Re: Speakers, Speeches Deserve Respect

Posted on October 2, 2011 by


After reading Rohan Viswanathan’s Opinion piece in the Daily Bruin on September 26, I was taken aback by his departure from the sentiments that I thought, based on claims of Islamophobia lobbed by Al-Jazeera and other publications I had been reading at the time, had constituted the general consensus on the ‘Irvine 11’ issue.

Viswanathan calls for a campus atmosphere in which constructive debate and respect for guest speakers, regardless of their political inclinations, are maintained as values. He refers to those who conspired to disrupt Israeli ambassador Michael Oren‘s lecture at UC Irvine in 2010 as having “abuse[d] the First Amendment to humiliate speakers, rather than trying to create a productive debate.”

“The [Muslim Student] Union members clearly decided to attack him personally rather than participate in a civil discussion.”

I applaud Viswanathan’s assessment of the ineffectiveness of such tactics as the ‘Irvine 11’ employed against Ambassador Oren. I recently returned from the Olive Tree Initiative educational mission to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan, during which I spoke with people whose opinions would make my parents cringe and Meir Kahane turn in his grave. Without such perspectives, however, my understanding of the realities that contribute to the conflict in which Israel is currently embroiled would have been badly deficient. I firmly support Viswanathan’s demand for a campus ethic that demands respect from students for those who seek to contribute real, useful perspectives on issues that require our understanding.

However, I still have some minor amendments to make to some of Viswanathan’s claims.

In calling for civility toward guest speakers, the Viswanathan draws equivalence between the behavior of the protesters at UC Irvine and the American delegates at the United Nations who staged a walk-out during the speech of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Accusing the American delegates of the same lack of courtesy as was exhibited by the students at UC Irvine, he writes:

“The members of the U.N. did not walk out on Ahmadinejad, they walked out on the country of Iran and its entire population, insulting each and every citizen of Iran. Ahmadinejad represents his country and its people. Though members of the U.N. may not like him because of his beliefs, the people of Iran deserve the right to be heard.”

Viswanathan fails to see numerous crucial distinctions between the two incidents.

We must understand that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad does not represent the people of Iran in the same way that Barack Obama represents the people of the United States, or even in the same way that any Israeli official represents the people of Israel. After the last Iranian election in 2009, people throughout Iran took to the streets, chanting slogans such as “Down with the dictator” and “Give us our votes back” after evidence revealed that the voting had been grossly rigged by the Ahmadinejad regime. In the democratic sense, Ahmadinejad represents a number much smaller than the population of Iran.

Therefore, a line must be drawn between the mental meanderings of an oppressive dictator and a lecture outlining the policy of a country in whose government all citizens have the freedom to participate.

The American delegates did not walk out on any formulation of the needs of the Iranian people. They sat for nearly fifteen minutes, listening to the Iranian president’s libelous geo-political and historical theories. Only after 9/11 and the Holocaust were cast as pretexts for Western economic gain and world domination did one third of the audience depart the General Assembly in protest.

It’s true, the delegates did not engage Ahmadinejad in a civil debate; but unlike Michael Oren’s visit to UC Irvine, speeches to the General Assembly do not feature Q&A sessions. In fact, whereas the annual General Assembly meetings are meant to set the stage for consensus among equals, a parallel equivalence cannot be drawn between the ambassador and those whom he came to educate.

By walking out as quietly and as civilly as possible, the delegates affirmed the purpose of the United Nations. The General Assembly is not a stage for the ravings of any individual, especially when those ravings only salt the wounds of the international community. The global consensus sought between all nations will never include marginalization of the horror of 9/11 or Holocaust denial, nor will it allow for one man to undermine the entire operation while hiding behind a fictitious demand for civility and respect. So urgent is this message that the delegates of various countries strove to teach this to Ahmadinejad personally.

In his conclusion, Viswanathan asserts, “No matter what idea a person represents, respect is universal.” I, on the other hand, recommend that we look at these cases with a discerning eye. Respect is not a value in a vacuum. Respect is of prime importance insofar as it serves the needs of the community. The university is a place which we frequent with the sole intention receiving an education from our professors and peers. This cannot occur successfully without the precondition of mutual respect. In the environs of the United Nations, however, where world leaders meet to play the petty games of statecraft, respect may not always be as important as is standing up for the people and the heritage for which each delegate is responsible.

…And despite all of this, those delegates made sure to push in their chairs before they silently exited. Let’s reserve the lessons in civility for those who truly need it.