The recent controversies around Reverend Bruce Shipman’s remarks and the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program’s upcoming invitation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali highlight an important hypocrisy in the state of free speech on campus. Rich Lizardo, president of the Buckley Program, wrote yesterday in defense of Hirsi Ali’s visit to campus, saying, “Her work does not qualify as ‘libel and slander,’ as was suggested by the open letter, and it cannot be reduced to purported ‘hate speech,’ a slur used simply to silence speech with which one disagrees.”
Yet anyone with a comparative eye would see the resemblance to the assaults fired at Rev. Shipman for his short letter in the New York Times weeks ago.
While the circumstances are not the same in these two, here’s a comparison to consider: Rev. Shipman made a connection between Israel’s policies and growing anti-Semitism in Europe, writing, “As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”
However, opponents, such as Chabad at Yale, quickly labeled his comments as “justification of anti-Semitism.” Pressure piled on Rev. Shipman to resign, many coming from friends of the Jewish community on campus and in the country. A few days later, he did.
On the other hand, in an interview with David Cohen of the London Evening Standard in 2007, Hirsi Ali said, “Violence is inherent in Islam — it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it’s not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself … Islam is the new fascism.”
The Reverend’s comment about Israel and growing anti-Semitism in Europe pales in generality and in ferocity in the face of Hirsi Ali’s comment about Islam. Yet the right has responded in a very different manner: calling for sanction in the former, defending free expression in the latter. If we are to entertain that Hirsi Ali’s comments are made out of legitimate concern over the treatment of women, then we must equally consider the Rev. Shipman’s concern for those under carnage in Gaza. Free speech either cuts both ways or it is not: This is the hypocrisy of free speech of which we must be aware.
One cannot disregard the blatant double standard at work in these two cases. I doubt that Hirsi Ali’s comments would have passed the censors had she replaced Islam with Judaism as her subject of criticism; likewise, Rev. Shipman’s comments would hardly have been construed as hate speech if he swapped Israel for Russia and Gaza for Ukraine. This double standard reaffirms a certain worldview protecting America and its allies’ interests by censoring opposing opinions in the name of hate speech.
We are reminded of repeated instances in American academia where anti-Zionist comments are censored in the name of anti-Semitism, as we have seen in the recent firing of Professor Steven Salaita at University of Illinois. Not only is this the type of “hate speech” that Lizardo believes silences speech, but it is deeply harmful to any discourse fighting anti-Semitism at large. While few would disagree that mounting anti-Semitism in Europe and abroad is a virulent problem that needs to be confronted, it serves no one’s interests to water it down by calling anti-Zionist comments anti-Semitic just to shut them out of the public sphere.
The standards of academic freedom and freedom of speech should not be kicked around as ideological ammunition: There probably ought to be limits to those standards, and that deserves a much longer discussion. But the selective justification as I’ve seen lately on campus and in the media is not conducive to a constructive discourse.
Adrian Lo is a senior in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.