Schottenfeld and Rostain: Taking a tea to task

The visit of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard last week raises important and difficult questions about how best to maintain a community that is welcoming and respectful of individuals from diverse groups but at the same time allows a free exchange of ideas and vigorous exploration of differences of opinion. We greatly respect our colleague, Branford College Master Steven Smith, and agree with him on many issues, but we disagree with his decision to host the visit of Westergaard.

Fundamentally, we do not believe that the central issue is one of free speech. No one prevented Westergaard from speaking, and no one was prohibited from inviting him. (Nor do we think that anyone should have been prohibited from inviting him.) Instead, we think the issue is what value — if any — there is in inviting someone to speak whose work, intentionally or not, incites intolerance. As masters, we have very broad discretion as to our speaker choices. That does not mean, however, that we should invite someone whose main claim to fame is cartoons that provoked hatred. Westergaard’s cartoon depicts the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban; to many, this image implies that terrorism is a central tenet in Islam. In our view, there is no meaningful difference between his cartoon and one caricaturing Jews, African-Americans or women.

The purpose of Masters’ Teas and other public talks at Yale is to enhance a broad conception of the University’s cultural and educational mission.

Westergaard makes an important case for his freedom to speak and his newspaper’s right to print his cartoons. We agree; these are foundational democratic principles that Yale should promote both within and outside its walls. Westergaard has also emphasized that his cartoon is directed at the fundamentalist strand of Islam that connects terrorism to Muhammad’s teachings, rather than at the religion as a whole. Nevertheless, we think the educational value of having Westergaard speak on campus was significantly outweighed by the risk of harm to our community. In our view, the fact that his political cartoons appear to target an especially vulnerable group among us, and one that has only recently and tentatively begun to feel that it has equal standing within our community, is a decisive reason against inviting him.

Freedom of speech does not mandate that a highly regarded educational institution provide a platform for a visitor whose work incites intolerance.

Richard Schottenfeld is the master of Davenport College. Tanina Rostain is associate master of Davenport College.

Comments

  • Robert Schneider

    Somebody wake me up. Did a College Master and an associate Master really say these things?

  • Handsome Dan

    Wow, how close-minded. Hard to believe these folks are prominent at Yale.

  • Yale

    Yale has lost its moral compass. Mr. Westergaard did not incite violence, those who disagreed with him did – nearly a year after they were published. What is the point of satire but to illustrate some truth or observation? The fault is not with Mr. Westergaard, it is with those who defend the actions of the true provocateurs – those who did incite violence. Where is their accountability? Lux et Veritas no more.

  • pathetic

    really pathetic…this column is fundamentally dishonest

    …”cartoons that provoke hatred”…”implies that terrorisn is a central tenet in Islam”…

    Really, master Schottenfeld? Do you even actually believe this? And Yale pays you? Really?

    I think it’s funny to see Schottenfeld schooled by a student in his own college, see “Cartoonist tactless, not hateful.”

  • Nothing to Say

    @ #3,

    It would be quite condescending to everyone involved to ascribe the violence that occured (a year) following the publications of these cartoons to anyone except those who perpetrated it. Violent protests are acts of political will — no one else “caused” them.

    However, what really has been said far to little over this whole couple of weeks is that there was never really a point to bring Mr. Westergaard to campus. He’s just a cartoonist with a pretty straightforward caricature to his name, who happened to end up getting lots of publicity. What did he have to say to enlighten discourse at Yale?

    Perhaps if he had invited along with the cartoonist who drew the classroom with the TA and the words (in Arabic) on the chalkboard: “[This paper’s] journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.”

    Maybe then there could have actually been an exhange of ideas. In fact, that might really have been enlightening. Instead, there was just one side, with superficial things to add to a complex topic.

  • DQDLM

    “Freedom of speech does not mandate that a highly regarded educational institution provide a platform for a visitor whose work incites intolerance.”

    Perhaps Yale should fire the authors for inciting intolerance against a cartoonist.

  • YaleGradStudent

    I am really shocked by this letter. I am fascinated by the ability of some people to present intellectual cowardice as a virtue.

    “In our view, there is no meaningful difference between his cartoon and one caricaturing Jews, African-Americans or women.”

