On Friday, Mostafa al-Alusi and Faisal Hamid (“Fighting Islamophobia at Yale,” Feb. 17) argued that criticism and suspicion by security officials and politicians has been overly broad, targeting all Muslims rather than specific, clearly defined sub-groups. Similarly, the writers described on-campus parties where drunken slurs were directed at Muslim students. They said the very safety of Muslim students in New Haven has been called into question.
Needless to say, the possibility that students are being subjected to ethnic slurs and feel unsafe should alarm the entire Yale community. Regardless of one’s position on the relative merits of the NYPD’s recently revealed anti-terror tactics, basic civility, tolerance and student safety should be completely uncontroversial — and non-negotiable. And that is precisely why I found the comments — 130 at last count — that followed the article on the News’ website so mind-bogglingly disturbing.
By now, the News’ staff has already removed the most egregiously hateful comments, but here are some highlights:
One poster, user-name Arafat, called on all free people to “inform themselves regarding the tyrannical, fascist, intolerant, murderous and depraved nature of Islam.” Later on, he explained: “Ultimately, it’s the relgion [sic] itself which is rotten … The Islamic theological blueprint is flawed to its very core.”
Another, calling himself RexMottram08, wrote: “Islam: the religion of peace that flies planes into buildings, mutilates female genitals and declares war on Western civilization.”
Anyone familiar with the history of anti-Semitism will recognize these kinds of statements. Deliberate blindness to nuance and diversity within a tradition and the use of selected examples to assert that a religion is essentially incompatible with Western civilization are vile tricks that would make Bruno Bauer proud.
I assume that most of these offensive commenters aren’t Yale students, but the bottom line is that we have no way of knowing. Indeed, the thing that bothers me most about these comments is their anonymity. “Arafat,” “RexMottram08” and the multitude of other user-names allow commenters to hide their identities and avoid responsibility for their vulgarity and vitriol.
Of course, there are times when anonymity can serve a purpose. In repressive regimes or failed states, activists and advocates are legitimately concerned that using their names might bring physical violence and harassment. In some extreme cases, these dangers exist even in strong, liberal states — English author Salman Rushdie’s years of hiding and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s murder are proof of this. Obviously, the ideal solution to this kind of violence is vigorous policing, but given limited resources, a case for anonymity is conceivable.
But there must be a clear line between anonymity intended to preserve security against violent and illegal acts of retaliation and anonymity used as a shield against legitimate response and public opprobrium. The former must be allowed as a regrettable concession to an imperfect world; the latter is irresponsible, cowardly and detrimental to civil society
It is by no means obvious that free speech can coexist with a stable social order. Indeed, given the frequency of hate speech, lies and misrepresentation, freedom and stability often seem to come into sharp conflict. But the knowledge that our actions and statements have consequences for us forces us to think critically about what we write and say and thus protects society from the worst effects of free speech.
Liberty — of any kind, including speech — is only sustainable and justifiable when it is coupled with responsibility. Otherwise, we have total bedlam. Anyone who claims that words are never dangerous is a fool. A public sphere where groups are constantly engaged in ad hominem, nasty, incoherent, and vulgar attacks inevitably undercuts a tolerant and peaceful society. Free speech is dangerous, and personal responsibility is the only check that allows us to preserve public decency while maintaining this core value.
There is no question that we have to ensure that the public forum is a safe place to write and speak without fear violence and vandalism. In the U.S., thankfully, we usually have such a space. But with that safety must come responsibility.
When I write, I know my name (and now face) will appear next to my ideas, and I am constrained by the basic fear of public shame. Fear of shame allows me to tug myself back to reality when my thoughts have crossed red lines. Shame is what protects us — and society — from our own worst demons. And shame is something that Friday’s commenters were lacking entirely.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.