"…You should see that obedient flock who at the mere sign from me will hasten to heap the hot cinders upon the stakes in which we shall burn you for coming to meddle with us."
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "The Grand Inquisitor" parable within "The Brothers Karamazov."
Commencement ceremonies are meant for families and friends of the new graduates to celebrate a loved one's move to another stage in life and for the hosting school to celebrate itself and its commitment to education. For students, the exercise is often a dull respite between nights of partying and exchanging farewells.
But for a growing number of people in academia, this ceremony offers the chance to engage in mini-inquisitions of selected keynote speakers — including, this year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Christine Lagarde. While not as bloody as grand inquisitions, academic inquisitions are otherwise quite similar. Their leaders are as unwavering in their convictions and self-righteousness.
It seems to go something like this: Upon announcement of a keynote speaker, campus activists quickly gather news and rumors in order to publicly denounce the individual. The charges are vague but volatile. When repeated by similarly outraged people (particularly those skilled in social media), the charges sometimes stick and the speakers bow out.
Contrary to principles of modern democracy, inquisitions in general forbid the accused to face their accusers and address the charges. This one-sidedness was obviously reinforced by the tortures and executions of the grand inquisitions. Here the imbalance is assured because the invited speaker tends to gracefully withdraw rather than have the hosts suffer further embarrassment. Not quite the violent death of grand inquisitions, but still an impressive victory for campus inquisitors.
The spate of mini-inquisitions this year is striking. A former chancellor of Berkeley declined to speak after faculty and students of Haverford College complained how Berkeley's police used force on recent Occupy protesters. Ms. Lagarde of the IMF withdrew her acceptance to Smith College's commencement due to allegations that her organization furthered the oppression of women around the world.
Most alarming are the cases of Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Ali, an internationally known women's rights advocate, was invited to speak and receive an honorary doctorate at Brandeis University. She is a harsh critic of Islam, which Brandeis apparently failed to note. Once enlightened by the blogosphere, Brandeis rescinded the degree offer. Ms. Ali observed how women in her native Somalia sacrificed their bodies and souls to preserve family honor. She herself was subject to genital mutilation, as were many girls her age. For Ms. Ali these experiences were central to Muslim tradition. Later her friend Theo van Gogh was assassinated in Amsterdam by a Muslim terrorist angered by van Gogh's artistic perspectives on his religion. Presumably, by banning her, Brandeis sees its Muslim students as incapable of forming their own thoughtful responses to Ms. Ali's criticism.
The mini-inquisition of Condoleezza Rice has a different twist. Here is a woman so bright and multi-talented that she studied to be a concert pianist. She instead became a scholar and award-winning teacher, then served as an advisor and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. She accepted a keynote speaker invitation from Rutgers University. Once announced on campus, faculty and students amassed a social media protest to force a change, claiming that her role in the Iraq war represents a crime against humanity. As of today Condoleezza Rice is a free citizen and employed as a distinguished professor while under no legal indictment. Apparently these facts do not upset Rutgers University when one of its own lobbies wild accusations.
Cynics might be correct that inquisitions are part of our historical landscape. Still, places of education have been sanctuaries from the zealotry and self-righteousness that fuel these inquisitions. That these sanctuaries are becoming the breeding grounds for new kinds of inquisition tells young people that free inquiry, critical thinking and democratic discourse apply only to people with whom you agree.
In her memoir Hirsi Ali observed that there are times when "silence becomes an accomplice to injustice." Protesters of commencement invitations are perpetrating a coercive silence upon accomplished individuals. That graduating students and their guests are deprived of the chance to hear these keynote speakers undermines the ideals of public discourse.
In this light, those leading these mini-inquisitions are accomplices to gross injustices.
Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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