Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Freedom of Speech

Something I meant to put into yesterday's post but didn't get around to: I believe that in principle, any issue at all can and should be debated.  Even crank theories, conspiracy theories, hateful bigoted positions on any issue.  I don't make an exception for issues that affect me directly and personally, like homosexuality.  I've spent decades debating them with people.  Which is why I was PO'd when I read that a student staffing a table on affirmative action, confronted by some opponents of the policy, asked angrily, "How long do I have to go on debating this?"  As long as it takes, obviously.  Sure, one gets tired, so others need to step up and take over the work for a while.  But I've been confronting racists, antigay bigots, religious nuts, war lovers, right-wing loons and liberal apologists for all the above, for longer than that kid has been alive.  And that reminds me of the Kliban cartoon in which a Zen master tells his assembled students, "The road to Enlightenment is long and difficult, which is why I asked you to bring sandwiches and a change of clothing."

Remember, I said in principle.  In practice, as I wrote yesterday, I know and accept that there isn't time for full-on debate of every disagreement every time it arises.  Schools can't cover every subject partisans want them to teach, and choices have to be made.  I just started reading former Representative Tom Allen's new book Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress (Oxford, 2013), which looks like it will give me some insight into how Congress handles the vast amount of information it processes to make legislation.  Choices must be made there too, even if the choices made aren't good ones often enough.  Sure, I'm critical of our political system and its players, but I have the impression that many critics of Congress are like the people who think members of Congress and the President are wildly overpaid.  Not compared to our captains of industry, they're not.

But there are other considerations.  There's a controversy raging at the New York City LGBT Center now because the Center refused to permit Sarah Schulman to do a presentation on her new book Israel/Palestine and the Queer International there.  The Center has apparently been evasive as to why, referring to their published room rental policy.  After a similar 2010 controversy, the Center "announced an 'indefinite moratorium' on renting to groups that 'organize around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict' ... because it was 'forced to divert significant resources from its primary purpose of providing programming and services to instead navigating between opposing positions involving the Middle East conflict.'"  The article compares this controversy to the similar one at Brooklyn College, where the college stood up to complaints and pressure, and allowed an event on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement involving Israel/Palestine.

The article doesn't say anything about the LBGT Center's status.  Unlike Brooklyn College, which has policies of academic freedom, it may not have a mission statement privileging free speech and intellectual freedom.  Some of those who advocated preventing the BDS event argued that no institution is required to give a platform to any old person who wants one.  That's true, but it's not what the Brooklyn College flap involved.  It wasn't as if Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti asked to speak there and were turned down; rather, students in the Political Science Department organized the event with the permission (not endorsement) of the department chairman.  Only after the event was scheduled was there pressure to block it, mostly by outsiders.  It's also outsiders who pressured the LGBT Center not to permit events related to Israel/Palestine, notably gay porn mogul Michael Lucas, who not so long ago was whining that he was being persecuted by "supergays" and "superlesbians" because some pictures of him were removed from a news site.  Thanks to his own "supergay" allies, Lucas's pictures were restored.

Glenn Greenwald had some fun pointing out the inconsistencies (not to mention lies) in Alan Dershowitz' complaints about the event.  It wasn't fair, Dershowitz said, to have an event like this without both sides being allowed to make their case.
Despite how controversial he is, Dershowitz routinely appears on college campuses to speak without opposition. Indeed, as the Gawker writer who writes under the pen name Mobutu Sese Seko first documented, Dershowitz himself has spoken at Brooklyn College on several occasions without opposition. That includes - as the college's Political Science Professor Corey Robin noted - when he was chosen by the school's Political Science department to deliver the Konefsky lecture in which he spoke at length - and without opposition. He also delivered a 2008 speech at Brooklyn College, alone, in which he discussed a wide variety of controversial views, including torture. As Professor Robin noted, when Dershowitz agreed to speak at the school, "he didn't insist that we invite someone to rebut him or to represent the opposing view."

