A free speech crisis on campus

REX MURPHY

Universities are supposed to be bold, confident, courageous institutions, whose biggest duty to their students is to expand the range and depth of their ideas, not confirm their prejudices.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Brandeis University in Massachusetts showed itself to be gutless and pharisaical this week by revoking an invitation to award the international advocate for women's rights under Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an honorary degree.

Hirsi Ali is the remarkable woman whose life story she has told in three books (Infidel, The Caged Virgin and Nomad).  Born among the poorest of the poor in Somalia, genitally mutilated at the age of five, a refugee as a young woman fleeing an arranged marriage, she immigrated to the Netherlands and in but a few years, having learned the language, became a distinguished member of parliament.

Those who talk of "role models" for young women can search the globe, and will not find a more dignified, accomplished and courageous exemplar.  In the Netherlands she was constantly under siege from radical Islamists and others, but courageously continued her public life speaking for the rights and dignity of women — especially, as she saw it, for the rights of women trapped in Islam.

Her friend Theo van Gogh, a locally famous filmmaker, made a short film (Submission) on Islam and women.  Shortly after he was stabbed to death, murdered in a public street, and a note threatening Hirsi Ali was pinned — with a knife — to the dying man's chest.  It read in part:  "Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you will break yourself to pieces on Islam."  Not even that horror stopped her.

From that time on, her life has been under constant threat and she has necessarily been accompanied by bodyguards everywhere she goes.  I interviewed her for The National in Toronto some years back.  Two huge (and friendly) bodyguards followed her every step from the side doors on John Street to the studio.  On the way out they went ahead to check the street before she exited.  They were not there for ornament.

So, here is a woman of some earned fame and widely noted achievements.  She has been variously lauded by some of the strongest advocates on the planet — I'll just instance the late Christopher Hitchens as an example.  But after extending its invitation, Brandeis received protest from the Council on AmericanIslamic Relations (CAIR) branding her (in their delightful cant phrase) "a notorious Islamaphobe."  And students at the university, deploying the other cant formulation for unacceptable ideas — "hate speech" — collected 85 names from a 350-person faculty petitioning the offer be rescinded.  Their petition carried the now-familiar prissy, hollow whines that some students would be "uncomfortable," would "not feel welcome," if Ali, with her learned views on Islam and women — derived mainly from her personal life experience, mind you — were to be honoured.


Is this what Western thought and philosophy at the university has come to — setting up intellectual quarantines lest the immature and frightened be made uncomfortable or to feel unwelcome?  Is this university or daycare?  Giving into such adolescent whimpering is despicable;  giving in on a university campus is unforgivable.

Is this what Western thought and philosophy at the university has come to — setting up intellectual quarantines lest the immature and frightened be made uncomfortable or to feel unwelcome?  Is this university or daycare?

Why in Aristotle's name do institutions dedicated to higher learning tolerate these rags of verbal flannel — uncomfortable, unwelcome — from putative adults?  Damn it, a university exists to unsettle, to throw down established attitudes, to shine the searchlight of reason on all ideas.  Universities are supposed to be bold, confident, courageous institutions, whose biggest duty to their students is to expand the range and depth of their ideas, not confirm their prejudices.

Brandeis, on this account, is a failure.  It cringed at the first criticism.  It suggested Ali somehow offended its "core values" — and what would those be?  Surrender at first fire, perhaps, and gaudy specious rationalizations afterwards? — and had the gall to talk of respecting debate.  I agree absolutely with the American writer and editor of Commentary, John Podhoretz, who called the decision the act of a "gutless, spineless, simpering coward."

Universities are losing their halo.  They are now factories for reinforcing received opinions, what the market holds as right and true — so-called "progressive" ideas.  They have a deep hostility to ideas and opinions that wander outside their small circle of acceptability.  They choose which protests they endorse and which they deplore.  Oprah can get 10 honourary degrees and a winsome reception for her third-rate psuedo-therapies.  But a real warrior in the cause for woman's rights — a woman who truly rose by virtue of her courage, intelligence and industry — must walk, shamed, away from the platform she was invited to.

Every other university on the continent should have something to say about Ali's treatment, but very few will.  Because they are all of the same timid herd: great trumpeters of intellectual freedom and courage, which when faced any real test of independent thought or challenge to comfortable assumptions are sheepish, intimidated, closed shops.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "A free speech crisis on campus." National Post (March 12, 2014).

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."

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