Sunday, 30 September 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

Originally published 9/30/07, 8:04 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
The debate goes back and forth. Should Columbia University have invited Ahmadinejad to speak, even given the fact that the University's president attacked him? Many issues enter into the debate. One is the question of freedom of speech. Does freedom of speech not allow one to present even the most grotesque concepts (as long as it does not actually lead to violence) for if you put any limitation of this freedom it will eventually swallow all disagreements? But that really was not the issue. The further question was really whether the university should have invited him. Freedom of speech may ultimately allow someone to speak but that does not mean that I have to provide this person with a forum.

That, though, was also not the real question. Columbia also recognized that it had no obligation, under the concept of freedom of speech to provided this forum. So the further question is why did Columbia provide the forum? The cynical answer would be that it served Columbia's self-interest however the university's president contended that, since it was a controlled environment, it provided the opportunity to challenge and critique Iran and the Iranian president. So that becomes the real question -- is it better to challenge evil head on in debate or is it better to ignore it? Should Ahmadinejad had been offered a forum given that this forum will also provide the opportunity to call him a petty and cruel dictator or is it better to ignore him? That is really a most interesting question.

The history of the Christian-Jewish debates of the Middle Ages would seem to support the latter view. Torah scholars clearly attempted to avoid these disputations and, as greatly evidenced by the Disputation between Ramban and Pablo Christiani, the result of these disputations was negative even as the Jewish scholars clearly one the academic battle. But in these cases, the environment was shaped to ensure this negativity. Perhaps in more objective circumstances, Torah scholars would have been more open to a forum which allowed the expression of the divergent opinion knowing full well that the result would be positive and lead perhaps to a better outcome. After all, does Pirkei Avoth not say to know how to answer the heretic and did not members of Chazal find themselves in situations whereby they debated heretics, or at least answered them. Still there is a great difference between responding to the challenge of a debate and inviting one like Ahmadinejad to speak.

The problem is that once you give a forum you never know what the response will be. Already I have heard that in Iran the invite to Columbia has been given a totally positive spin without mention of how the attack on Ahmadinejad. Alternatively, I have heard that there have been criticism of the U.S. and how rude this country is, without mention of the substantive issues mentioned by Columbia's president.

There is a side of me that still believes that the best way to fight evil may be by placing it out in the open and then showing it for what it is. The potential ridicule of evil through substantial debate may have great value. But there is a great but. The circumstances of debate ultimately rule the debate. The problem with Columbia's theory may be that you cannot control the circumstances and the environment. That was the great ultimate lesson of the Ramban's disputation with Christiani. Ramban really tried to level the playing field, ensure an objective debate. It sadly didn't help because the other side found a way around it and used the very disputation that they lost for their own benefit. In the end, perhaps ignoring is the practically best way.

The issue thought is a real one.


Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

Nishma might be the only group - or at least one of the very few - that can actually see two sides to this polarizing issue. Yishar Ko'ach to to Rabbi Hecht for articulating the nature of the dilemma involved; i.e. the conflict between free speech and making propaganda for evil dictators.

What is not known is Columbia's true underlying motivation. Was it to promote free speech? Was it to expose Ahmadinejad to the scrutiny of the audience and media? Was it a publicity stunt to promote Columbia's good name over its "competitors"

Kol Tuv

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

Note: I have been promoting a pure non-ad hominnem approach to posting. What about Ahmadinejad?

There are - aisi- 3 kinds of people with regard to their good-evil axis:
1. The thoroughly good
2. The thoroughly evil
3. Everyone else

The first 2 are rare. They include those selfless saints #1, and their converse - the Hitlers and Hamans in #2.

Very few people fall into these categories because most people have both an evil and good inclination.

The Dor Hamabul - the pre-flood generation was deemed pure evil nd was destroyed. Sodom and Gamoroh was similar, and I would guess Nazi Germany was in the same class.

Certainly there is a kind of evil that has virtually zero social-redeeming value. Ahmadinejad is such a person and is imho not worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

Most people we discuss on a regular basis are a mixed bag. It is hard to know if a given act has an evil motive, a good motive or a well-intended but mis-guided motive.

I would guess that e.g. President Carter is more about being mis-guided than inherently evil. We then attack not HIM personally but his various mis-guided positions.

On the other hand [otoh] Ahmadinejad's evil is so pervasive it is difficult to separate his numerous evil positions away from his persona.

This theme corresponds to the High Holiday concept of the Books of life and Death. The totally good get Life immediately. Conversely the Totally evil get Death immediately. It is MOST of us that are in between and require the 10 days of Penitence to sort out our fate.


Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I first want to state my agreement with Rabbi Wolpoe's comments. Ad hominum attacks may have a place but only in rare situations when the evil is inherent in the person, not really an outgrowth of an incorrect idea. In that case, it is the idea that must be challenged and it must be challenged directly. Ad hominum attacks in such cases just serve to score points without really dealing with the issue.

In another vein, I wanted to add a further comment on the problem when we give a forum to one with whom we disagree. As I said, you never know what the person will say and that may cause more problems. Ahmadinejad said in his speech that what should be simply done is to give everyone in "Palestine" a vote and let the matter be decided democratically. That type of argument is, in certain ways, even more problematic for Israel than all of Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic and terrorist rhetoric. To the average person, the call for democracy would seem even correct; Ahmadinejad may even sound sensible. The result, of course, would be the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. The reason why we cannot give everyone a vote as Ahmadinejad suggests demands much more sophisticated analysis. That is why this statement is so problematic. Everyone can see the problem of hate. It is the subtle, seemingly acceptable suggestions that become more of a problem. Giving a forum to Ahmadinejad allows him to develop these type of arguments that on the surface may attract some support -- and one is not prepared or has the ablility to respond properly. Luckily Ahmadinejad's history allowed people to just skip over this statement.

In regard to the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad actually made two comments. One was to deny it. The other was to contend that even if it occurred, it was wrong for the the Arab world to pay for Europe's crime. In certain ways it was better that Ahmadinejad focused on the denial because the other argument, although also having weaknesses, demands a more sophisticated response and could have been more problematic. In fact, this argument is now beginning to be used by Arab supporters and that will cause new problems as many people, without fully analyzing the argument, will be affected by it.