    Oh, really? And how many people have been facing incessant death threats for caricaturing Jews, African-Americans or women? It was this year that The New York Post published a caricature representing policemen killing a monkey “they’ll have to find somebody else to write the next stimulus bill”, clearly implying the link between the monkey and the country’s first African-American president. The question: Can the author of this cartoon walk the streets safely?

    “Nevertheless, we think the educational value of having Westergaard speak on campus was significantly outweighed by the risk of harm to our community.” In other words, because Muslims can get REALLY angry (unlike the Jews or women) we should be utter intellectual cowards and refrain from any meaningful criticism of Islam.

    The fact of the matter is simple: Westergaard is the victim here, and those who oppose his visit effectively take the side of extremists who threaten his safety, and they even have the nerve to say they are doing it for the sake of tolerance!

    I have a suggestion: how about that for the sake of tolerance, peace, understanding, etc, etc, Muslims stop threatening the lives of everyone who is critical of their religion?

  • Hieronymus

    “Nevertheless, we think the educational value of having Westergaard speak on campus was significantly outweighed by the risk of harm to our community.”

    No Voltaires at Yale, I see…

    [Ed. note: pedants will surely point out that the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is often attributed–incorrectly, as a direct quote anyway–to Voltaire; however, its author, Evelyn Hall, reported it as “rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” Of course, some would like to deny–and ultimately, fundamentally, irrevocably so–the privilege of thinking for oneself.]

  • Glenda

    The word “harm” was ill-chosen, but the following sentence shows that the authors did not mean the speaker should not be invited out of fear of violence, but rather, that he should not be invited because of the emotional harm it will do to the Yale community. The point is not, as the grad student above writes, that we should not invite the speaker because Muslims can get really angry, but that we should not invite the speaker because his work is offensive to Muslims (that is, all Muslims, not just terrorists). It is not about cowardice, but about sensitivity. You can disagree about whether we should try to be sensitive to people’s religions, but I think it’s ridiculous to suggest we should invite such speakers simply to show we are not cowed.

  • BW

    Inviting Westergaard to Yale is in the best of Yale traditions. First, it is instructive and fair to learn what the man’s views are rather than to assume them. And second, upon learning of those views, to encourage and foster an exchange of ideas. To treat Westergaard as a disease with a decided bias toward the sensitivities of fundamentalists at the expense of freedom of speech is unfortunate. And I would add intolerant.

    A few questions:
    – When does the notion of intolerance supersede freedom of speech?
    – If freedom of speech incites intolerance, then what is freedom of speech? Is it freedom of speech only if no one is offended?
    – Why is violence by an offended but not endangered group the author’s burden?
    – The violence incited was a year after the cartoons were published. Were the cartoons used as political tool of convenience?
    – Is freedom of speech “…outweighed by the risk of harm”? Conversely, is the practice of freedom of speech worth the risk of personal harm?
    – If freedom of speech is not worth risking harm, what is the future of that that right or freedom?
    – The added security protecting the Yale community was from what group? Would that be cartoonists or Muslim fundamentalists? Which of those two are considered tolerant and intolerant?
    – Among the offended and vocal Muslims at Yale, what are your views on fundamentalism? Add to that fundamentalists with a view of violence on civilian populations. Is there something wrong with the populace of western socities being afraid of Muslim fundamentalists? How should that fear and anger be expressed? Can it be expressed without offending anyone? Compare and contrast western societies expression of religious and political fear and anger with that of Muslim societies.
    – Among the Westergaard offended and vocal Muslims at Yale, what are your views of intolerance and how that intersects with free speech?
    – Resolve, the role of tolerance in a freedom of speech society discussion, is it possible for all cultural views to co-exist?
    – Are there cultural views that are not tolerable in modern Western society (female mutilation, honor killings, slavery, limb amputation for criminal offenses)? How should these be dealt with?

  • Robert Schneider

    “The visit of the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard last week raises important and difficult questions about how best to maintain a community that is welcoming and respectful of individuals from diverse groups but at the same time allows a free exchange of ideas and vigorous exploration of differences of opinion.” Somebody will always get their toes stepped on once you sign on for “free exchange of ideas.” When I was at Yale, Oriana Fallaci was invited to at least two Master’s Teas. There was a woman with ideas who never hesitated to let the world know her mind. Would she be welcome now?

