September 6, 2010

The Problem With Obnoxious Dissent

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One of the most exciting components of attending such a prestigious university, for me, is the opportunity to hear first hand the ideas and opinions of an incredibly diverse group of invited speakers. In the two years I’ve spent here, I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on lectures by John Cleese, Amartya Sen, Toni Morrison and Billy Collins, just to name a few. Most of the time, these speeches and lectures are met with considerable enthusiasm, but every now and again we hear from someone a bit more controversial than a former poet laureate. Cornell, of course, is not unique in this regard. Each year, thousands of politicians, authors, activists and the like are invited to universities around the country. And each year, unfailingly, we hear about how some speech turned into chaos with the help of protestors with a modus operandi of disruption. Consider, quite recently, a speech at UC Irvine by Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States. The divisive nature of the affiliation of the speaker, coupled with the discussion at hand, naturally lent itself to protest. That students disagreed with the speaker, and wished to voice their concerns, is perfectly understandable, reasonable and within their rights. But the way they proceeded with voicing their concerns, in my opinion, was misguided. Throughout the speech, protestors interrupted Oren by yelling, chanting and otherwise preventing him from being heard. Despite rather emotional appeals to stop from a both a political science professor and the University chancellor, students continued to disrupt the speech, until, at last, the event was cut short. Watching footage of the spectacle play out is cringe-inducing. If these students were justified in disagreeing, their message was lost in theatrics. And to clarify, my criticism here has nothing to do with the respective opinions of the speaker or the protesters; my point is simply this: The protestors’ choice of tactic was an insensitive strategy at best, and counterproductive at worst. A similar situation played out at Columbia University in 2006 when Jim Gilchrist, head of the Minutemen Project, spoke on immigration. Protestors stormed the stage while Gilchrist was speaking, and in the ensuing maelstrom, protestors, supporters and security personnel tussled and fought. Again, very reasonable opposition to a highly controversial stance was mired in a histrionic display of condemnation. Cornell hasn’t been entirely immune from such demonstrations either. At a 2007 speech by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, protestors stood up and donned black hoods, in reference to policies on torture and detention. Another protestor began yelling questions at the Attorney General until police managed to quiet him. Towards the end of the speech, a loud whistle was blown, and those who had stood in protest quietly exited the room. While not quite as dramatic as either of the protests at Irvine or Columbia, some of the same elements of disruption were present. With respect to these situations and others like it, I have a hard time envisioning what these protests accomplish. What’s more upsetting, on a personal level, is that I often agree with the message, but strongly disagree with the delivery. Such brazen displays of emotion only undermine the dissenters’ credibility. Rather than articulating a coherent counterargument of their own, these protestors attempted to prevent the dissemination of the argument of their opponent. But such efforts invariably backfire insofar as the speaker, however insensitive, off-color or just plain wrong he or she may be, becomes the victim and the object of sympathy. We are fortunate enough to be on a campus with a vibrant array of ideologies, beliefs and perspectives. As such, it is inevitable that at some point, someone will come to campus with whom you vehemently disagree. It is my sincerest hope that when these situations arise, this campus collectively has the sagacity to be respectful and attentive. This, doesn’t, however, mean being passive: Protest peacefully outside, give out quarter-cards, hold a forum, hell, write a column for the Sun! But for our own sakes, and for the sake of this university, our protests should remain intellectual in nature, and not devolve into meaningless interruption.

David Murdter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter