Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s lecture at Yale next Monday has inspired a controversy over free speech. The Muslim Students Association (MSA) sent out a campus-wide email last week protesting Hirsi Ali’s arrival and claiming that her ugly statements about Islam amounted to hate speech and libel. Rich Lizardo ’15, the president of the organization hosting Hirsi Ali, the Buckley Program, wrote a response in the Yale Daily News defending her arrival primarily by invoking the first amendment, arguing that Yale’s commitment to knowledge “requires a robust protection of the right to freely express one’s views, however controversial.” News outlets – all of a hard conservative tilt – picked up the story, painting it as an issue of “freedom of speech and expression,” “censorship,” and, again, “freedom of speech and diversity of thought.”

The problem is that the issue of whether Hirsi Ali should come to Yale has absolutely nothing to do with free speech. There are two things that should determine whether Hirsi Ali should speak to us: whether she is invited for the right reasons, and whether her ideas are worth a podium at Yale.

First, why this is not a debate about free speech. Free speech and our first amendment allow Hirsi Ali to say whatever she wants when she arrives at Yale. But the constitution does not mandate that we bring her here in the first place. This seems obvious, but it’s something that has been subtly confused in this debate. Free speech is about whether someone who says highly controversial things can come speak here; it has nothing to do with whether they should. Framing this as a fight for free speech, then, is wrong. The MSA does not need to weasel its way around free speech by claiming Hirsi Ali spews hate speech and libel, and the Buckley Program and its conservative entourage cannot use free speech as a reason that Hirsi Ali should come. The phrase “free speech”should not be a part of this debate. We have all fallen back on it, though, perhaps because doing so allows us to avoid the harder questions about Hirsi Ali’s invite.

The first of those questions is whether Hirsi Ali received her invitation for the right reasons. If Hirsi Ali should come to Yale, she should come because she has something to contribute to the intellectual community on campus, or because she will inspire a debate among students that is worth having. So far, neither seems to have happened. We know that the Buckley Program was inspired to invite Hirsi Ali specifically because of what happened at Brandeis. Her lecture at Yale has its origin in the controversy surrounding her ideas, not the ideas themselves. I had trouble reading Lizardo’s article without feeling that he and the Buckley Program were inviting Hirsi Ali not because she has interesting things to say, but because they knew it would generate controversy. While Lizardo may well be right that Hirsi Ali does not “provoke merely to provoke,” it seems like he and his organization might be doing just that. I’m sure the Buckley Program will happily deny this, perhaps in good faith: the point, though, is that Hirsi Ali’s talk has been framed not as one where interesting ideas that are worth hearing are presented, but as a response to a restriction of free speech and a strike at liberals’ aversion to hearing things they disagree with.

Even if Hirsi Ali were coming for the right reasons, though, are her ideas worth bringing to Yale? When I was asked by a friend if I though Hirsi Ali should come, I hesitated. I hesitated for the same reason the MSA and many others are worried about her lecture: our hesitation reflects a lack of trust in the ability of the Yale community to engage in critical discourse. People should be able to see that the most egregious statements Hirsi Ali makes are just that —absolutist claims that are phrased in a dangerous, threatening manner, deserving of little recognition. But there is clearly a fair amount of anxiety about whether we as a campus will see those statements as absurd. No one worried about Ann Coulter or Herman Cain coming to speak at Yale; they say things that we know everyone can dismiss as ridiculous. The concern over Hirsi Ali’s influence on campus if she comes to speak points to a lack of faith in the Yale community, a lack of faith that is perhaps heightened when the topic is religion. People do not think others will critically engage with Hirsi Ali’s ideas.

That said, I think Hirsi Ali should come. Because having her come, even if she is coming for all the wrong reasons, is the most effective way to counter her. If we do it right, Hirsi Ali will be met with a strong, reasoned resistance from the students and faculty alike; we will engage her and push her on her position. The lack of faith in the student body not to be influenced in a dangerous manner by her ideas, if validated, is alarming. If Hirsi Ali has a negative, hurtful impact on campus and makes students see Islam and Muslims in the light that she does, then we will know that lack of faith is grounded. Twisted reasoning, perhaps, but to see if that lack of faith has a foundation, we need Hirsi Ali to come.

 

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  1. The Buckley program did not invite her as a provocation. They invited her based on the program’s mission. Maybe you should read it–straight off of the Buckley website:

    “The mission of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program is to promote intellectual diversity at Yale University. We aim to expand political discourse on campus and to expose students to often-unvoiced views. We believe that ideas have consequences and that genuine intellectual diversity is essential for advancing critical inquiry and avoiding ideological complacency. Our hope is that by providing a home for a diverse collection of serious conservative thought we can provide a forum for Yale students to consider and examine a range of political philosophies to which they are rarely exposed. As such, the purpose of this program is to foster open political discussion and intellectual engagement on campus.”

    As for whether her ideas were worth hearing…what ideas aren’t worth at least hearing?

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