Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘freedom of speech’

When did it become verboten to rewrite history?

The role of chancellor is a difficult one: He’s the symbolic aristocratic authority figure, of modest intelligence but sterling character, set to superintend the carryings-on of the overly clever boffins.

Anyway, there’s been a bit of to and fro at Oxford over the position of Cecil Rhodes. Following the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” protests at the University of Cape Town, Oxford students have been demanding that Oriel College remove the statue of Rhodes prominently displayed in the college’s facade. Oxford’s chancellor, the failed Conservative politician and last colonial governor of Hong Kong Christopher Patten, has decided to stoke the flames by using his ceremonial platform, where he was supposed to be welcoming the university’s first woman vice chancellor, to attack those who wish to “rewrite history”:

We have to listen to those who presume that they can rewrite history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes – but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think…

Yes. “We” must say what “we” think. Since history has been written once and for all, correctly, it is inappropriate to rewrite it. And heaven forfend that the rewriters should rely on their own notion of what is correct, morally or otherwise! It’s about time we got rid of all those people who try to rewrite history, you know, what are they called? Historians.

It’s pretty bizarre. It’s not as though protestors are breaking into the Bodleian and excising the name of Rhodes with a razor blade. The existence of the Rhodes statue is clear testimony to his outsized influence and to the honour accorded to him in his day, and it would continue to serve this function if it were placed in a museum. To continue to display the statue on the façade of a college is a declaration of current respect for him. Which is a matter of public debate. In 1945 all the Adolf-Hitler-Strassen in Germany were renamed, and I don’t recall whether Patten protested the felling of the Lenin statues in Berlin in 1989, or the Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq.

(A friend of a friend of mine, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, made the unfortunate choice to issue the bootlicking pledge in her application essay for the Rhodes scholarship, that she would aspire to fulfil the spirit of Cecil Rhodes. At interview she was asked, “Were you thinking of Rhodes’s spirit as a racist, as a colonialist, or as a paedophile?” Her answer was not transmitted, but she was not awarded a scholarship.)

(Personally, I would have attended the ceremony, to have been present at the historic investiture of Oxford’s first woman vice chancellor, if only I’d been able to rewrite the historical dress code, since at the last moment I couldn’t locate the academic hood required for attendance.)

The right to be honoured

The journalist Barbara Ellen, writing in the Guardian, has defended Cambridge historian David Starkey, who has come under attack for his racist remarks:

An open letter to the university, signed by hundreds of staff, students and alumni, accuses Starkey of repeatedly making racist statements. It cites his appearance on BBC Newsnight after the summer riots of 2011 in which he said: “A substantial amount of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.”

It also cited a more recent interview in the Telegraph in which Starkey said statistics “appeared” to show a black propensity to violence.

A twofer: He insulted all black people, and simultaneously applied an insulting term for the white working class. Ellen protests

Free speech is one of the most precious facets of British society, but here is proof that, for some, it is all too dispensable. The pre-emptive ban is replacing the enriching debate. Nuance and difference are being hounded into the shadows.

How long before society reaches a state of self-monitoring, self-censoring “offence-Stasi”, with everyone on permanent red alert?

That sounds terrible. Starkey was “pre-emptively banned” merely for making perfectly ordinary disparaging remarks about black people. What was he banned from? Appearing as the leading spokesman for one of the world’s most esteemed universities in a promotional fund-raising video. That’s exactly the sort of thing that used to go on in communist police states. (more…)

A real champion of academic freedom

I’ve commented before about the craven assault on academic freedom at the University of Southampton, which feigned concerns about “health and safety” to justify cancelling an uncomfortable conference on international law and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But for me it’s mainly an abstract issue. I’m not involved in the conference, my political views lie messily between those of the conference organisers and their opponents, and it’s not a hugely important topic to me.

One name that I noticed, with interest, on the programme, was that of Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at University of Buckingham. I know of him from his frequent contributions to the Jewish Chronicle, which I usually filed in the “staunch Zionist” column, with some of the blindspots typical of that worldview. I was impressed with his willingness to appear in such a forum, clearly slanted against his beliefs, both because of the discomfort that entails, and because of the danger that his ideological allies would see him as a traitor to the cause.

He has now written a letter to Times Higher Education, forthrightly condemning this triumph of obscurantism.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment.

As a proud non-Zionist Jew, I am hugely impressed, and encouraged.

