October 06, 2014

Michael Bloomberg (@mikebloomberg) - Don't Major in Intolerance

Following the Brandeis University-Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy of 2014, when Brandeis revoked an invitation it had offered to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak and receive an honorary degree at the university's commencement ceremonies. In response to this action aagainst the Somali-born feminist and political essayist and others, Michael Bloomberg spoke out against this trend of liberal intolerance. Michael Bloomberg said in his Harvard Commencement speech 2014 entitled, 'Don't Major in Intolerance':

"Throughout history, those in authority have tried to repress ideas that threaten their power, their religion, their ideology or their re-election chances. That was true for Socrates and Galileo; it was true for Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel; and it has been true for Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot and the kids who made the “Happy” video in Iran. We cannot deny others the rights and privileges that we demand for ourselves; that is true in cities, and it is no less true at universities, where the forces of repression appear to be stronger now than they have been since the 1950s. There is an idea floating around college campuses — including here at Harvard — that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.  
In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. Perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League. In the 2012 presidential race, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama. That statistic, drawn from Federal Election Commission data, should give us pause — and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama. When 96 percent of faculty donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a university should offer. Diversity of gender, ethnicity and orientation is important. But a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous.  
In fact, the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms. When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms. Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research will lose credibility. A liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism. 
This spring, it has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw, or have their invitations rescinded, after protests from students and — to me, shockingly — from senior faculty and administrators who should know better. It happened at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers and Smith. Last year, it happened at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins. In each case, liberals silenced a voice and denied an honorary degree to individuals they deemed politically objectionable.
As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points. If the faculty fails to do this, then it is the responsibility of the administration and governing body to step in and make it a priority. If they do not, if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society. If you want to know where that leads, look no further than Washington."
Also reported here and here. Watch a video of the speech here. Also Bloomberg in 2013 spoke about the American Dream. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff spoke about the lamentable consequences of this values shift in his book Unlearning Liberty, where he said:

