October 20, 2009

Shouting down discourse

Many protesters at the Olmert lecture showed lack of respect for University’s ideals.

The U of C prides itself on creating an environment that fosters the free and open exchange of ideas. It’s an ideal that flourishes across campus in classrooms and speaking halls. That’s why the behavior of some student protestors at the Harris School’s lecture featuring former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Thursday was particularly troubling.

Olmert’s speech, which focused on his Palestinian peace plan, was supposed to last for 20 minutes; as a result of repeated interruptions, it took nearly 90. While many staged a peaceful protest outside, some student protestors in the auditorium shouted throughout the former prime minister’s talk, accusing Olmert of war crimes in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon. Some resorted to profanity and called for Olmert’s execution. And though not all the protestors were affiliated with the U of C, the incident undermined the University’s tradition of being a forum that shows tolerance toward all perspectives.

Olmert’s actions, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in general, engender fierce emotions on all sides of the issues. But surely any effort aimed at righting injustices and resolving conflicts must begin with an open and honest dialogue. A major role of academic institutions is to provide forums for such exchanges. Students who oppose Olmert’s opinions can and should speak up; what they should not do, however, is disrupt a planned speech with tactics designed to make dialogue impossible.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is famously quoted as saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” meaning, in this case, that if Olmert’s viewpoint is truly as repugnant as the protestors claimed, then the best thing they can do is allow his views to be brought to light. A good example of this principle in action was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in 2007. His speech there expressed many of his controversial views, most famously that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Still, the fact that he spoke was a good thing: The nation learned just how bad the state of human rights is in Iran.

Giving a speaker a fair chance to speak does not constitute an endorsement of his views or actions. It shows a willingness to listen, an openness to ideas, and a rewspect for the University of Chicago’s commitment to academic dialogue. It was this sort of respect that was missing Thursday.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.