Monday, February 14, 2011

Hampshire College President Again Criticizes Intolerance, Affirms Need for Open Dialogue in Wake of Disruption of Talk by IDF Soldier

 As visitors to this site will know, tensions over the Middle East conflict are a divisive issue here, as on other college campuses.

Those tensions have, if anything, increased, as reflected in incidents of the past semester, and now, the disruption of a talk by a soldier of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on February 3.

Still, there are hopeful signs.  Sometimes, it takes a wake-up call such as this to create an opportunity for progress.

In the first place, reaction here on campus, as far as I can tell, is largely negative: Many students report being turned off by the behavior of the hecklers, which they found obnoxious and embarrassing.  Those who have been silent are speaking up. Voices along a broad political spectrum, are saying: "Enough!"

In the second place, the administration has been quick to intervene. As noted earlier, on the morning after the talk, interim President Marlene Fried issued a statement informing the community of the incidents and affirming the right of students to invite speakers who present their ideas peacefully and "to have opportunities to think through issues and be educated about them" without obstruction or interference.

Then, at the monthly faculty meeting on February 8, she made a point of explicitly addressing this campus controversy at the start of her presidential report. As she put it with deliberate understatement, many would have heard that "Issues around Israel-Palestine have become rather acute in the past week." She went on to thank those faculty who have been "trying to create a reasonable climate" and to express the "hope that," rather than shouting and arguing, "people can actually learn something" about the region and the conflict. She urged us to do more to improve the intellectual atmosphere, for "we are really leaders for our students and mentors for them." She noted with approval that moderate students have been suggesting the creation of "round tables" where the Middle East could be a subject "for dialogue rather than trying to win someone over to another point of view."

As noted earlier, two college deans made firm statements on the need for free speech and civility at the event in question and have, along with other staff from the offices responsible for student life, been working for some time to create precisely the dialogue that President Fried called for.

I am aware that some, both here and in the outside world, regard the President's statements as not strong enough. Obviously, although the principles are not in doubt, there is always room for debate as to the precise nature of any response, depending on the dynamics of a given situation.

There can, however, be no doubt as to President Fried's commitment to free speech and civility: they are matters of public record and long standing. A philosopher by training, Marlene works in the field of civil liberties and reproductive rights, which is itself no stranger to controversy.  I know from my own years here with her how she herself strives for fairness and openness in the classroom. For example, in a community in which students overwhelmingly and instinctively favor a "pro-choice" stance, she takes care to present fairly the "pro-life" position and to ensure that there is room for its advocates to be heard.

On balance, then, I think one should be cautiously optimistic until given reason to think otherwise.  The administration is publicly on record as having voiced the right sentiments.  Rather than arguing that they should have been conveyed in other words, rather than fearing the worst, let us hope for the best: namely, that the words that were spoken will be translated into action.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Very heartening! There will always be thugs amongst us, the question is how a society responds to them. Very good to hear there is a critical mass willing to defend tolerance and free discussion as primary virtues.