  • Nothing to Say (#3)

    @ YaleGradStudent:

    Wait …

    No one said anything about “refrain[ing] from any meaningful criticism” of terrorism or the use of religion to incite violence.

    The only thing we’re talking about here is whether to invite a washed-up cartoonist to campus, a cartoonist whose attempt at commentary strikes the majority as crude caricature, mostly offensive, and not at all insightful (which is what good cartoonists try to do.)

    In fact, no one’s really talking about the cartoons at all — just the invitation. And based on your analogy, are you really suggesting that lots and lots of people wouldn’t have been outraged if the cartoonist responsible for the “policeman shooting the monkey” cartoon had been invited to campus? Seriously? There would have been (and rightly so) full-scale indignation and sit-ins that would have been a lot less polite than the respectful and mild protests that accompanied Westergaard’s visit.

    In other words, because Muslims can get REALLY angry (unlike the Jews or women) we should be utter intellectual cowards and refrain from any meaningful criticism of Islam.

  • DC ’09

    I am ashamed for my college today.

  • DC Student

    I am saddened to say I’m in Davenport. A disappointing show both rhetorically and intellectually. Maybe this is why Branford has much better teas…

  • PC ’03

    Feeble and dishonest.

    In particular, I concur with the prior comments that the phrases “incites intolerance” and “provoked hatred” are rather awkward and quite frankly embarrassing, coming as they do from purported intellectuals. Have we become so meek that we are incapable of assigning agency to anyone? I assume the authors intend to convey that the cartoons in question somehow “provoke hatred” in anti-Muslim bigots, but it is not entirely clear. As it happens, the only case of demonstrable hatred provoked by the cartoons belongs squarely to the thousands of Muslims who took to rioting and murder in the wake of their initial publication. If the authors in fact meant to convey that the cartoons provoked hatred among the Muslim community, (1) they should say so plainly rather than obfuscate like freshman hacks, and (2) they should recognize the sheer absurdity of their larger point in light of this inconvenient truth.

    Note as well the somewhat ironic fact that throughout the letter, Muslims assume the role of a reflexive group with little or no agency or responsibility. I believe Yale hero Edward Said refers to this as Orientalism.

    And finally, the heart of the matter: “this image implies that terrorism is a central tenet in Islam.” Well, again we are confronted with a somewhat inconvenient but readily demonstrable empirical fact – modern and pre-modern Islam have been largely comfortable with horrific acts of terrorism. Period, full stop. Moreover, there are literally hundreds of prominent clerics (as well as leaders of Muslim states) who ascribe to a social and religious philosophy that embraces terrorism and, more generally, the expansion of Islam by force. There are substantial portions of the Koran amenable to such interpretation. Certainly, we can argue about proper interpretation, relative numbers of adherents to different philosophies, the “true” meaning of Islam and the like, but I can not accept that a free-thinking and informed human being can, at this point in history, contend that the premise is so far removed from plausibility that it is unworthy of discussion. Yet here are two professors who would foreclose discussion rather than make certain people feel uncomfortable.

    Accordingly, a suggestion: move to Riyadh. You will hear no such offending talk. And take the former member of the Taliban that Yale brought to campus for the sake of “full and frank conversion” with you. I am through with this institution.

  • One of those..

    Am I, as a non-believer, allowed to be offended every time Yale hosts a religious speaker? What about “sensitivity” to those of us who find any religion offensive? Come on, people, get over it. Some of us, long ago, had to learn to just tolerate fools.

  • Lastly

    It’s disturbing that in all the indignation about free speech, no one is willing to make the obvious distinction between caricaturing the majority, and caricaturing a poorly represented (on the political stage) minority.

    Denmark, more so than even the US, is an unwelcoming place for those who are not part of the homogeneous white culture that has been there for hundreds of years. Mocking Christianity, for example, is qualitatively different than caricaturing Islam because the community is not already marginalized. Of course, you have the right to publish such cartoons: Congress shall make no law. I know. But nowhere does it say “Newspapers must publish everything within their legal powers …”

  • Hieronymus

    A few answers:
    – When does the notion of intolerance supersede freedom of speech?

