SCHWARTZ: Writers need shame

The Gadfly

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.

Yishai Schwartz '13
Yishai Schwartz '13

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 yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    Why didn’t this piece show up in the Opinion section for me?

    Let’s be honest – Arafat is a racist anti-Islam troll who copy and pastes large rants against Islam onto the YDN comment boards.

    RexMottram08 makes an interesting point, though. Why does Islam get to be called “The Religion of Peace”? We would hardly have called the Christianity circa the Inquisition or the Crusades a “religion of peace”.

    Islam is a religion, and one that should be respected as a faith. We should NOT, however, tiptoe around the fact that the “Muslim street”, so-to-speak, more than marginally supports Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah’s agenda of terrorism.

    http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/02/04/mixed-views-of-hamas-and-hezbollah-in-largely-muslim-nations/

    For instance, Hamas and Hezbollah get a third or more of popular support in virtually every Muslim country polled. Osama bin Laden got a quarter of the population’s support in Egypt, Jordan, and Indonesia, a third in Nigeria, and half in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Disapproval of Jews was at 95%+ in basically every Middle Eastern country, and in the mid-70s for other Muslim nations.

    If we’re going to call Islam a “religion of peace”, let’s start by demonstrating that its adherents are less (or at a minimum, equally) unlikely to support terrorism as members of other faiths.

  • CrazyBus

    > Liberty — of any kind, including speech — is only sustainable and justifiable when it is coupled with responsibility

    Who gets to define what is “responsible free speech”? You can’t just have “free speech” of speech that you agree with or are comfortable with. There will always be others with radically different opinions.

    >They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. –Ben Franklin

    In this case, the safety of one’s sensibility.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I have been making the case against anonymity on the *YDN* posting board for the last three for years.

    The anonymous hate speech against Raymond Clark III led inexorably to the irresponsible reporting based on anonymous sources which tarnished the reputation of Mr. Witt three weeks ago. I was so disillusioned I refused to even look at the YDN for two weeks.

    As for Arafat, he lives up to his namesake: A chatterbox bore with one and only one topic of conversation.

    The quote you cite of RexMottram08 doesn’t seem like hate speech as much as hyperbole. And why is it any less irresponsible for you to associate Mr. Mottram08′s hyperbole with the overused whipping-boy of anti-semitism than for him to associate Islam with world domination?

    World domination isn’t an original idea. Islam stole it from Christianity, as have the Latter Day Saints.

    Religions are insatiable appetites.

    Gosh and golly. Is that news?

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80, etc.

    • lakia

      Is there something one could write that might convince you to never read or post at YDN again?

  • The Anti-Yale

    My obituary.

    • yayasisterhood

      To clarify, I’m thumbs-upping PK’s wit, not the thought of reading his obituary in the YDN.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I”ll save you the trouble and write my obituary myself:

    **Little Known Vermonter Dies**

    Paul Keane, a native of Mt. Carmel, Connecticut, has died at an unadmitted age.

    He was an English teacher in Vermont for the past 25 years. He graduated from four colleges and universities and from Hamden (Connecticut) High School.

    In 1978 he co-founded, with author Peter Davies, The Kent State Collection at Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division at Yale University.

    From 1976-1985 he spearheaded restoration of Thornton Wilder’s desk, memorabilia, and creation of his portrait in Hamden, Connecticut’s Miller Library.

    For the last three years he has been a bête-noire of the Yale Daily News posting board, writing under the title “theantiyale” (as in the anti-pope).

    One or two of his contributions were quotable.

    No services are planned.

    No survivors admit to being related to him.

    He will be buried soon, and promptly forgotten.

    *finis*

  • RexMottram08

    I was waiting for it!!! Thank you!

    Yishai defends female genital cutting as a “nuance and diversity within a tradition”

    Gen. Sir Charles Napier in India explaining to the locals his position on suttee — the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.
    General Napier was impeccably multicultural:

    > You say that it is your custom to burn
    > widows. Very well. We also have a
    > custom: when men burn a woman alive,
    > we tie a rope around their necks and
    > we hang them. Build your funeral
    > pyre; beside it, my carpenters will
    > build a gallows. You may follow your
    > custom. And then we will follow ours.

  • RexMottram08

    Mr. Schwartz is jostling for #1 Dhimmi status when the caliphate comes to New Haven.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *”The Islamic theological blueprint is flawed to its very core”*

    **And Christianity’s blueprint isn’t flawed?
    The shameless sado-masochism of crucifixion as it has dribbled down the centuries in self-flagellants’ blood and psychic turmoil?
    The arrogant elitist nonsense of “no one comes to the father except through me?”
    The sexist beatification of virginity, the instrument by which males maintain their double-standard power over women?
    Give me a break.
    PK
    M.Div. ’80, etc.**