Monday, December 10, 2007

Some Good Questions from JinC

John in Carolina asks some interesting and useful questions, in this post.

I try here to respond, at least in summary form. I have gathered and summarized some of John's comments, perhaps unfairly. But it seemed like a useful way to broaden the issues. John's queries are underlined, in the text below, to make clear what he was asking. And, let me emphasize, I shortened and abridged some of the queries. To judge whether I changed their meaning, check the original post.

JinC Query 1: I assume a principal reason, if not the principal reason, you’d not tolerate protests and shouts in your classroom is because they’d interfere with the presentation of information, including opinion, and orderly discussion of same.

Why shouldn’t the same conditions hold for a public lecture at a university?

Why shouldn’t the rest of the student body, the faculty and others have the same chance to hear Rove under the same reasonable circumstances you’d enforce in your classroom?

Why could they only hear and interact with Rove and he with them in the face of harrassment which you justify as part of "the show?"

Universities frequently spend ten of thousands of dollars to bring speakers such as Rove to their campuses, we’re told for educative purposes.

Why not treat the appearances of such people as academic events?

I hope you come to agree that others at the University and those who traveled to Duke for the event should have had the chance to hear and question Rove under circumstances similar to those you’d have assured for your own students.

I think of there being a continuum of types of events. On one extreme, the classroom, where the professor is responsible for presenting information and controlling the atmosphere. If I invited Karl Rove to my classroom, I would ask that students neither applaud, nor boo. It is a small, intimate setting, and everyone gets their chance to ask a question.

At the other extreme, there are political debates. I oversaw one of these recently, the Durham mayoral debate, where I was moderator. People cheered, or booed, or otherwise made some demonstration of their approval or disapproval. It was not intrusive, and the candidates were not interrupted.

I think of the Karl Rove talk, or Rick Santorum talk, as being closer to the debate setting than the classroom setting. People hear what the person has to say, and respond. They can applaud, or not. No one is guaranteed that the audience approves of their message.

Part of the reason is that not everyone, by a long shot, gets to ask a question. It is different from a classroom. The speaker speaks, the audience reacts, in a big public lecture.

There is a line, I'm not sure just where, between expression and interruption. I thought the Rove talk was well over on the side of expression. There were a few shouts, and one pair of protesters walked down the SIDE of the auditorium with a sign, for about 30 seconds. He was not interrupted, and I did not even find it distracting.

And, by far the most common reaction, was ....applause! Mr. Rove was often interrupted by applause, and in some cases cheers. I would not expect, and would in fact dissuade, such demonstrations of approval in a classroom setting. I think it important to allow people to applaud at a lecture, if they want to.

To summarize: there were no interruptions, other than a shout or two, or maybe four, and some applause. The applause interruptions were the most noticeable, and distracting. Why are you not objecting to applause, John? You wouldn't see that in a classroom.

Now, I recognize that at some point interruptions, and hostility, cross a line where it becomes first unseemly, and then downright distracting. You are quite right that people came to hear Rove, and not the protesters. In fact, this was the argument I was making when I posted the following on the BLUE NC site, on just this subject. THe context was this: several folks had claimed that THEIR freedom of speech meant that they got to interrupt and disrupt the Rove talk. I responded:

I'm always confused on how the "free speech" thing goes. But I have learned a lot here.

Since I am myself one of the primary sponsors of the Rove visit, I am looking forward to having Duke students and the Durham community get a chance to ask questions, after hearing what he had to say.

But, if I understand the content of this thread, "free speech" seems to mean two things:

1. You think that protesters' free speech rights include the right to enter private property and disrupt an event planned and paid for by someone else. I should point out that the audience will be there to hear Karl Rove, not you, but for some reason that doesn't matter. "Free Speech" should be getting a chance to have YOUR message heard, not drowning someone else's.

2. You think that there is no reason to protect anyone's speech rights against the "heckler's veto" that I see being proposed here. I think that is just flat wrong. When I hosted George McGovern, for example, I persuaded a number of students who WANTED to protest that it would be inappropriate. When I hosted the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference, I got several student groups to have an alternative event, instead, and use it as a way to try to affect public opinion.

The answer to speech you disagree with is a forum to offer YOUR truth. Why would you want to prevent someone else from being heard? It makes you look cowardly.

So, let me make an offer. I will be happy to secure Duke facilities for anyone wanting to hold an alternative event, or wants to use this opportunity to get their message out. Contact me at We'll put something together.

