Gaudino panel facilitates ‘respectful discourse’ discussion

A large crowd attended a Gaudino Forum in Stetson Faculty Lounge last Wednesday evening to discuss a subject that has become especially significant on campus over the past three weeks.

The topic being discussed was “Respectful Discourse and Controversial Speech at Williams College.” A collaboration between Robert Jackall, Gaudino Scholar and professor of sociology and social thought, and the Record, the forum hoped to address issues that had arisen over the Record’s Oct. 29 publication of an advertisement submitted by conservative David Horowitz. The ad’s sentiments, which many perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, upset people throughout the community.

The ad also prompted a flood of discussions, opinion pieces published in the Record and e-mails directed at issues of racism, respectful public discourse and free speech.

In response to the opinions generated by the controversy, the Record editorial board, along with other student leaders, organized a Gaudino forum.

“We felt instead that if we were going to give the money to something, that giving the money to the community to discuss and attempt to resolve some of the issues raised would be better for everyone involved,” said Maia Troxel ’03, editor-in-chief of the Record.

The forum began with Steven Gerrard, professor of philosophy, Marc Lynch, assistant professor of political science and James McAllister, assistant professor of political science, presenting their views on the issue. Both McAllister and Lynch have published opinions pieces in the Record over the last two weeks.

Lynch said he wrote his initial letter “to show that there is a place where we should draw the line, not in order to suppress argument, but towards making the possibility for argument.

“I believe really, really strongly in the need for public argument,” he said. “I want people to disagree politically. I want people to argue in public politically. I think that we don’t have enough real, substantial political argument.

“But the conditions of these kinds of public arguments working is the establishment of certain boundaries of mutual respect, and what I describe as empathy.”

Lynch was particularly upset by the ad because he feels that “Horowitz is doing the kinds of things that make it extraordinarily difficult to have that kind of empathy and mutual respect.”

Gerrard alluded to the McCarthy Era and his own personal experiences with censorship and “free speech.”

“You cannot repress speech without repressing speakers,” he said.

Gerrard encouraged the audience to consider the conditions at Williams that promote free speech, but also to ponder the question of “what chills such speech.”

McAllister spoke favorably of the community’s reaction when he said, “I think that Williams College has done a great job in dealing with the Horowitz controversy.

“We’ve avoided all the excesses against Horowitz that other colleges have fallen into,” he said, citing instances on other college campuses where students have dealt with the ad by ripping apart newspapers.

But one of McAllister’s main concerns was with the labeling of Horowitz as a “known racist.”

“What Horowitz is, is really a ‘known provocateur.’ And the thing that I really worry about is when we start attributing motives to other people like ‘racism’ that they might not have. And that’s something that I personally hope that we can dampen.”

McAllister also called for closure on the subject, following the forum.

“I think the big issues have come out,” he said. “Let’s just let this issue die.”

Yet, during the discussion, controversial subjects surfaced and stirred up many emotions in the audience.

Many questioned the issue of minority safety on campus; a right that they felt had been threatened by the ad. Several evoked the Mad Cow incident of two years ago, to further their arguments of concern.

“I think that one has a right to feel safe, which is different from feeling comfortable,” said Lynch. “I think that when groups are not only a minority on this campus, but a minority in this country, that creates a unique situation.”

Participants also argued over a speech code idea, and whether or not a disclaimer should have been included with the ad, while others urged their peers not to turn the debate into a ‘free speech’ issue.

Some were concerned with the prominent, anonymous hate speech in online forums and list servers.

“[The online discussions] lead to name- calling and a lack of responsible discourse,” said Gerrard. “I think the level of discourse on campus would go way up if the server were just permanently short-circuited.”

The speakers emphasized caution in dealing with future controversial issues, but also recognized the Record’s independence in handling its own affairs.

“Just as I am autonomous in my classroom, the Record editorial board has to be autonomous in running their paper,” McAllister said.

“The unfortunate part of the matter is that this ‘debate’ has begun to devolve quite rapidly, and one of the miscommunications that has happened is concerning who all have been affected and how deep it runs,” said Shehryar Qureshi ’04, MinCo co-chair. Qureshi did not attend the forum for personal reasons, but provided comments on how he believed the forum would be ineffective.

“In its aftermath it seems that in all its might, the forum was quite impotent towards furthering any understanding. Of course, this view is keeping in context that this forum was meant to be the venue for all the understanding and ‘intellectual discourse’ which was to make us proud that, since we live in such an intellectual community, we can resolve and understand such issues. I don’t think it achieved either one of these goals.”

“I think that it’s important for the community to have these discussions,” said Kim Bruce, professor of computer science, at the forum. “I think some people learned something from all of this arising, some people felt a lot of pain in this happening. Maybe there was a greater good; I’m sad that people were hurt as a result of this.”

“I really believe that the Record should not be reprimanded for printing that ad,” said Fatma Kassamali, director of the Office of Career Counseling.

“We cannot break animosity, whether it’s at Williams or in the country,” she said. “I think that this particular issue becomes even larger, because we [Muslims] are afraid that we’re not being defended in the country. And so, a small thing like this really made us feel that even more.”

“I believe the forum is one of a number of actions Williams needs to take in order to build a better community,” said Rory Kramer ’03. “The equality and safety of students on this campus is assumed, but I’m not sure that is always correct.  The forum, I believe, was an interesting intellectual pursuit toward understanding the freedom and responsibility of speech, but I felt it lacked the very necessary focus on creating a more positive Williams community.  That’s been the goal of the students and, I believe, faculty behind the protests against the running without comment of David Horowitz’s hateful and wrong ad, and it needs to become the goal of the campus community at large.”

Troxel, however, was optimistic about the outcome. “After all the controversy over the past two weeks, our hope was that the community would be able to come together to discuss some of the issues. While I think things are still far from being resolved completely, I really hope that the community has had the chance to at least start a discussion that
will continue, rather than falling into the background until another controversy occurs.”