Columbia has historically been an activist's campus—basking in the memory and the legend of '68, we draw in folks of strong opinions and talents on both sides of the spectrum (although we admittedly lean en masse toward one side). The massive rallies surrounding the controversial and avidly debated events of the past few years—the Joseph Massad controversy, the Minuteman outburst, hunger strikes, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—were a large part of what drew me to this campus. For some reason, however, all of that has stopped.
Last year, University President Lee Bollinger himself admitted that the year had a quieter feel and was more internally focused than those of the past. But this makes it sound like last year was an isolated incident, a period of calm amidst the hubbub of the last several years. I am beginning to suspect, however, that this year will feel the same. This campus hasn't seen much brouhaha in almost two years, and it is likely to stay that way, because, as I am beginning to believe, we have started to fear the very large events—the lightning rods of crazy vitriol and debate—that draw so many scrappy young academics and activists to our gates.
The one great controversial character to set foot on campus this year was Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician with strong and highly contested views on immigration, freedom of speech, and Islam in the modern world. But the College Republicans, the group who invited Wilders, expressly asked him to refrain from focusing on his most contested views on Islam, hoping that he would instead simply talk about free speech. Of course that didn't happen, but the audience remained silent and the questions largely diplomatic—any that started to veer into fierce confrontation were cut short by the event's moderators. Many guests at the event pointed out the irony of restrictions on their free speech, in the name of civility and easy discourse, at an event purportedly about free speech.
Now, compare this to Ahmadinejad's visit to campus, during which a reviled man was allowed to say things few in the audience were comfortable with, all in the name of free speech. Bollinger and company even welcomed protests and retaliation, so long as they did not interfere with the event. Wilders has incited similar protest and discourse in those inspired by Ahmadinejad before—even immediately before, when Temple University students broke up the event via protests—even if on a smaller scale. But his visit to Columbia drew out none of that bile and dissent, perhaps because we're afraid of the blowback that such large events have created in the past.
Ahmadinejad came and went, but his presence on the campus left scars. Debate over the justification of Bollinger's criticisms of Ahmadinejad resounded for well over a year. Bollinger's and the University's integrity were called into question nationally, and accusations of pandering for funds and attention were leveled. Perhaps, all of this attention and criticism repeated again and again over several years has led us all to hesitate before engaging readily in heated controversy, mass protests, and debate. Perhaps we're just afraid.
Some would say that letting crazy men say crazy things is just not worth it. They might also have it that subtle activism has supplanted the shouting matches that come with these frenzied events. But hosting such large events calls into question not just views that we may find intolerable—it puts into the University's eyesight, and perhaps even the national view, the issues of free speech and the limits of protest and academic discourse. It encourages an avid discussion of the topics at hand and can draw in all manner of parallel issues. And subtle activism just can't force such confrontations as easily—allowing selective engagement with thoughts and events. And these tumultuous events may lead to a bit of bile and hate, but if Ahmadinejad's visit taught us anything, it's that we can let that simmer, and resolve the trickiest debates once all has cooled. We stand to gain much by embracing not only large events with great risk, but all the craziness and rage that come with them.
I refuse to believe that we can discard any speaker as too crazy, any view as too absurd, to engage with. I do believe that, by giving any view the chance to speak, we can hope to understand through vigorous (and possibly dangerous, but worthwhile) debate the rationale behind these ideas, and reach a higher level of future discourse. I believe that we, at such powerful universities, have not just the ability, but the duty, to foster controversy. I encourage groups and departments to exercise this right, as granted by Bollinger, and to pour their resources into another big and contested event. Encourage debate, invite protestors, turn the school into an academic battlefield. Let all hell break loose. And let us exercise our amazing powers of modern alchemy and transmute bile into golden understanding and progress.
Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Tuesdays.