Congratulations to you and yours. How wonderful!
I was a freshman here in 1961. That sounds so long ago, as if my classmates were pterodactyls. But being back at this great college brings back memories of my first year: cold November (women were not allowed to wear pants on campus); the shock of failing calculus; the joys of writing for the student newspaper, reading Aquinas, going on strike.
We went out because admin banned Malcolm X as well as the head of the American Communist party, Benjamin Davis, from speaking. We stood up for academic freedom and free speech.
But today there is a more insidious threat…challenges to free expression, as in: Don’t say anything that outrages or humiliates me. In my case, anything anti-Semitic. Except what does that mean? A public reading of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Having a spokesperson from Hamas come to campus and talk about destroying Israel? Maybe. But what happens if you are curious to listen to that reading, or you want to hear what that guy from Hamas has to say?
One of the reasons we have to fight for free expression is that, for all of us, it’s so tempting to want to make certain people shut up.
Last year, at Columbia, students stormed the stage, knocked over chairs and threatened Jim Gilchrist, founder of the radical right group, the Minutemen. He began his well-publicized anti-immigration speech to the College Republicans. But he was not allowed to finish.
Downtown at the New School, Senator John McCain, Republican, presidential contender, and supporter of the war in Iraq was booed and jeered during his commencement address. There were cries of “You’re a war criminal!” and “We’re graduating, not voting!”
But, you say, some people go over the line. Take Don Imus and his notorious remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Was what he said racist? I think so. Misogynistic? Sure: a person who reduces a group of athletes and academic stars to “hos,” who ignores the accomplishments of the New York Times’ White House correspondent to portray her as a “cleaning woman” is, in my opinion, pretty much a pig—though for years, many in his large audience, as well as the journalists, authors, and politicians he interviewed, obviously found him an amusing and intelligent pig.
But this time there was a furor. CBS and MSNBC fired Imus. They certainly had the right to. This wasn’t a violation of any First Amendment right: no attempt by government to curtail the rights of an individual.
Yet those that demanded his ouster were wrong. First, their fellow citizens deserve the right to hear Don Imus, whether he is piggish—or questioning the legitimacy of public policy on autism. Get rid of one talk show host and next there’ll be call for Comedy Central to cancel the allegedly funny, rude and crude South Park. Then someone will decide Rush Limbaugh has finally gone over the line, or Howard Stern has, or that the president of Iran shouldn’t speak on a campus because the rage over his Holocaust denial would cause “security problems.” By the way, that last happened at Columbia.
And then it will be your turn: someone you want to hear will be denied a platform because he or she would disturb too many people: racist, homophobic, anti-Catholic.
Listen, there’s much to be said for obnoxious speech. Imus’s blather brought into the open a much-needed discussion of race and gender, and made many of us realize how deep the pain can be from a thoughtless slur.
But some slurs aren’t thoughtless. No apologies: they are meant to hurt and enrage. Yet surely one of the reasons the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law was because the nation witnessed the disgusting language and twisted faces not just of segregationist mobs, but of men in power like George Wallace and Bull Connor. And the nation was repelled by it.
As our nation becomes more diverse, we react to the proximity of strangers by telling our fellow citizens: Shut up! Radical opinion appears to be relegated to the Speakers Corner for crazies, radio talk shows (many of which make Imus’s crew look like a gathering of the New England Transcendentalists.)
We shut people up so we can go about our business–the all-American business of having a nice day. In this era of anxiety, we yearn for blandness, for smiley faces.
Diversity? It isn’t two ideas. It’s thousands. Millions. We’re a nation built on ideas the Establishment considered dangerous. Fanatical ideas. Threatening. Revolutionary. Obnoxious. Foolish. For every single person we shut up, we take one more step toward becoming that which we fought against.
So grow up America. Let them talk. You don’t have to like it: you just have to tolerate it.