Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, October 10, 2004
by Susan Ives
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde said. He must have been hanging around Trinity University last week.
Let me back up a bit.
A couple of weeks ago, Trinity held a human rights film festival, and I was invited to sit with students, watch one of the films and help facilitate a discussion. The film was “Discordia,” about a near-riot that broke out at Montreal’s Concordia University two years ago when Hillel, a Jewish student organization, invited former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak. The campus Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights vowed to disrupt his speech.
They did, and the film tracked the sad deterioration of relations between the two groups over the next year and its disruptive effect on campus life.
I suspect I was invited to back up the Palestinians’ approach. I didn’t. After confessing that I wasn’t president of the Bibi Netanyahu Fan Club (who spoke at Laurie Auditorium as part of Trinity’s distinguished lecture series in 2000, by the way) I quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that the remedy for bad speech is more speech.
His exact words, in the 1927 case Whitney v. California: “It is the function of free speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears … the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”
The Palestinian students, I suggested, might have done better to use Netanyahu’s speech to educate the student body about their cause and expose his bankrupt policies. Wrong-headed ideas, like vampires, can’t live in the light. When we force them underground they develop a creepy charisma, the attraction of the forbidden. Let him damn himself with his own words.
And it’s the role of universities, I continued (I was on a roll), to nurture the critical thinking skills of students. The very least we should expect from college graduates is that they be able to listen to ideas contrary to theirs — even ideas they find repugnant — and hold a civil dialogue on the issues.
The discussion was lively and, as one would expect from Trinity students, perceptive. Could it happen here?
Nah, we concluded.
It happened the next day. The Trinity Multicultural Network and the student Coalition for Peace and Justice announced that a group called Stop the Wall would be on campus this past Tuesday as part of a 40-city tour. It would set up a mock wall on the esplanade and host a film showing, lecture and discussion about the wall Israel is building between Israel and Palestine.
“Can’t do it,” some said. “It’s propaganda, anti-Israel, polarizing, one-sided.”
“It’s free speech,” others replied, “an important issue that needs to be aired.”
We all held our breath. Would the event be canceled?
Maybe it wasn’t a case of life imitating art but rather life learning from art. Everyone — administration, faculty, students, the community and the tour organizers — discussed the issue. They talked about canceling the event, about changing the format, about all the options to ensure this would be a meaningful learning experience and not “Discordia” redux.
And they reached consensus. The wall tour came to Trinity, but the opposing viewpoint would be given an opportunity to conduct an educational event of equal scope. The student groups are talking to the Jewish Federation to make this happen.
In the first presidential debate, President Bush repeated that we can’t send “mixed signals,” implying that dissent is un-American. On the contrary, it is in the rough and tumble of abrading viewpoints that our ideas are polished, like gems in a tumbler.
President Kennedy put this better than I can. He said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
I carried that quote with me to Trinity, intending to read it, but I ran out of time. Turns out they already knew it.