University should be forum for open exchange, dialogue

Rahmatullah Hashemi’s presence has exposed the democratic frailty of even our strongest institutions. However this issue is resolved, it should be made clear that Yale’s decision to “harbor” such a person has itself produced an opportunity for debate and dialogue that would not otherwise have existed. Unfortunately, this opportunity has largely been missed, and Hashemi’s presence has instead been taken as a blank slate on which to project the petty caricatures that were cultivated in preparation for war. Not only have stereotypes of Hashemi or the Taliban fallen under attack, but also the University itself: the one lingering autonomous space where dialogue and thought — unfettered by the knee-jerk reactionism of low politics — can still breathe.

This assault uses the very tools of democratic expression to subvert expression itself. John Fund, on the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com, for instance, alleges that Yale administrators “abdicated their moral responsibility and admitted Mr. Hashemi.” Fund does his best to promote this view by stubbornly refusing even to consider the value of reflection beyond immediate moral sentiments. The possibility that these sentiments come about as a function of how Hashemi and the Taliban have been represented is entirely dismissed. Instead, Fund proceeds to build parallels between Hashemi and the Nazis.

Perhaps Fund’s faith in his clear understanding of people and cultures halfway around the world is as steadfast as his attack on Yale’s space of dialogue and reflection. Institutions of higher education, however, would not be necessary if Fox News and CNN were all it took to understand the world we live in. Yet one can almost see Fund argue that one must think with the gut, as the current president does. The moment outside influences seek to colonize even universities with the theology of gut-thinking should be a wake-up call to us all: students, teachers, administrators and the general public. And if we do not strive to ensure that our universities remain spaces where a better truth can still be sought — even though such truth might rest uneasily with those whose minds have long ago ossified into a distorted grimace — we risk the possibility that our children might one day go to school in a place where “Light and Truthiness” is etched on campus walls. It is enough of a tragedy that so much wisdom and learning surrounding us remain shut out of policy and the public awareness, where “truthiness” calls the shots — and the bombs.

The threat to Yale and the United States comes not from the alleged horror of harboring a young man from Afghanistan, a man who has complied with all security measures, but from those who would colonize and monopolize the University so that it might become a blind breeding ground for their own prejudices. And this threat is anything but abstract, as the current debate regarding Hashemi has shown; rather, it has real and tangible consequences. Such a threat can only be countered by an honest and sound search for answers accompanied by an unwavering commitment to the respect necessary to protect the space through which such search is possible. So whatever we think of Hashemi, we must understand that trying to strong-arm the University into excluding him damages Yale, the country and the world and takes us one step closer into the Taliban-like suppression of views that challenge the party line. This is the last irony — that people like Fund who rage for this result with words, as much as some alumni rage with threats to withhold contributions, will only end up reproducing the asphyxia of dialogue over which the Taliban reigned.

If we persist in creating conditions that further remove the possibility of learning through dialogue, we let our sentiments become a passive instrument for the control exerted by those who have free rein to manipulate the representation of a world abroad. It is precisely the role of any university to introduce new insights, like rays of light, into murky situations or into those that have been excessively simplified to facilitate the wrong action. If some are so sure that Hashemi is self-evidently evil, why silence his voice or banish his presence? These attempts signal the effort that sustaining such convictions requires — an effort driven by a whisper of banished insight that perhaps this man is just a man and not some devil. Whatever demons we must imagine to keep the chafing of our conscience to a minimum, it is clear that Yale should not be subdued to such purposes. Rather, we should be unafraid to look even the devil in the eye, for we may be surprised to learn that we feared nothing but our self-made torment plastered on another’s face.



Jordan Trevino is a junior in Trumbull College.

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