The myth of understanding

It is interesting to see what people see when they look at something and how these observations differ from person to person. This is evident in the Horowitz ad controversy, as the issue astonishingly quickly lost its original context and got redefined as a matter of freedom of speech. Professors and students alike have been rather naive and limited in their interpretation by believing that the outcry against the ad, and how the incident was handled, was a matter concerning a censoring of ideas. It was not this at all, and I believe that it is important to put things into context now before all structures of understanding are lost in the mire that has followed.

There are a few fundamental reasons for why this was not an issue of freedom of speech. Firstly, the petition which ran against the ad never declared that the ad should not have been run, but to the contrary on how it should have been handled by the editors of the Record. Rory Kramer’s petition against the ad focused entirely on how the issue should have been handled, always taking as its base that the ad had been printed, never once condemning the act of it being printed.

Secondly, the Record’s executive editors declared in the now notorious CC meeting that they would “never print a racist ad,” and were quite clear on this point in their defense. It is then simply that the Record’s executive editors did not consider this ad to be racist in nature, and so saw nothing wrong with printing it. Thus, basically the issue of freedom of speech does not rise because freedom of speech does not exist in the Record as it is, since the editors are making a value judgment on the content in order to deem it fit for publication, and admittedly do not publish everything.

I am tired of arguing with people about whether or not the ad was racist. It explicitly makes a blanket statement about a people, their culture, and their beliefs. How can anyone not understand that when Horowitz says “Islam’s war” he means only the Islamic people who have a war, and when he says “Arab Muslim Jew-hatred” he means only those Muslims and Arabs who actually hate Jews? Of course racism has nothing to do with derogatory generalizations.

The truly frightening side to this entire ordeal has been the discovery of a particular perspective that many people have used to try and justify what has happened. People are saying that it’s a good thing that all of this has happened since it has started a debate and an intellectual argument. That it fosters communication and understanding in the community. What debate has this fostered so far? This has not been a debate but an unhealthy argument, with one side screaming in pain and anger and the other one being actively defensive.

Even at the much-awaited Gaudino Forum, everyone retreated to their own sides, and dissed out the ‘other’ side for not understanding after all. The real danger is in this very perception that justifies “debates” like this. Because there is always a choice, and more than one way of doing anything at all, and this is not the way to start a debate. It’s the same as my assaulting another student and sending him to the hospital in order to start a debate on racial tensions on campus. Or to justify a rape because, “hey, there will be a talk and a discussion that will follow after.” It is akin to justifying colonization because it brought cultures in contact with one another.

Also, what stems from this perspective and justification is the belief (which very visibly reared its ugly head in the CC meeting) that the responsibility for education lies not on the person who is unaware, but on the victim, who through his or her victimization is meant to educate the ‘masses.’ This is not the first time this structure has manifested itself, and unfortunately, it haunts the minority community on this campus very regularly.

The tragedy lies in the fact that Williams is meant to be a place where we are a small and interdependent community that can learn from itself by these very virtues. All one needs to do is talk and be receptive to begin with.

Yet, the brutal truth of the matter is that what really exists is only a myth of understanding, ruling undisputed. No one really talks or communicates with anyone outside of their little social pockets and comfort zones, and yet everyone believes that they know what Williams is. Racial insensitivity is rife and inter-community understanding is elusive here at best.

In the end, I can at best be amused by the irony of the fact that I was seen as someone who opposes the right to freedom of speech. Back home in Pakistan I have been arrested twice, spent a night in prison, and have had my life threatened to the extent that I have had to flee my city twice and go into hiding once, because I stubbornly fight for and value this very right to the freedom of speech.

The saving grace is because we are a small community, because we are intelligent, because we are meant to be here to learn, we can do something. Learning is not done through passivity but activity. I have screamed and yelled, spoken till my voice was hoarse and my company obtuse, and have finally written this article -what will you do once you’ve read it?