Let me get straight to the point. Institutions of higher learning are not meant to be political battlefields. They aren’t supposed to be assembly lines which churn out MBAs and MScs and PhDs with the homogeneity of a ginger-bread man cookie-cutter. They should ideally be forums to unlearn stereotypes and give nuance to opinions. Which is why, it is very disappointing that Wharton has cancelled Narendra Modi’s speech. No, I’m not a NAMO-bhakt. This isn’t in defence of Modi, but in defence of free speech.
When it comes to the freedom of speech, there isn’t that one moment which you can pinpoint and say “THIS is when I started believing in the freedom of expression”. It’s an evolutionary process, which hopefully begins in school where accidentally or by design you learn to make your peace with contrarian opinions which vary in severity to your own personal belief system. Which is why educational institutions should give space to all voices, no matter how hated, contrary or politically incorrect. Listening to Modi speak isn’t an endorsement of his views, it’s a chance to validate your own opinions and to support them with a first-hand experience.
As a graduate student at the London School of Economics (LSE), I attended a lecture given via video link by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in December 2010 (watch it here, here, here and here). We were told that the Colonel would be speaking on Libya’s position in the world. The auditorium was packed a good 20 minutes before the talk began and it was quite apparent that for many of us, it was the most interesting “lecture” of our academic lives. Does that mean that those of us who attended the lecture supported non-democratic governments? Nahhh, we just wanted to see what a dictator had to say.
Watch the videos carefully. It focuses only on the audience and their reaction is telling. The sheer ridiculousness of the Colonel’s ramblings means that he was subjected to disdainful chuckles and derisive laughter. He didn’t answer a single question in any meaningful way and his comments were outrageously (and unintentionally) funny. He accused Thatcher and Reagan for conspiring against Libya, he offered condolences to a (baffled) Pakistani student on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution, and when asked what he thought was Libya’s position in the world, he explained its geographical position. When an audience member asked him two separate questions, one on the Lockerbie bombings and the other on Tony Blair’s help in the image makeover for Libya, he mixed up the two and asserted that Tony Blair had nothing to do with the Lockerbie bombings and that it was a conspiracy (?!). He said Obama was a good president because he is “not a Yankee” (again??!!). The pièce de résistance of his “talk” though, was his “map according to Gaddafi” – an atlas that formed the backdrop and showed how Gaddafi believed the world would politically evolve into unions of states and would have no space for individual national identities, at which point an annoyed student from Azerbaijan got up and asked that since his country was clubbed with Russia, was the Colonel implying that it would be annexed? Moral of the story? If what you say does not resonate with your audience, they have the ability to reject it.
My faith in democracy is as strong as ever, thankyouverymuchforasking. One hour or one speech is not enough to indoctrinate students. Yet, there is a certain nuance to my opinion on dictatorships now. Before Dec 2010, I thought that they were bad because they suppressed self-determination and were a violation of basic human rights. While I still believe this, there is a second reason to my opposition to non-democratic governments – despots who are in power lose touch with reality, become delusional and pose a threat to the entire region that they’re in.
I’m not comparing Modi and Gaddafi as leaders. What I am comparing are situations in which two polarising figures were asked to address a body of students seeking an education. Modi should have spoken at Wharton not because he necessarily needs to be heard, but because students have the right to question those who want to lead them.
Not everyone disagrees or agrees with Modi’s politics for the same reasons. Yet, the journey to forming an opinion for or against an issue is much, much more important than the final opinion itself. The Whartons and LSEs of the world are meant to nurture mature views, not reinforce pre-conceived notions. I would much rather engage in a conversation with a person who says he would/would not vote for Modi for reasons X, Y and Z rather than someone who says he won’t vote for him because he’s a monster or will support him because…you know development/growth/randomeconomicindicator. The talk at Wharton should have been an opportunity to question Modi on his politics and his economics. He should have been told that he can’t cherry-pick the questions to suit a propaganda – that he would have to answer any question, no matter how uncomfortable which any student may have to ask him. It’s not clear if these terms were laid out, but had they been unacceptable to him, that itself would have said a lot.
There is nothing more disappointing than a university quelling an unpalatable point of view. Heck, it’s the one time in your life when you want to challenge and be challenged, offend and be offended and bare yourself to the widest spectrum of ideas without real world consequences. It’s called gaining an education. What exactly are those opposed to the speech afraid of? That Modi will brainwash students? Or that it signals some sort of an endorsement of his politics? Oh come on! Give the students some credit! They probably have a collective score of 9734287489347 on their GRE/GMAT and are more than capable of deciding whether or not they want to support Modi.
A few weeks after Gaddafi’s talk, the Arab Spring engulfed Libya – but not before it rapped LSE on the knuckles. Houghton Street, the main street which houses the LSE, saw vociferous protests by students against the college’s links with Libya, the “extra support” which Saif Gaddafi (Colonel Gaddafi’s son) got for the completion of his PhD and for the donations which it accepted from the regime. The Woolf Inquiry was set up to independently assess LSE’s association with Libya subsequently, the then Director of the LSE, Howard Davies had to step down on account of the school accepting a GBP 1.5 mn donation from the country. So here’s what, it wasn’t a speech that was an endorsement of Gaddafi’s views, but unethical donations, which was rejected by the students. In fact, the Woolf report states of the lecture that:
The LSE does not consider its lectures give a platform to objectionable speakers, because it has a strict rule that it will never allow an event unless the speaker is willing to take questions and the LSE does not allow the speaker to handpick the audience. (Pg: 115)
Somewhere along the line, we’ve come to interpret “listening” to mean “agreeing”. Yet if you don’t listen, how do you know what you’re disagreeing with? I once asked an octogenarian holocaust survivor (again, at the LSE) what he thought of holocaust-deniers and whether he thought they should be banned. He said that people denying the holocaust isn’t going to make him stop believing – that he knew what had happened. In fact, he wouldn’t support a ban because the world could then see how ridiculous and bigoted they were.
His logic is appealing – free speech is not a scarce resource. It is a public good. It cannot be allocated according to a perceived benefit to society. Anyone with an opinion to air is entitled to it, including the Modis and Rahuls or the Owaisis and Togadias of the world. Listening to ideas or thoughts which I find distasteful or disagree with, is the price I pay for my freedom. Yes, there are some serious questions and concerns about Modi’s ability to lead the nation, but they aren’t going to disappear by clamping down on his public appearances.
Learning to accept intellectual discomfort is a vital part of the university experience. Those who don’t learn to deal with it are paying tuition fees just for a degree, not for an education.
The views expressed by the author are personal
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/3037141194/]