Scrudato: Debate, not controversy

Just a couple of weeks ago, cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s visit to campus for a Branford Master’s Tea ignited a fiery debate over the nature of free speech at Yale. For some, the cartoons and the man who drew them represent an attack on Islamic values that crosses the thin line between tasteless and hateful.

To them, the cartoonist’s visit violated the University’s presumed duty to protect its students from discomforting messages. Other students, however, see the cartoons as a valid example of freedom of expression. Judging from the comments on the News’ Web site, the campus took the latter view, collectively raising an eyebrow at the absurdity of comparing a cartoon, which is merely insulting to a subset of students, to a symbol of hate.

It is the community’s apparent conclusion that banning Westergaard would have been an affront to the values of our University. As a whole, we have rejected the notion that Yale has the duty of, as protester Fatima Ghani ’10 wrote, “protecting the well-being of all Yale students” (“Cartoonist visit causes a stir” Oct. 2).

Many say that students like Ghani have simply misunderstood the spirit of the University and the academic freedom that should accompany it. But can we really accept this answer, or is it just a way to dismiss the symptoms of a grave problem with our institution? Does the Yale community try to make itself the guardian of students’ comfort on campus? If that is true, was this event out of character with the habitual protection that the University offers?

If this is a mere misunderstanding, a naïveté, how can we explain that esteemed advisors to President Levin and college masters share Ghani’s view? How could Sharyar Aziz ’74, a member of the Yale President’s Council on International Activities, say that Westergaard’s invitation was out of character with “an institution that has been so sensitive and so caring,” and that it “creates an adverse environment or adverse opinion of Yale’s sensitivities”? (“Cartoonist visit causes a stir” Oct. 2).

Davenport College Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76 cannot feign ignorance for writing that Westergaard’s cartoons “appear to target an especially vulnerable group among us,” and this “is a decisive reason against inviting him” (“Taking a tea to task” Oct. 6).

If the consensus is that Yale should not restrict free expression in deference to students’ comfort, how could so many people arrive at the same, erroneous conclusion — that it not only should, but usually does? The honest answer is that their views of the Yale community are not erroneous, but, in many circumstances, correct.

Had the comic focused on problems endemic to a particular racial group rather than a religion, the negative reaction would have been much greater. One only has to look at the controversy racially-sensitive topics have caused in the past to see this trend. The 2009 Freshman Screw was renamed days after students objected to the relatively innocuous Gone with the Wind theme. At the Yale Political Union’s Sept. 23 debate, “Resolved: Abolish Race-Based Affirmative Action,” the raucousness of the crowd was driven by the racial framing of the debate topic. Even graffiti on University buildings, not likely the work of students, brings cries of pervasive racism and causes the University to convene a panel, as it did after such an incident in November 2007.

If Westergaard had drawn a cartoon depicting the higher likelihood of an African-American male to commit a violent crime or some other racially sensitive, but arguably valid topic, the campus would have been incensed. Yet in this analogous case, the tea went on, attracting only 15 student protesters.

The reaction to the cartoons reveals a definite hierarchy of -isms at Yale. At the top, commanding the most influence and potential for controversy, is racism. Below this charge, the one of sexism or homophobia is similarly able to incite response.

Besides these, however, no charge can so easily generate controversy and force the community to bend to the will of a small minority. The charge of religious insensitivity — without the emotional clout of 40 years of struggle and identity politics — lacks the power of the -isms.

The reaction to Westergaard is a good opportunity to observe how the academic community operates when we cannot resort to eternally damning charges to generate an emotional response.

The tea went on. The students who were offended went on. While some might not have liked the cartoonist’s tactics or his message, life went on. All involved did as they pleased; both sides made their case and, from our increased understanding of all sides, we are better off for it.

What we should learn from this episode is not that Yale needs to become more sensitive but that it must do the opposite.

When debate is poisoned by the injection of charges of racism or sexism, our community ceases to function on an intellectual level. When rational minds prevail, however, the contribution to the University and to true unity, the kind that can exist despite deep-seated differences, is immeasurable.

In the future we should all be so lucky as to avoid the intellectually lazy charges of -isms and experience meaningful debate and the kind of diversity that goes beyond skin color — that of opinion.

John Scrudato is a junior in Morse College.

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