On not getting the joke

Last week, in Paris, along with sundry other victims, 8 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo were killed for pushing the envelope of free speech and political humour. The French authorities have been expressing their own rollicking sense of political irony by jailing dozens of people for the offense of commenting favourably on that crime against freedom of epression. (There is a spanking new law prohibiting apologie publique d’actes de terrorisme (publicly defending acts of terrorism).)
For example, a man was sentenced to 10 months in prison for saying (to officials who were arresting him for riding a tram without a ticket) “Les frères Kouachi, c’est que le début, j’aurais dû être avec eux pour tuer plus de monde.” (“The Kouachi brothers, that’s just the beginning. I should have been with them to kill even more people.”)
Sounds like the sort of thing Charlie Hebdo would attack mercilessly.

Spitting on the corpse

The great political cartoonist Joe Sacco has written a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — cartoon-essay about “the limits of satire” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I can’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I find his choice to say some of them now weirdly offensive, in exactly the way that much of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, and so undermining the point that he seems to be making.

Sacco writes, over a background of a hillside covered with crosses made of fountain pens — the cartoonist’s Calvary?

Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.

Implied is that everyone must agree that CH has been tweaking the noses of Muslims. That is, making pointless and puerile attacks that publicly shame people who are socially weak. One could claim that, but I think many people would disagree. I do, and I believe that most of the Charlie Hebdo staff would. Which suggests that this might not be the best time to criticise them, when some have just been murdered, and the rest are in shock, and unable to defend themselves.

Why do so many people, most of whom I’m sure never commented on Charlie Hebdo before, feel incapable of publicly saying, “It’s a terrible crime, and a threat to everyone’s sense of security and freedom of expression,” without needing to pair it immediately with a disclaimer “I never liked them, and I object to their approach to journalism and cartooning and politics and life in general.” Can’t it wait, at least until the survivors are back on their feet? No one goes to a funeral and feels obliged to say to the widow, “Yes, heart attacks are terrible, but he really was a shitty colleague, I found him dull, and he always smelled kind of bad.”

Sacco then proceeds to some intentionally offensive drawings of his own: One of a black man with a banana falling out of a tree, the other of a “Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.” He then asks, “And if you can take the ‘joke’ now, would it have been as funny in 1933?” Imagine that at Sacco’s death (after, one hopes, a long and happy life) people pull out these images and reprint them with comments like “Talented cartoonist. Shame he was such a racist and antisemite.” This would be terribly unfair, because it ignores the context in which it was written. But Sacco seems to be arguing that the only context that matters is the political context, in which Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe, and relatively powerless in world affairs. It’s a complex problem, and I can’t fault Sacco for having his say on it, but it arouses in me a sense of unfairness when people

My personal reaction? The sort of comedy that CH engages in, like the underground comics tradition in the US that started in the 1960s — and still being pursued by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and others — has never been exactly to my taste, but I have never felt any urge to dissociate myself from it. The job of caricature is to reduce humans to their common bodily level, and show how ridiculous we all are, the highest and the lowest. It can serve the purposes of racist marginalisation, and it can serve important democratic principles. If Mohammed is caricatured, is he a representative of the oppressed Muslims in the Paris banlieu, or is he another big boss, needing to be taken down a peg? It’s a subtle argument, but I admire those willing to risk crossing the line, in order to explore where the line is, or if there should be any line at all.

An observation: Twice in the past few days Andrew Sullivan has reprinted reader comments or tweets that showed an outrageous CH cover, with a comment of the sort, “Yes, no one should have murdered them. But can’t we agree that they’re obviously a pack of racists? Just look at this outrageous example.” And each one of these posts got updated with a comment from a reader who actually knew the political context, and could point out that the cartoon was not racist in intent, but was illustrating an argument over the position of racial minorities in France. For example, a caricature of Justice minister Christiane Taubira (a black woman) as an ape was a response to racist comments by the right wing, including throwing bananas at her.

Is it a positive thing to concretise the racism of others in an unforgettable image? I think so, but it’s debatable. It’s a debate worth having, which is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their ilk.

Cornpone opinions and Charlie Hebdo

When people praise the good work of Jimmy Carter for world peace, I am reminded of his despicable attack on Salman Rushdie, in the pages of the NY Times, in 1989. At a time when Rushdie was threatened with death for writing a brilliant, funny, and moving novel that grapples with religious themes (which also includes a coruscating satire of self-serving theocrats, something which is rarely mentioned in this context, and which I think was at least as much the motivation for the Iranian fatwa as any portrayal of the Prophet and his family), Carter wrote:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.

To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.

