Viewpoint: Encouraging debate isn't bigotry

BY NOEL GORDON

Published March 30, 2010

During the latter half of the 19th century, American physician and natural scientist Samuel George Morton claimed that Caucasians were the most intelligent race based on skull size and capacity. Robert Bean, following up on the work of Morton, asserted that American blacks were less intelligent than American whites because of inherent biological factors dependent largely again on brain size. Both men were widely respected for their scholarly research. Both men were also undoubtedly wrong. Instead of accepting this fallacious idea of racial superiority or, even worse, ignoring it, scientists like S. J. Gould directly challenged Morton and Bean’s hypotheses and eventually proved them wrong.

On Mar. 18, the American Movement for Israel, the Michigan Political Union and several other student groups brought their own Samuel Morton or George Bean to campus — Dr. Raphael Israeli. Israeli is a Chinese and Middle Eastern history scholar at Hebrew University. The professor spoke about China’s global rise in the international community and its impact on the Middle East. In response, three University students decided to express their right to openly criticize the co-sponsors of the event in a viewpoint published in the Daily (Stop bigotry in Middle East debate, 03/19/2010).

The students argued, among other things, that “while Israeli’s ideas shouldn’t be censored, an explicit distinction should have been made between presenting his scholarship and endorsing his politics. Bringing Israeli to campus but failing to make this distinction constitutes an implicit endorsement of his anti-Muslim views.” Here, it is beholden of me to invoke former U.S. Senator David Patrick Moynihan’s popular saying that a person is entitled to his or her own opinion but not his or her own facts.

The MPU doesn’t endorse Israeli’s views on Muslims and their supposed inability to integrate into western societies. In fact, we vehemently reject his argument. The MPU doesn’t believe that race or in this case religion can be attributed to biological factors. However, Israeli shouldn’t be completely vilified because one of his views is unsound.

Israeli is a noted scholar on China and the Middle East. Even the authors of the viewpoint conceded this point in saying that, “we aren’t necessarily challenging the validity of Israeli’s scholarship on China and the Middle East.” It was because MPU agreed with its critics that we issued a statement of impartiality on our Facebook page and website in which we explicitly stated that we didn’t support Israeli’s views on Muslims or Islam. Rather, we were dedicated to the advancement of his scholarship regarding China and the Middle East. This distinction was reiterated at the actual event before Israeli took the podium.

The authors of the viewpoints also devised a thought experiment in which they argued that had Israeli been “a white supremacist, anti-Semite or homophobe,” public reaction would have been different. And that “this disturbing double standard of what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable bigotry on campus needs to be re-examined by student organizations looking to present diverse perspectives through the speakers they bring.”

As a homosexual African-American man, I find their thought experiment and its implications ludicrous and, more importantly, offensive. Had Israeli been a speaker who argued that homosexuals, African Americans or Jews were inherently incapable of assimilating into western societies, I would have still invited him to lecture had he been able to contribute something meaningful to a conversation (as Israeli did on China and the Middle East). I wouldn’t have acted any differently in the way I handled the two situations. I would have denounced the hypothetical speaker’s views on gays or blacks as fallacious and made the clear distinction that MPU didn’t support them.

Moreover, the case of reggae artist Buju Banton is not equitable to this situation. Banton isn’t a scholar, wasn’t invited by a student organization and explicitly calls for the pouring of acid in the eyes of gay people.

MPU stands behind its decision to co-sponsor the Israeli event. Israeli gave a thought-provoking lecture on China and the Middle East: nothing more, nothing less. Even more importantly, the MPU will continue to be open to all opinions on the ideological spectrum; continue to denounce any speech that incites violence against a particular group; continue to work with groups from all faiths, political orientations, sexual orientations, gender, class and race to raise awareness; and continue to foster intelligent political discourse on campus.

It is our sincere belief that the best way to confront prejudice and discrimination is directly. It is only by challenging biased viewpoints and dismantling them that we can hope to build a world that values all peoples for their unique, individual differences.

Noel Gordon is the president of the Michigan Political Union.