Nor did any of the New York City politicians objecting to this BDS event as "one-sided" object to Dershowitz's speech given without opposition. Why is that?
Dershowitz claimed that Brooklyn College had refused to sponsor or "endorse anti-BDS events or even pro-Israel speakers who advocate the two state solution and an end to the settlements." Greenwald quoted a Brooklyn College prof who declared that "the chair went through all of his emails today and has not found a single request from a student or student group for us to host an anti-BDS event."  Numerous commenters on this post repeated or reinvented these bogus arguments, either unaware or not caring that they'd already been answered.

Also today this message was posted on a Facebook page in support of the Sullivan (Indiana) High School Prom, which will admit GLBT as well as non-gay students.  This event drew wide attention because some students and a teacher have protested this inclusiveness, and want to organize an "alternative," heterosexual-only prom.  Fine with me: let the bigots identify themselves publicly.  As long as they pay for it themselves -- it shouldn't get any school support.

The organizer of the support page announced today that no further debate of the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality would be allowed there.  That seems fair to me, and I'd support the organizer of a pro-Catholic page who refused to permit debate, let alone trolling or abuse there.  After all, whether on Facebook or elsewhere on the Internet, it's easy to make your own page supporting or rejecting any position.  And indeed, the antigay bigots of Sullivan, Indiana have at least one Facebook page touting their prom.  They proudly declare:
Yes, there is going to be a prom for the straight. Yes we shall have it cuz we can. We shall have it cuz we dont want homosexuals in our midst. We have the right to hold a straight prom just as they claim they can be homosexuals
The page has already drawn some pro-gay trolls, showing their greater intelligence and compassion.  I'm being sarcastic there, of course.  Yet it shouldn't take much intelligence to answer that little manifesto: The official Sullivan High prom isn't a prom for homosexuals, it's for "the straight" along with gay, lesbians, and bisexuals.  Only the "alternative" prom is for one group alone, namely bigots.  And of course, the bigots will still have "homosexuals in their midst" when they go to school, when they're at the mall -- even when they go to church.  And can there really be that many out gay, lesbian, or bisexual students in Sullivan High?

So: every controversy doesn't need to be debated all the time.  But to repeat, in principle every controversy is debatable.  And one thing that becomes obvious when watching the liberal side in online debates is that on the whole they're no better informed, no more rational, than their opposite numbers.  They too are just repeating what they've heard someone else say, maybe in a recent episode of Glee, and they're lucky that they're unlikely to run into an opponent who knows more than they do.  Actual debate might even help them: chastened by an effective rebuttal, they might do their homework and inform themselves.

A school, while it can't explore every controversy, does have the obligation to produce informed and rational students, particularly where live issues are involved.  And whether I like it or not, Creationism vs. Evolution, homosexuality, feminism, racism, religion, and many other issues are alive in our society.  I should think anyone can see that simply calling Creationists ignorant morons hasn't worked very well.  Forty-six percent of Americans with college degrees believe that human beings were created, not evolved -- the same proportion, Katha Pollitt wailed, as the general population.  How's that smug denunciation of Bible-thumpers working for you, Katha?  Maybe it would be worthwhile to try critical thinking and teaching the conflicts instead.

On the other hand, nobody can see evolution taking place, but people can get to know gay people.  No one knows for sure, but it's a reasonable guess that the status of gay people in America has improved over the past few decades because we made ourselves visible, especially to people we knew: our families, our friends, our co-workers.  But there have also been debates about us, even if they haven't always been of the highest standard.  I've learned a lot from them.  Others have too, and more should.  But I admit, it's largely an article of faith for me that more information is better information, and rationality (despite its limits) is better than irrationality.  Hurling insults at the Rethuglitards, while soul-satisfying, is not rationality in action.  Maybe we don't need debate, but those who claim they favor critical thinking need to do more of it themselves.

It's like what I say when someone accuses me of being prejudiced against prejudice: Okay, make an argument for prejudice.  I'm not sure anyone has ever tried to do so when challenged.  Maybe the self-styled advocates of critical thinking should drop the pretense and make their argument for irrationality and authoritarianism.  I'd be fascinated to hear it.