[Just as an aside, on rereading this now I am struck by Carter’s strange choice to frame it as though it were a technical American legal issue, by citing the US constitution — obviously irrelevant to Rushdie, who, as a UK citizen residing in the UK has no such rights — rather than referring to international norms of liberty and civil rights.]

I was reminded of this in reading the response of the Financial Times’s Tony Barber to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday:

some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.

 

Jonathan Chait has grouped this with other examples of journalists and politicians respecting, if not quite condoning, murderous responses to wounded religious sensitivities, such as this response of Time’s bureau chief in Paris to the last terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo three years ago:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

Yes, indeed, how could one possibly interpret a satirical cartoon about a religious figure other than that the author is “begging” to be murdered? In this view, the editors of Charlie Hebdo got discouraged by Dorothy Parker’s poem (the one ending “Guns aren’t lawful; \\Nooses give; \\Gas smells awful; \\You might as well live.”) and thought that drawing caricatures of Mohammed would be a clever alternative. They were begging for it, as the rapist said. They might as well have drawn the cartoons on the way down after leaping from the Eiffel Tower. It surprises me that I’ve yet to hear of anyone advocating banning Dante.

People have real emotions over religious symbols, and this needs to be recognised. But emotionality can also be an effective power strategy. Saying, “I (and my coreligionists) are incapable of modulating our responses. We are an uncontrollable doomsday device.” is an effective way of compelling compromise, as long as you can convince the rest of society that you are really incapable of restraining the emotional responses of the mob. (And as long as you can avoid a violent backlash against your religious group, if they happen to be in the minority; but even a violent backlash would serve the interests of those interested to radicalise their people.) It is really an expression of contempt for these others, to suppose they are incapable of rational reflection, requiring the rest of us to pre-emptively reckon with their reflexive violence.

I often think of a lesson from the Talmud, that the rabbis ruled that to save a life a Jew is permitted to violate any religious precept except three prohibitions: idolatry, murder, and incest (including adultery); and there seems to have been considerable disagreement about idolatry. But, they went on, this only applies to freak occurrences: For instance, if a bank robber takes you hostage and forces you at gunpoint to drive his getaway car on Shabbat, you are permitted to obey; but you may not save your own life by agreeing to kill another hostage. If this is a time of general persecution, on the other hand, one may make no accommodation at all, not even to change the way one ties the sandal straps.

The point is that symbolic actions depend on context. I am all in favour of avoiding unnecessarily wounding people’s sensitivities. Under normal circumstances, I would not go out of my way to shock true believers with intellectual critiques of religion or with satire. But as soon as men with guns insist, “You may not speak of (or draw) the Prophet,” they have made him a symbol of violence, and oppression, and ideological repression. And others are entitled — indeed, are obliged — to attack that symbol. This is the same problem that plagued efforts to ban burning the US flag back in the early 1990s. The US Supreme Court ruled that this was protected free speech, and the right wing went crazy, trying to amend the US constitution and turn the next election into a referendum on burning flags. The natural response of people who cared about free speech was to burn more flags. The US flag had been transformed, temporarily, from a common symbol of American love of country and shared ideals, into a partisan political symbol of oppression of minority opinion.

Everyone needs to accept, living in a pluralistic society, that there will be discussions and publications and activities going on in various corners of our society that we don’t like, and either come to terms with their contents or learn to ignore them. No one forces me to attend a mosque or a church, and no one forces muslims to read Charlie Hebdo. I would not be astonished to learn that in some mosques negative comments are made about my own religion and its symbols.

The apparent goals of those advocating violence in the name of Islam in the west are purely fantastical: The alternative to pluralism in Europe is obviously not a society devoted to Islamic values. But that merely underscores the gap between the stated and real objectives. The real target is surely not the non-muslims, but the moderate muslims. The goal, I presume, is to convince the broader society that muslims are violent, and so cut off the access of ordinary muslims to acceptance and assimilation.

This is why the appeasers’ policies of avoiding offence is doomed to failure, even on its own terms.

People like Carter and the Time journalist Hambly think that freedom of expression is such an important thing that it really should be kept safe and secure in a quiet place, not endangered by taking it out into public. This attitude (like so much else) was well satirised by Mark Twain, in a line I have quoted before:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Cornpone opinions in academia

I was commenting recently on the attempt by University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to explain to all of us addleheaded profs that her ability (and that of US employers more generally) to fire people for expressing their opinions really has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Political scientist Corey Robin has taken up the same quote, and explained how pervasive it is, and how fundamental it is to the machinery of repression in the US. It seems like one of those dogmas that is patently absurd to the uninitiated, but for those inside the machine (and by “the machine”, I mean simply mainstream American thinking about politics) it is self-evident.

