As Lauren Noble wrote two days ago here at Minding the Campus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech at Yale on Monday night was a success, despite the discomfort felt by the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA).
I say “discomfort” because that is what the MSA itself emphasized in its September 10th letter to the Yale community protesting her visit. Hearing about the invitation to Ali, a resolute critic of Islam, the MSA drafted this nine-paragraph statement and posted it on Facebook, and it circulated quickly throughout Yale and the conservative media. The tone and content are worth examining because they mark the most illustrative aspect of the whole affair.
It’s not the attempt to prevent Ali from speaking that is troubling here. The letter didn’t do that, though the MSA would certainly have preferred it. Nor is it the effort to demonize Ali—the letter didn’t do that, either, not really, though it charged her with misrepresenting and slandering the faith. No, the real problem here is the degree to which this letter signals a deplorable trend in higher education: the shift from ideas and facts to identities and sensitivities.
Obviously, the MSA dislikes Ali because of what she has said of Islam, and we can understand why. Given Ali’s experience with Islam as a youth, her enmity is reasonable. Given the expression of that enmity, particularly her extension of personal encounters to condemnations of Islam as a whole, the MSA reaction to her makes sense as well. A debate is in order, a question is on the table: Do the oppressions Ali suffered represent the religion at large?
The academic way for the MSA to proceed, then, would be to compare two things: Ali’s characterizations of Islam and the MSA’s characterization, which would derive from Islamic law and tradition and practice. Quote Ali, then quote respected Islamic texts and leaders that contradict her. Show Ali’s error, demonstrate her bias. Display how she has allowed her personal story to stand for an entire tradition, or rather, a complex of traditions that make up the religion. It wouldn’t take much space if Ali distorts Islam as much as MSA alleges.
Then, MSA would level a well-founded accusation against the Buckley Foundation for bringing a half-informed partisan to New Haven. The verdict would be academic, not ideological. Ali’s discreditation wouldn’t stem from her antagonism to Islam. It would be due to her ignorance of it.
But that isn’t what the letter does. Here is the second paragraph:
“The level of radical inaccuracy in representing a faith that is part of our community compels all of us, not just Muslims on campus, to act on Yale’s fundamental values of freedom of speech and diversity of thought to express our sentiments.”
It opens correctly with “radical inaccuracy,” a judgment founded, we expect, on evidence to come. But we quickly leave that epistemological standard behind with “our community,” as if the failing rests not on Ali’s mishandling of the facts, but on her violation of a particular group bond. Then, instead sticking to criteria of truth and falsity, the statement turns to “values,” and not values of accuracy but of speech and (ugh) diversity. Finally, we close with a declaration not of their intention to prove Ali wrong, but to talk about how they feel: “to express our sentiments.”
One can only react to this with disdain, judging it a feeble whine best dismissed, were it not for the fact that it fits perfectly with customary practice in higher education. In countless episodes, we have seen truth and error give way to feelings of offense, and the powers that be have responded sympathetically.
The MSA has internalized the trend and adopted it language well. The statement proceeds to from one feeble gripe to another:
“. . . we do want to reiterate that we feel highly disrespected by the invitation to this speaker.”
“The Muslim community and its allies are disappointed that our own fellow Yalies would invite such a speaker . . .”
“. . . we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies . . .”
The statement even has some feelings for Ali herself: “We sympathize with the unfortunate circumstances that Ms. Hirsi Ali faced . . .”
Let’s understand this rhetoric as practiced, canny, and tactical. It has all the predictable markers of academic politicking in an age of political correctness, which operates in the open not as power plays but as expressions against power, those impositions of blunt ideas and judgments by benighted individuals who don’t understand the experience of marginalized groups. I would bet that the MSA leaders who drafted the statement are some of the brightest students on campus, with sharp radar for subtle coercions and shifting sympathies. They’ve learned to play the game their teachers and administrators have either played or allowed.
It didn’t work in this case, though, probably because the timing was wrong. With the disinvitations to Ali, Charles Murray, and other figures on college campuses last Spring, the public is wary and the censors and offended ones risk overdoing their hurt.
But the whiners have something on their side that prevails over temporary setbacks like this. Lots of professors identify with victims in historically-disadvantaged groups, and they’re willing to countenance overwrought sensitivities in the light of the injustices certain groups have endured. Other professors just want to be left alone, and they’re not going to stand up against either aggressive or whiny voices. Finally, administrators think like any bureaucrat—don’t get in trouble, don’t say the wrong thing, don’t get people mad. They don’t want controversy on their campus, and they certainly don’t want to become a story in themselves.
This gives the allegation of disrespect, when in the mouths of disadvantaged identities, a powerful weapon and a bright future.