Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The controversial Stanley Fish

Watch the amazing spectacle of Stanley Fish arguing that Salman Rushdie should not be a speaker at a college commencement because he's too controversial! His NY Times blog is, of course, behind the Times' firewall, but here's the substance of his remarks. (One wonders when the Times will finally understand what a blog really is!)

Rushdie was invited to be the graduation speaker at Nova Southereastern University in Davie, Florida.
Some student members of the International Muslim Association are protesting the invitation, presumably because they agree with those who regard Mr. Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” as a blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. (It’s the Danish cartoons all over again, only this time with an additional twist provided by the literary quality of the offending document.)

Graduating senior Farheen Parvez is planning not to attend. “I was looking forward to my graduation,” she told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, but “when I found out that Salman Rushdie would be the speaker, I was appalled.”
His closing argument:
But a graduation ceremony is not a class; it is, quite precisely, a ceremony, a formal rite of passage where etiquette and ritual are more important, and more appropriate, than profundity. Inviting controversial speakers to campus is certainly a good idea, but inviting controversial speakers to give a commencement address may not be. Mr. Rushdie’s visit is trumpeted (in the college’s announcement) as the “capstone” to a series of public lectures and classroom discussions on “tolerance, acceptance and social justice.” One assumes that in the classrooms and at the public lectures, vigorous participation was encouraged, and those who disagreed with the teacher or speaker could make their disagreement known. But graduation speeches are not usually followed by question-and-answer periods or by a panel of people representing opposing views. A graduation speech is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and those who prefer to leave it must either walk out or resolve to stay home.

Ms. Parvez [one of the protesting Muslim students] had it exactly right when she said, “If he was here for any other event, that would have been fine, because that’s optional. But having him at graduation, it’s not appropriate because that’s for the families and the students.” When you’re the proud parent of a graduating son or daughter, the last thing you want to hear is something that will make you think. You want to hear something that will make you feel good. Professor Smith asserted, “The choice of Rushdie as speaker inspires questions, invites challenges and embodies larger issues… .” That’s precisely the problem.
In my experience of commencement speakers, they vary between the hopelessly banal and the irritatingly offensive. Despite that, it is certainly worthwhile to invite a speaker who will actually say something interesting and maybe even profound, even if one doesn't agree with everything he says. Are colleges and universities required to give in to the sentiments of students who are insulted on religious or political grounds? My institution of higher learning is hosting the editor of the National Review tonight. I'm sure he'll say a lot of things I don't agree with - but so what? Are we guaranteed the right not ever to be insulted by the views of others? I don't think so.


  1. Good heavens. My undergraduate commencement speaker was former president George H.W. Bush, of whom I am no great fan [understatement of the year], but I certainly felt the college had the right to invite him. No commencement speaker is going to be politically aligned with everyone in the graduating class. I think it's churlish to boycott graduation because one doesn't like the speaker.

  2. Well, you certainly wouldn't want anyone thinking as they leave a university, would you? That might cause a problem with donations from the Alums. Are they afraid of losing some oil money? Pardon my cynicism.

  3. The problem isn't with the university that invited him - the administration is still standing up for Rushdie. The problem is with Stanley Fish, whom one would think understood the need to defend authors like Salman Rushdie.