Robin has nothing on Mark Twain, who wrote more than a century ago:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He explained at greater length in his great essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, telling of a young slave whom he knew in his boyhood, who told him

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. By my mother. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.

 

Hiring formalities

One other point has occurred to me, with regard to the firing/not-quite-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, which I have commented on here and here. Defenders of the university’s decision say that he had no right to have his academic freedom respected by UI because he was not formally in their employ. The fact that he had accepted a written offer of employment nearly a year before, agreed on a starting date, signed a contract, quit his previous job, moved across the country, and been assigned courses to teach in the fall semester were simply free-time activities, which only would become a real employment in October — a month after he was supposed to start teaching — when the board that meets once a semester ratified the hiring.

Whether this is legally accurate I can’t really judge. But I’m just thinking about the effect on future hiring, particularly at UI, but elsewhere as well. Clearly no one is going to let themselves be fooled this way by UI in the future. Everyone knows that claims of “just a formality” are simply deception at that university, and will insist on ironclad promises before they begin steps to move to a position there. Other people will just spare themselves the stress by not applying for positions at UI. (Remember, this is not about low-level jobs, of which there is a great shortage in the humanities, and a huge mass of qualified people desperate to take any meagre job. This was a tenured position.) And the ripples from this decision will affect other universities as well. Even if they make the offer in good faith, why take the chance that someone will comb through your public utterances and scare the university off hiring you. Best to insist on an ironclad contract before taking any steps. And this includes withdrawing the applications from other posts. Universities are likely to find senior academics who they thought they’d hired suddenly withdrawing shortly before they were supposed to start, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by the agreement until the formalities were taken wrapped up, and in the interim they got a better offer. This is likely to gum up university hiring in the US for a long time to come. Procedures will have to change, and the traditional role of occasional board meetings to ratify hiring decisions changed or eliminated.

Respect for others’ perspectives

It sounds like a good idea, but can get you trapped in contradictions. With regard to l’affaire Salaita, which I commented on here. Much more information from Corey Robin here and here, including links for various subject-specific petitions; a general academic petition (which I have signed), committing to a vaguely defined boycott of U Illinois until Salaita is rehired, is here. The public opposition to Salaita has been led by UI English professor and former AAUP president Cary Nelson. Leaping to his defence is Stanford German Studies professor Russell Berman:

Given that Illinois has a diversity policy that includes respect for others’ perspectives and world views, and that Salaita’s tweets “indicate that he would not respect others’ opinions on the Middle East,” Berman said Nelson’s conclusion “is reasonable, and I agree with him.”

Agree or disagree, Berman added, the “ad hominem attacks” on Nelson are “reprehensible.” Similarly, he said, “it is appalling when [Salaita’s supporters] blame pro-Israel or Jewish groups,” as some commenters have. Berman said that there’s no evidence thus far, only innuendo, that outside pressure influenced the university’s decision and the “fact that pro-Israel groups are nonetheless blamed is evidence of a rampant anti-Semitism in this affair, cut from the same cloth as the recent riots in France.”

The most important thing is to respect other peoples’ opinions! Since the people who disagree with me are a howling mob of rioters, they must be silenced. Dismissal from their jobs is too good for people on that side of the argument, since they have no respect for diversity of opinion.

Fortunately, the silent majority supports Nelson, as he is quoted in the same article saying

ad hominem attacks are also a BDS strategy that serves to silence opponents. Many faculty who believe the university made the right decision about Salaita are now unwilling to say so publicly.

Perhaps Nelson could do more to contribute to that climate of respect that he craves, where no scholar is silenced by the gripping fear of public criticism or, I don’t know, losing their jobs.

As Tom Lehrer famously declared (introducing his song “National Brotherhood Week”), “I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”

The political opinions of corporations

I’ve been intrigued by the forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Corporation, on account of his donation of $1000 to the 2008 campaign to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Some fascinating issues it brings up:
1. I’d forgotten that the last great political battle over same-sex marriage was fought in California. And the conservatives won it. How fascinating to be reminded that barely five years ago it was still possible to muster a majority for banning same-sex marriage in California of all places, and in the same year that Barack Obama was elected (also promising to oppose same-sex marriage). And after that Pyrrhic victory the conservatives basically fled the field, overwhelmed by an almost inexplicable tide of social change. (more…)

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