Pseudo-Ethicist on Churchill at Hamilton

On numerous occasions I’ve suggested that Randy Cohen doesn’t do a particularly good job at being an ethicist. Atticus Finch suggested that you should put yourself in someone else’s shoes before you judge them, and today I’m going to attempt that. Since no one ever sends me ethical questions to answer, so I’m going to answer a question ripped from today’s headlines.

I am the President of a liberal arts college in upstate New York, near Utica. Five days ago, a news story broke about a Professor at another school who we had invited to speak to the students here. It turns out he had written an essay arguing that the 9/11 attackers were completely justified. In response to this news, there have been many calls to cancel the speech. In addition, threatening letters have been sent to me, the Professor in question, and other staff at my school. Also, some donors withdrew pledges and some students renounced their interest in matriculating. I found his essay “repellent,” but his speech was going to be about Native American activism, which is at best tangentially related to the essay. I cancelled the speech, saying, “but the point came that I simply felt that this threat was too large for us to handle.” Still, I feel like I’ve important violated free speech principles. What should I have done?

In order to answer I read through the essay he wrote, and you’re quite right to find it repellent. For one thing, he makes claims about the attackers responding to the death’s of Iraqis from the first Gulf War which are wholly unsubstantiated. For another, his whole argument comes down to, “The United States has done terrible things in the past, including killing a great many people. It is therefore justifiable to kill any citizen of the United States, at least up to the number of people who have been killed by United States military operations.” Among the many flaws in this argument, one apparent one is that it, out of hand, treats every military action by the U.S. as unjustified. Also, its notion of collective guilt is both false and dangerous. Collective guilt was one of the primary justifications for Stalinist purges. He brings up collective guilt by noting that the German population was held collectively responsible for the Nazi government’s actions, but fails to note that the remedy for their supposed guilt was nothing, outside of a very few people who were tried as war criminals. I am getting all of this out of the way first because it is far easier to explain what’s wrong with Prof. Churchill’s argument than to advise you on how to respond to it.

While your college’s commitment to presenting a diversity of views is excellent, it is obviously not an absolute obligation. But since you had already made a commitment to have Prof. Churchill speak, the question is under what circumstances should a speech be cancelled due to unrelated statements the speaker has made. I would suggest that once an agreement has already been made, the fact that the speaker has made statements that are false, controversial, and deeply hurtful isn’t a good reason to cancel the speech. In fact it would probably make the whole experience more interesting for the students, giving them a chance to confront his arguments and understand for themselves that they are wrong (or not, some students may come away thinking what he says is true).

However, you have obligations besides the one to establish an environment where a variety of ideas (even false and pernicious ones) can be heard and possibly flourish. I therefore think that the downturns in donations and applications are sufficient reasons to cancel the event, depending on how severe there long term affect on the college may be. The idea that you are canceling the event due to threats of violence is of course worrisome, since it incentiveizes future threats of violence to obstruct other speakers which people find objectionable. I’m therefore fairly certain that even if the threats were the real reason you cancelled, it was a mistake to say so. I would have gone with a statement that the considerable outrage it sparked among alumni made you reconsider. And I would have cancelled the speech, not because of how disgusting Churchill’s remarks are, but in spite of them.

I also don’t think anyone who disagrees with Mr. Churchill’s views, now that they are known, has an obligation to help him disseminate them. But that’s a separate issue about whether or not you should have booked him if you had known what he was likely to say. I recognize this response may be under-attentive to the hurt his statements have caused people who lost friends and loved-ones in the 9/11, and while those people have every right to be angry with him, I don’t think that would have been a sufficient reason to cancel.