Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad At Columbia

As Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in the US, there is much ado about whether he should be allowed to visit "Ground Zero" (Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris has an excellent post about whether Ahmadinejad can be legally barred from visiting) and whether he should be invited to speak at Columbia University. It's the latter question that I want to address.

I'm not a fan of banning political discourse, no matter how distasteful it may be. I was, for example, opposed to the political outcry that emerged over Iran's Holocaust-denying cartoon contest and I disagree with European bans on Holocaust denial. There is no better antidote to conspiracy-theories and close-mindedness than the light of debate, and preventing such debate merely feeds the belief that the claims are being suppressed by the political establishment. So, I don't really have any problem with Ahmadinejad speaking in public, even in the US.

But I do have a problem with him speaking at Columbia. Well, not Columbia in particular, but at a university. It is true that universities are bastions of free speech and intellectual openness is essential to the existence of universities and to the project of education in general. But universities are also devoted to intellectual honesty and truth. Yes, truth.

Truth is not determined by the content of an argument, but rather by the structure and form of an argument. As I blogged about a few days ago, methodology is critical. The reason Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and their ilk are so dangerous is not that they spout idiocy, but rather that they lack any scientific method, so rebutting the argument becomes proof of their point. This is not scientific, it is not academic, it is not intellectual. It is opinion and nothing more.

Of course, there is a place for opinion, even on a university's campus. Student groups, lecture series, and other such fora exist to allow people to speak their minds. But a university should not recognize, invite, and honor people who deny the truth, be they Holocaust-deniers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, anti-Copernicans, or anyone else who simply spouts opinion that flies in the face of fact. A university must be willing to defend moder Galileos, who rely on science and method in the face of dogmatic opinion. And the university must be willing to denounce that very same dogmatic opinion.

Ahmadinejad should not be allowed to speak at Columbia. Not because his regime might be involved in the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq and not because he rejects the right of Israel to exist. Rather, he should not be invited to speak at Columbia because he stands in defiance of the very principle of academic openness and honesty.


Daniil Davydoff said...

I think it's ironic that during the course of the last few weeks we find out that the tarnished but respectable Larry Summers is refused the opportunity to speak at UC Irvine while Columbia might host Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the universities have higher standards for Americans!

JM said...

A fair point indeed on Larry Summers.

Still, how many other nonscientific figures, many of them respectable, speak in university fora every day? This seems to have been precisely the point of the SIPA World Leaders Forum.

It's been suggested in the press a bit that President Bush wouldn't be permitted this sort of opportunity in Iran--precisely implying that American universities distinguish themselves by allowing this sort of thing. Oughtn't we judge it after hearing it? Ahmadinejad's audience doesn't seem to have had much trouble doing so.

Anonymous said...

Given the standard articulated in the blog entry, would George Bush be invited or permitted to speak at Columbia?

Seth Weinberger said...

Yes, but...

Yes, universities should be allowed to invite non-academic public figures such as President Bush. So what's the difference between Bush and Ahmadinejad? The answer, as I tried to make clear in the original post, is not in the content of the argument but rather in the method of argumentation.

Over at the law school faculty blog of the University of Chicago, Geoffrey Stone writes that:

[Begin quote] But then Bollinger went further, and directly attacked Mr. Ahmadinejad, asserting that he is a "petty and cruel dictator" who denies the Holocaust, threatens to destroy Israel, promotes terrorism, and violates human rights. Some critics have criticized Bollinger for doing this because it was inhospitable and rude. But that misses the real objection, which is that Columbia University as an institution cannot legitimately take positions on such issues. Because a university must remain neutral on all matters of public policy that do not directly affect the university itself, it should not have a faculty vote, for example, on whether to condemn the war in Iraq, on whether Mr. Bush is a good President, or on whether Mr. Ahmadinejad violates human rights.

Of course, individual faculty members, students, staff, and alumni may state their own positions on such matters with complete freedom. But the university itself should not take such positions. The responsibility of a university is to facilitate debate and disagreement, not to stifle it by declaring an "official" university position. Whenever a university arrogates to itself the authority to "declare" certain positions to be "true" or "false," it necessarily chills the freedom of its faculty and students to take contrary -- officially disapproved -- positions. This should be anathema to any university. [End quote]

Whether we or anyone likes President Bush and his policies should not be the determinant of whether he or anyone else is invited to speak. However, Bush and other political figures (Obama, Clinton, anyone) make arguments that are within the scope of legitimate political discourse: that is, their arguments are defendable through analytic analysis. The problem with Ahmadinejad, as I see it, is not so much the content of the argument, but rather the absence of any legitimate scientific method. A university should not invite someone who insists on a earth-centric view of the galaxy because there is no legitimate way to defend such a position. Similarly, there is no real legitimate way to deny the reality of the Holocaust (one needs to separate Holocaust denial from the claim that the Holocaust is manipulated by Jews for their own political purposes, which is a plausible and legitimate argument). Since much of what Ahmadinejad would speak about falls into the denial-conspiracy theory category, Columbia should not have extended an invitation. This is not to deny the need for academic freedom or the diversity of opinion. It is, however, to insist on some standard of argument.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, "I believe man and fish and coexist" is a better method of argumentation.

The height of logic.