Yesterday, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell released a statement entitled ‘Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion.’ Their defence of free speech was balanced, thoughtful and incisive. Indeed, it is difficult to take exception to the idea that ‘Freedom of inquiry and the free expression of ideas are fundamental to the mission of the university.’ And more importantly, the statement recognizes that the university experience encompasses so much more than the classroom. As the President and Provost wrote, ‘our strength as a university derives from our diversity.’ This diversity cannot be limited to nationality, race and gender. It must also include political and experiential diversity, meaning right and left wing thought that lies outside the narrow bounds of the Stanford liberal consensus.
This statement is entirely in line with the ethos of the Stanford Sphere. After all, the Daily article announcing our launch was entitled, ‘New student publication wants to challenge ‘liberal consensus’ from all sides.’ It is our contention at the Sphere that an unhealthy consensus has emerged on liberal campuses such as Stanford that has stifled free discussion and debate. Consequently, the Sphere is fundamentally committed to representing thoughtful and intelligent views from all ideological dispositions. As our opening statement concluded, “we will cut across the groupthink lines of consensus to challenge prevailing attitudes.”
The Sphere aside, the President and Provost’s Statement is particularly pertinent given Robert Spencer’s upcoming speech at Stanford next week. The discourse surrounding this event has exemplified the free speech issues that so many liberal campuses are facing.
The Stanford Republicans firstly should be ashamed of themselves for inviting a figure who is little more than a Fox News pundit. The Stanford Republicans are simply wrong in stating that ‘Mr. Spencer’s professional credentials are stellar.’ Spencer has very little intellectual credibility, and is surely a figure solely designed to antagonize an easily provoked campus left. He often spews unfounded soundbites about Islam such as Islam ‘is the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers.’
Such baseless statements speak to an ill-informed thinker who prefers sweeping generalizations to intellectually and academically rigorous work. And this was surely a great opportunity to discuss Islam and Terrorism in the wake of the New York attack. The Stanford Republicans could have invited a more credible figure such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has experienced first-hand the grave consequences of religious extremism. Given Hirsi Ali’s background, she could have given a far more well-founded perspective of why Islam may need reform than the vitriolic Richard Spencer. Or the Stanford Republicans could have invited Majid Nawaz, a former Islamist who was jailed in Egypt, but now aims to moderate the more fundamentalist strains in Islam. The list goes on. In short, the Stanford Republicans could have chosen many speakers to provide a more rational and palatable take on modern Islam, but instead chose the most reactionary figure.
Although the Stanford Republicans claim to bolster the banner of free speech, they have actually shut down the possibility of thoughtful conversations pertaining to Islam and terrorism by inviting a figure like Spencer. Any event which now discusses Islamic extremism will now be associated with Spencer’s crass, bigoted and narrow-minded point of view.
This insensitivity is particularly ironic given that (more thoughtful and intelligent) right-leaning Stanford students have written very eloquently in recent weeks about the perils of inviting such nonsensical speakers. Sam Wolfe wrote about Milo Yiannopoulos for the Stanford Review ‘don’t mourn for free speech if colleges choose not to invite him; doing so allows Milo to play the ennobled victim… he is no valiant martyr, and a conservatism that lets him become such has been duped.’ On similar lines, Elliot Kaufman wrote for the National Review that ‘a portion of the campus Right has disgraced itself’ by inviting absurd and silly alt-right ‘intellectuals’ such as Richard Spencer and Milo. Robert Spencer surely lies in this camp.
Inviting these speakers also does a great deal of damage to conservatism by confirming false liberal suspicions that most conservatives are racist, sexist and/or homophobic. This is surely a disservice to all the thoughtful conservatives on liberal college campuses.
The campus left wing, however, is not free from guilt either. The ASSU issued several statements alongside a petition aiming to ‘Stop Student Fee Funding of Islamophobic Speaker.’ A small portion of the student population has even hinted at protesting or shutting down the event. So far there has been no evident attempt to engage intellectually with Robert Spencer. And indeed, the only adequate response to a speaker such as Robert Spencer on a university campus is an intellectual one. The Stanford Republicans were correct in stating, ‘how can a perspective be unworthy of at least due consideration, if it is a sentiment held by a majority of the American public?’ Robert Spencer’s perspective deserves consideration but must be intellectually refuted. The campus left must respond through articles critiquing Spencer’s main ideas and works, and by presenting alternative narratives to Spencer’s central claim that Jihadists are inspired to commit acts of violence by the Quran. For instance, how about arguing that Western interventionism in the Middle East is largely responsible for modern terrorism?
The Robert Spencer event has exemplified the importance of the University’s statement on free speech; both the campus left and right wing have showed an inability to engage in free discourse and would do well to read the President and Provost’s brilliant defence of free speech.
Ravi Veriah Jacques
Photograph: Stanford University, Hoover Tower. Credit: Pere Joan