Columbia misuses free speech policy, lacks foresight

For I must not measure the speech of a statesman to his people by the impression which it leaves in a university professor, but by the effect it exerts on the people. And this alone gives the standard for the speaker’s genius.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

Two weeks ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University under the invitation of Columbia President Lee Bollinger. As promised, Bollinger opened the talk by posing to Ahmadinejad a list of “tough questions,” focusing on issues such as the Iranian president’s Holocaust denial, his funding of terrorism, and his repeated calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” While many viewed the invitation as a complete disgrace, a sizable group defends Bollinger’s decision, claiming that esteemed universities such as Columbia should be intellectual forums to discuss and debate divergent viewpoints, no matter what those viewpoints are.

Among this group of advocates, “free speech” seems to be the center of the most common line of reasoning. Bollinger, in response to criticism, maintained that his invitation honored the “free-speech tradition” of the university. Any question that impugns or criticizes his decision yields an answer that almost invariably alludes to the term. The president of Iran had every right to speak at Columbia.

Yes, absolutely, we do have free speech; yes, everyone is allowed to say what he wants. Yet there is a major difference between what is allowed and the actions we should take.

In order to discuss the Ahmandinejad situation, we must address two other essential components: motivation of the speaker, and impact of the speech. By asserting the “free speech” mantra without addressing these factors, we cannot even begin to analyze the appropriateness of the situation. Ahmandinejad’s motivation is not difficult to understand. The Iranian president did not come to Columbia to engage in an intellectual debate; he has no interest contesting varying ideologies with bright young minds. He may have been talking to Columbia students, but his real audience was the countrymen who ascribe to his ideology. Ahmandinejad does not debate; he spreads propaganda. And when it comes to propaganda, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

“The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen, but to convince… the masses. But the masses are slow moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them.” (Mein Kampf)

This is what Bollinger failed to understand. The fact that he tried to mitigate his reprehensible decision by greeting Ahmandinejad with insults just confirms even more that Bollinger has no grasp of propaganda. Insulting the Iranian president may have been self-gratifying, but he only aided Ahmanidinejad’s cause by making him the victim to be supported and America the bully to be despised.

There is a huge distinction between what is allowed and what should be done. The problem of the “free speech” argument is that it does not consider any consequences. It approaches the issue in a university mindset, where we give theoretical arguments and reasoning and disregard the actual implications. Hitler was technically allowed to say that all Jews should be tortured and gassed, but that doesn’t mean we would hand him a microphone and give him a chance to spread his anti-Semitic ideology to masses of people who are more impressionable than university students.

College students may value differing opinions and debate, but it’s naïve to pretend that dictators have the same motivations. This isn’t an Independent Party debate where people shout at one another and then all go to dinner afterwards. Legitimizing the viewpoints of a dictator by pretending that his hate-filled rhetoric is instead a meaningful alternate viewpoint that we should treat seriously and can learn from is a triumph for his cause.

“Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech.” (Mein Kampf)

There is a difference between free speech and spreading propaganda. There is a difference between what is theoretically allowed and what should be done when the real implications are considered. There is a difference between an ideological debate between two rational parties and pandering to an audience who is susceptible to brainwash.

The only reason Israel still exists right now is because Ahmandinejad has not yet put the finishing touches on his nuclear arsenal. Ahmandinejad isn’t interested in answering tough questions for the sake of intellectual discourse; he wants to brainwash as many people as possible, so that when he does finish his bombs, he has more people on his side to help him use them to kill.

This is not a debate; this is a war. And until we understand that, I’m afraid it’s a war in which we’re just making it easier for the enemy to win through our own naïveté.

Ilana Yurkiewicz is a sophomore in Calhoun College.