May 23, 2002
That Harvard graduation jihad controversy

Matt Yglesias has been discussing a brouhaha at Harvard concerning a student who will be speaking at the commencement ceremony on "American Jihad" which "will challenge seniors to apply the concept of the jihad to their lives after graduation". (See here, here, and here for details.)

The first post generated a number of comments with suggestions of how right-thinking students might express their disapproval of this speaker and his ideas. I certainly agree with expressing disapproval, but I strongly disagree with any tactic that attempts to silence or shout down this speaker. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, silencing a speaker based on content is an extremely dangerous precedent to set. Sooner or later, someone is going to use that precedent to harass or repel a speaker whose views you don't dislike, and if you supported the original effort, you have no grounds for complaint. Either you're for freedom of expression or you're not, and once you join the wrong team there's no turning back.

Second, any concerted effort to stop or heckle this speaker will just make a free-speech martyr out of him. (I wish there were another word I could use here, but there isn't.) Once that happens, even if you succeed in suppressing him, he will gain credibility and will be able to crow about The Truth That Harvard Didn't Want You To Hear! There's nothing more tiresome or persistent than someone who can play the victim card.

Really, the right thing to do is to let him speak. Surely by now we all know that you cannot truly suppress a bad idea. Let him show himself for what he is so people can make up their own minds.

This doesn't mean you can't express your contempt. You are required to do so, but you must do so in a way that doesn't concede any moral high ground. The first and foremost thing is to remember the words of Penn Jillette: "The cure for bad speech isn't no speech, it's more speech." Matt has been doing that by contesting and exposing the egregious things the speaker has said in the past, and others should follow his lead. Do your best to make sure that everyone goes into this ceremony knowing who this person is and why you should doubt his goodwill. He can still play the victim card by claiming he's being mercilessly beaten up by radical Zionists or whatever, but he'll have as much credibility as David Horowitz did on his I've-been-censored Worldwide Media Tour.

And you can express your contempt at the ceremony itself by pointedly not listening. The suggestion I gave in Matt's comments is to encourage people to bring a paperback book with them, which they can haul out and start reading when he speaks. The right to express oneself does not include the right to an audience, podium, and microphone. Every one of us has the right to not pay attention, and making a display of that right gets your point across without leaving you open to the charge of harassment.

(Steven den Beste makes the same basic point in a slightly different context here. As with everything he writes, it's well worth your time to read.)

Lastly, though this may sound obvious, do not react when he's done speaking. Don't boo, and don't applaud out of some sense of politeness. Your own silence is an effective weapon. Use it.

My congratulations to Glenn Kinen, Alex Rubalcava and all other bloggers and non-bloggers who are graduating this spring. May you survive your commencement no matter who the speakers are.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 23, 2002 to National news

While I certainly agree with you that "Either you're for freedom of expression or you're not, and once you join the wrong team there's no turning back", the point is that there really is no freedom of expression allowed by the administrations of today's colleges. For the most part, our students are fed nothing but left-wing doctrines, especially at commencements. Therefore, our only option is to complain vociferously, lest the world continue to think this is correct path to follow. Congratulations for being bright enough to see through the "Hate America First" crowd. You are doing much better than the generation before you (me) did. Perhaps there is hope for this nation after all.
Julie Freeman
Beverly Hills, CA

Posted by: Julie Freeman on June 2, 2004 10:38 AM