired and shot down. Academic institutions are the ideal forum for this; as opposed to our public discourse, in the university setting it’s harder to take cheap shots or win simply by being loud. Instead of disinviting Maher, why not have him debate Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American scholar who so eloquently took him to task on CNN? Many Americans share Maher’s facile views of Islam. What better place to challenge these views than at Berkeley?

As for the claim that his appearance would “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment,” toughen up: social justice requires courage, and prejudice against Muslims needs to be stared down.

More speech is better than less and bad ideas should be publicly aired so that they can be exposed and refuted, no question. The devil is in the details, though. If Bill Maher were being invited to Berkeley to give a talk on the horrors of Islam that would be followed by a tough Q&A session, then there would be an opportunity to challenge his views. If he were being invited to participate in a debate on Islam’s role in the world, then there would be an opportunity for his views to be shot down. But Maher is being invited to give a commencement address, a role that privileges and honors his words and allows no opportunity for anyone to challenge them or for Maher to face any feedback.

I don’t have any strong convictions on whether this commencement speaker should be dis-invited from this commencement ceremony (and I find it hard to believe that Maher would turn a commencement address into another harangue about Islam, but what do I know?), but I have a hard time with the argument that commencement addresses are important opportunities for standing up to unpopular or unsavory speech. Anybody who’s ever attended a commencement ceremony knows that’s just not the case. I guess those students who are upset about Maher being there could stage some kind of protest during the ceremony, but that will just ruin the ceremony for everybody, themselves included. The fact of the matter is that it’s their commencement ceremony (along with the other graduating students who aren’t put out by having Maher there, of course). It seems like they (the student body generally speaking) ought to be allowed to have some input into how their graduations will be celebrated, doesn’t it?

Funny story: as I was writing this I got the funny feeling that I’d covered this ground once before. Lo and behold, I had:

For one thing, at the risk of repeating myself, there’s no “engagement” with a commencement speech. A student’s choices there are “be talked at” and “don’t go.” For another thing, if you want to expose students “to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view,” then next year have a single mother on food stamps give your commencement speech, or some kid who got railroaded into prison on a misdemeanor by one of our Galtian judges who’s on the payroll of a private prison company. I guarantee you they need the speaking fee a hell of a lot more than Christine Lagarde does. The rotating and indistinguishable Masters of the Universe types who are always chosen to give these speeches aren’t going to expose your students to anything by which they haven’t already been, and will forever be, bombarded, in the newspaper, online, on TV, and, yes, in the classroom. Christine Lagarde hasn’t been “censored.” Condoleeza Rice hasn’t been “censored.” Some students found the idea of their tuition money going to pay these people to speak at their graduation distasteful, and so those people are no longer speaking at those ceremonies. Oh, the humanity!

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One thought on “Staring down prejudice in your cap and gown

  1. Once again, you are absolutely correct.

    A commencement address is held at a university, but it is a celebration rather than an academic exercise. Maher may treat the occasion with the appropriate dignity or, being a celebrity bad boy, he may take take the golden opportunity to stir up some shit

    By way of contrast, my commencement speaker was King Juan Carlos of Spain who gave a dignified summation of his role in resuscitating democracy in the wake of the Franco era. The clown show was delivered by Ted Koppel on Class Day, where he held forth on such weighty topics as “who has the best hairpiece in broadcast news” and tape in the vault of Nixon in China pronouncing “This is, indeed, a great wall.”

    It’s just too bad that the Berkely organising committee did not see fit to structure their commencement along the same lines.

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