Campus should not judge

How does the vocal campus reaction to David Horowitz’s ad in the Record relate to the athletics debate at Williams or the controversies over QSU chalkings or reducing the size of housing groups? It exemplifies a pattern we once called in an editorial “the recurring rush to judgment.” As community members personalize criticism, polarizing declarations and immediate denunciations overwhelm reasoned discussion of controversial topics.

Based on the letters and e-mails we’ve read and discussions we’ve had with people on campus, it appears to us that the rush to judgment reflex is alive and well at Williams. We think it is important to stop and ask why the newspaper might publish such an ad and what role the Record should play on campus. It is also important to think about how Williams reacts to difficult issues and the benefits of resisting the urge to denounce and dismiss those who challenge, even harshly challenge, predominant views on campus.

As a newspaper that covers topics of interest to the Williams community and does not affiliate itself with a particular ideology, the Record is an open forum for ideas. Printing the ad was consistent with our view that a handful of people deep in Baxter basement should not make value judgments for the entire community.

This is not to say that there are no texts that would fall outside of what is acceptable in a public forum. However, Horowitz’s ad was political speech that, while intentionally provocative, merits space in the paper whose goal is to promote ongoing community discussion.

Williams’ interaction with Horowitz over the past few weeks illustrates how we often mishandle opportunities to explore sensitive and complicated issues, despite spaces available for that purpose. Whether it is a critical global topic like the crisis in the Middle East, or a campus controversy, such as the proper balance between athletics and academics, too often our responses are rigid and polarized. This ultimately terminates the public forum’s usefulness: Participants distance themselves from it and challenging ideas are judged and quickly denounced.

It is likely the rush to judgment is not merely a Williams phenomenon and it is this climate on which Horowitz attempts to capitalize. His language is calculated to elicit an emotional response and spawn hysteria; he directly challenged Williams’ reflexes and they were as sharp as ever. Vicious words can disable conversation – but only if we let them. Horowitz and other provocateurs utilize ambiguous language and hyperbole to raise the awareness levels and intensity of rhetoric around their chosen issues. Unfortunately, similar techniques all too frequently find their way to the forefront of Williams’ discussions. Rushing to label one’s opposition as “racist,” “anti-athlete” or “anti-students’ rights” is no more likely to lead to progress and discussion than using phrases like “Arab and Islamic Jew-hatred.”

There is little doubt that the choice words, “Arab and Islamic Jew-hatred [which] is the Nazi virus revived” are provocative and are designed to play on people’s sensitivities. Yet this phrase tempts readers to ignore the preceding words and paragraphs, which robs us of valuable context with which to evaluate his arguments and claims. For example, a review of the preceding sentence indicates that Horowitz’s strongest statement likely refers to the narrow group of suicide bombers, not an entire people.

Furthermore, while “Arab and Islamic Jew-hatred” can be read as a generalized claim, it does not conclusively implicate all Arabs or all Muslims as anti-Semites. One of the primary criticisms of Horowitz, and by extension of the Record, is that Horowitz did not include the “this does not mean everyone” disclaimer that we’re used to at Williams and the Record did not include a “we are not racists” explanation.

Indeed Horowitz’s words give people cause for outrage and he could have included such disclaimers. Likewise, when questioning athletics at Williams, we could preface everything with a long explanation that there are questions about “some but not all.” But the lack of a disclaimer shouldn’t justify paralysis of discussion.

Just as those who questioned the athletics program were immediately labeled anti-athlete, those who criticized the content of the QSU chalkings were called anti-gay and those who reacted to a pro-life mailing were termed anti-free speech, those at the Record who supported the publication of Horowitz’s ad have been called hateful. In most of these cases, those who advocated a position were none of the above, but the attacks against them set the terms for debate, and thus the potential for productive discussions was virtually eliminated.

We believe the introduction of critical and hostile material serves to strengthen, rather than weaken, discussion because it forces us to sharpen our arguments. Hence, what is most disappointing about the fracas surrounding the Horowitz ad, and other issues that have elicited the recurring rush to judgment, is that they shift attention away from the content itself. In this regard, our criticism lies with the move from individual feelings to collective actions that target sources of information instead of salient issues. We are not suggesting that responses of individuals should take on a certain form; reactions will and should vary within groups.

In the case of Horowitz, why aren’t we investigating his motivation to publish ads in college newspapers or his tactics to incite reactions with inflammatory language? If you believe he is hateful, why not consider why he has been so successful in getting his views out in public? If you support Horowitz, why not explore what effect provocative language has for the dissemination of your beliefs?

Was Horowitz’s ad an ideal catalyst for discussion? Probably not. Has Williams’ reaction to the ad made the future discussion even more difficult. We believe it has. Sure, his language was provocative and distracts from the logic underlying his argument, but after the last few weeks, how realistic is it that others in the community will proffer viewpoints outside of the Williams norm?

We can do better, we owe it to ourselves and our community. We can disagree, we should disagree and we should do so forcefully. However, ignoring ideas, no matter how malicious you think they are, does not eliminate them. Would the Williams community really be stronger if the Record had squashed the ad in Baxter basement? In the short term, perhaps. But in the long term, what do we gain from suppressing information?