    At Yale? Around 1984…

    – If freedom of speech incites intolerance, then what is freedom of speech? Is it freedom of speech only if no one is offended?

    No, only if those belonging to a protected class are unoffeneded…

    – Why is violence by an offended but not endangered group the author’s burden?

    Guilt, self-hatred, nihilism.

    – If freedom of speech is not worth risking harm, what is the future of that that right or freedom?

    Obama and the UN are dismantling that now (Google it — or view today’s editorial regarding balancing individual and collective rights. :gack:

    – The added security protecting the Yale community was from what group?

    HAAAATE SPEECH!

    – Among the offended and vocal Muslims at Yale, what are your views on fundamentalism?

    RAAAAACIST!

    – Among the Westergaard offended and vocal Muslims at Yale, what are your views of intolerance and how that intersects with free speech?

    See the UN resolution (and sorry for the double-post), where Obama joined with his Egyptian counterpart on the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Hisham Badr, to squelch free speech.

    Said Badr: “[F]reedom of expression… has been sometimes misused,” insisting on limits consistent with the “true nature of this right…”

    The new resolution, championed by the Obama administration, has a number of disturbing elements. It emphasizes that “the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities…” which include taking action against anything meeting the description of “negative racial and religious stereotyping.”

    – Resolve, the role of tolerance in a freedom of speech society discussion, is it possible for all cultural views to co-exist?

    No. And yours (Western Civ, one assumes) is losing.

    – Are there cultural views that are not tolerable in modern Western society (female mutilation, honor killings, slavery, limb amputation for criminal offenses)?

    RAAAAACIST!

  • Tab

    Hieronymous, if you don’t think the left is critical of those offenses in your final list, then you need to engage with actual leftists, not just your own strawmen.
    Good point about how viewpoints from Western Civ. are losing though. I can’t remember the last time I heard a voice representing Western Civilization.

  • TC

    Schottenfeld embarrasses Yale with this dishonest, deeply disappointing letter. How thoroughly contrary to the values of this university!

  • Hieronymus

    @Tab

    Ah, you got me: the final comment relates back more to current UN legislation regarding free speech (or the now forbidden criticizing of certain practices). I should have shouted “INTOLERANCE” (or something to make it clear that it would be proponents of those activities that would be speaking, not necessarily their Leftist fellow-travelers).

    I take no offense at your “straw men” comment; however, I wish they were indeed men of straw rather than the actual examples we read daily on these boards. As a random example, I refer you to comment #8 on this thread:
    http://www.yaledailynews.com/opinion/letters/2009/10/07/letter-cartoon-not-just-political-symbol-hate/comments/

    Where the knee-jerk commenter decries “racists” on the boards w/o, apparently, understanding the meaning of the word, or at least ascribing the far simpler “someone with whom I disagree” standard…

    [As an aside:
    Canada condones FGM where it can be “proved to be of benefit to the physical health of the person, or where it will restore the person’s reproductive functions or sexual appearance (Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1992) BUT may only be carried out on a person at least eighteen years of age and there must be no resulting bodily harm.

    Interestingly, the implication of this law is that interventions of this nature must only take place for therapeutic purposes. If we were to apply this law to male circumcision (which, in the present wording, it clearly does not), then male circumcision might also be outlawed for being non-therapeutic in nature.

    Just sayin’.]

  • TD ’10

    “As masters, we have very broad discretion as to our speaker choices. That does not mean, however, that we should invite someone whose main claim to fame is cartoons that provoked hatred”.

    Professors Rostain and Schottenfeld are free to feel that way. Meanwhile, students voted with their feet and showed up in droves.

    As for their argument that the invitation holds little educational value: the current attacks on free expression, under the guise of preventing “intolerance” and “defaming religion”, are very real and very dangerous. Mr. Westergaard is on the front lines of this fight. Certainly that’s educational enough for me. I might add that his perspective is made more relevant and important by the Yale University Press’s decision this summer to censor his cartoons in a scholarly publication on them.

  • Benjamin Weiss

    to the authors:
    You should read “Islam and Terroriscm” by Mark A. Gabriel (Charisma House, Lake Mary,Fl)and then look where hate began.