"On college campuses today, students are punished for everything from mild satire, to writing politically incorrect short stories, to having the wrong opinion on virtually every hot button issue."
Niall Ferguson said in the Sunday Times:
"Still, in our different ways we [Niall Ferguson and Radek Sikorski] were spear carriers in the Cold War. And we owe a common debt to those few academics — great men such as Jeremy Catto, Maurice Cowling, Roger Scruton and Norman Stone — who encouraged us in our revolt against the suffocating social democratic consensus that prevailed in universities in those days."
A Barbican show, Exhibit B, was forced to close. It should have opened at the Vaults in south London. It was created by a white South African artist, Brett Bailey, and a changing cast of black performers, Exhibit B. It was forced to close after a petition was launched and led by Sara Myers, who told Newsnight the show was "offensive to the memory of our ancestors". In response Catherine Bennett wrote in the Guardian, 'What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?':
"After some disorder, Berlin audiences were able to judge for themselves. Not so in London, none of the above apologists, black or white, having satisfied critics including Paul Boateng and Lee Jasper, former adviser on equalities to Ken Livingstone. But as Jasper made clear,in an attack on Exhibit B, after it was defended by the (white-dominated) Barbican, any such defence was likely to be construed, in itself, as racist, in that it ascribed deficient understanding to protesters (who in turn ascribe deficient understanding to the show’s participants). Jasper is clear what art is for. “Black people,” he wrote, “not white liberal elites are the best arbiters of the extent to which this exhibition is helping or hindering the challenge of combating racism and prejudice.” While Jasper deserves full credit for stating, so plainly, his credentials as a kind of amateur lord chamberlain, to whom any sensitive artistic material should be submitted, pre-performance, for the necessary corrections, or risk the consequences, he is not, of course, the first to appoint himself to such a position. Lord Bell aspires, one gathers, to a very similar role, protecting public and ancestors alike from Hilary Mantel. Similarly, David Miliband deplored (unseen) the Dutch film, Fitna; certain Brick Lane residents wanted to ban Monica Ali; evangelicals finally eradicated Jerry Springer: The Opera; Liverpool councillors tried to prevent a local production of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, since, said a local councillor, it “could have been profoundly disturbing”. More successfully, a secular compliance unit at the BBC censored a play, Heart of Darkness, by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose earlier work Behzti had already been de-staged in 2004, on safety grounds, following aggressive protests by offended sections of Birmingham’s Sikh community. A local MP applauded their achievement and the Labour government would not condemn it.  
In fact, the much greater official tolerance of homemade censorship since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie seems to have nurtured an ever-growing number of Jaspers, of all castes, races and predilections, sometimes hailing from the very heart of the white liberal elite. To judge by recent successes, limits to free expression can be just as stringently imposed when claimed, at random, by or on behalf of its self-styled victims, than when systematically enforced, pre-1968, by the lord chamberlain.  
The last century’s preposterous, but ultimately challengeable, bans on penis allusions and the depiction of biblical characters have become today’s vague objections to an artwork’s unfairness, bad taste, inaccuracy, disrespect of ancestors: anything offensive enough to draw a crowd, worry the police and end in cancellation, due to safety concerns. As discussed at a recent Index on Censorship event, fear of such controversy, and the possible impact on sponsors, has already led to artistic self-censorship – as well as private performances of offending work, as in the days of Wilde’s Salome. In 2010, a play called Moonfleece, about – ie, not promoting – the BNP, failed to appear in Dudley (although it did in Doncaster), because of arts management fears about “characters and themes of a political and potentially discriminatory nature”. As is their habit, neither the Arts Council nor the DCMS responded that freedom of expression is a right intended, in this country at least, to set the bar rather higher than that. Say goodbye, potentially, to The Merchant of Venice. 
Admittedly, in comparison with the old lord chamberlains, high court judges and Mary Whitehouses, today’s freelance censors can be sympathetic. One person’s sense of exclusion is not an argument against another’s artistic expression, but it clarifies why unwelcome representation might resemble further victimisation. Opposition to Exhibit B is mingled with righteous anger about London’s privileged arts establishment. Then again, Kaur Bhatti’s Sikh background did not protect her from Sikh death threats. And I struggle to see the essential difference between Jasper’s determination to deny sight of Exhibit B to London audiences and the remarks by Lord Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley trial, in 1960: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” You almost wish for another landmark trial: to confirm, following dereliction by successive governments, that the law is on the side of free speech. Rather than, as it increasingly appears, ad hoc censorship by intimidation – if only for those artists unwilling to submit their work, in advance, for licensing by the relevant committees."
And David Aaronovitch responded to the Barbican scandal here, and said:
"‘But here we are today,’ Frederick Douglass told his audience in the Boston Music Hall in the winter of 1860, almost disbelievingly, “contending for what we thought we gained years ago.” Douglass had been born a slave in Maryland in 1817. Aged 21 he escaped to the north. He worked as a labourer in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and educated himself, becoming probably the most eloquent and strategically gifted leader of the movement to abolish slavery. And here I am — a lesser man in every way — also contending for something that I too thought we had long ago gained. Free expression. Yet last week the Barbican Arts Centre in London was forced to close down an art installation because some people found it offensive and, in essence, prevented it from continuing. Exhibit B, which had already been shown in 12 cities including Edinburgh, takes the spectator past a series of tableaux vivants. Each features actors silently playing the part of those black people who were made into objects for the benefit of colonialists and — in past “Human Zoo” shows — white audiences. I regret that I didn’t get the chance to see it."
He continued:
"You have no right not to be offended. Not you, not me, not the rosiest granny with the fluffiest hair. Because if you have a right not to be offended, then so does the person who is offended by you. And there is always somebody who will be. The event that occasioned Douglass’s speech in 1860 was the breaking up of a meeting in Boston a week earlier called to discuss “How shall slavery be abolished?” 
In response, the former slave formulated one of the greatest defences of free expression in the English language.  
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money … And there,” he concluded, “let it rest for ever.”
When the demonstrators last week decided to block the doors to the art exhibition, they dug up the long-dead slave-supporting, meeting-smashing Bostonians by crossing the line between exercising free speech and suppressing it. Frederick Douglass. There is an ancestor, Ms Myers — if you want to claim him — who would not be proud of what you did. Who understood what apparently you cannot, which is that when you attack the freedom of others, you imperil your own."

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