The difference, then, is a matter of degree. So long as the speaker is not interrupted or the talk disrupted, I think applause should be allowed. THat's not true in a classroom, at least not in my classroom. Same with a quick boo, or a shout: if you don't interrupt, go ahead, if the setting is a public lecture where there is not nearly enough time for everyone to ask their own question.

So, in my view, your last paragraph quoted above is just plain wrong on the facts. And, I was there, at the talk, and so have some handle on the facts.

People who came to hear Karl Rove should indeed get to hear him without interruption, except for quick boos or applause. And that is what happened!! If they had NOT been able to hear, I agree that that would be a problem. But I had already said that, and you knew it. So I don't understand your question, sir.

If you think that ALL applause should be prevented, like in a classroom, at all public lectures, then we disagree. I think you should get to applaud in a lecture. If you think applause should be allowed, then you yourself think that the classroom and the large public lecture are different, and so I don't see why you say they are the same.

JinC Query 2. What concerns me about your letter and some of your subsequent comments is that you are, IMO, setting the bar for acceptable public conduct on campus much too low.

For example, when you say, as you did in your letter, the Rove evening was “as close to flawless as you are going to get with a controversial speaker.”

The evening was certainly much better than the recent event at Emory during which administrators and police, fearful they could no longer assure the safety of David Horowitz, convinced him to break off his speech and leave the campus.

And as regards the invitation to Rove, almost all Duke faculty showed themselves more tolerant than the University of California system faculty who recently pressured the Board of Regents into cancelling their invitation to former Harvard President Larry Summers to be their dinner speaker.

But just because something is not the worst or near worst of its kind, doesn’t make it acceptable or deserving of praise.

I’m one of those concerned by the growing intolerance, including violent acts, on many campuses; and by the threat that intolerance poses to something both wonderful and vulnerable: The Academy.

You may just be right about this, sir. I was relieved that Duke had not embarrassed itself, in the just the way that others embarrassed themselves in the other examples you (correctly) cite.

Whether my relief gives a pass, when a higher standard should be enforced, is a question I think your readers are better able to judge than I am.

I have had jobs at several universities. And Duke is the place most committed to open debate and real free speech of all of those. Whether that commitment is less than it should be is a fair question.

But, in the specific case of Karl Rove:
1. He is used to people being rude
2. He characterized his treatment at Duke as being acceptable, and better than he had expected, at the dinner later
3. Had Karl Rove spoken at pretty much any of the other "elite" schools you might name, I am convinced there would have been a riot.

Surely that counts for something. If you think that EVEN more civility is required, I think I disagree. The speech went off without serious interruption or distraction. THere is a qualitative difference, not of degree but of kind, when one compares this outcome to places where visitors have been shouted off the stage, and not allowed to speak.

Further, that same week there was a visit by Rick Santorum, also a controversial figure (And, if it matters, my program co-sponsored this visit, as we did Rove, to make sure there are conservative voices on campus!).

There were NO interruptions of any kind, except for applause. The room was nearly full, and the audience was entirely of the sort you say is appropriate. (I assume, again, you think applause are okay, yes?) That is the sort of atmosphere that Duke cultivates. Why do you give us no credit for that? I had thought that the Rove talk was about as good as one could expect, but the Santorum talk went even better.

To close: Let me emphasize that I value John's questions, and appreciate
the chance to have this discourse. John is extremely fair-minded, and has posed his concerns as questions rather than leaping to conclusions. Now, after reading my responses, readers may well conclude that I am just mistaken. But it will be after hearing a fair and extended discussion, rather than just one side. Thanks to John for initiating this, and for pursuing it.


Tom said...

Mungowitz says this is "at least in summary." It's 1812 words, Mike! We're all thankful for not getting the full-up version.

Anonymous said...

"But just because something is not the worst or near worst of its kind, doesn’t make it acceptable or deserving of praise."

But if you're going to criticize, why not criticize the worst instead of the best? The best always deserve acknowledgement if being the best, whule bearing in mind that sometimes the competition is such that that's very faint praise indeed.

"I have had jobs at several universities. And Duke is the place most committed to open debate and real free speech of all of those."

After having seen the way Duke reacted during the Duke Lacrosse Burning, if Duke really is among the better in American academia, then ... YIKES!

Mungowitz said...

The lacrosse "incident" would have been as bad, or worse, at any "elite" school in the nation.

I'm not saying it wasn't bad. This is just not a Duke problem, it's a problem of the academy.

It may be that we have lost track of the real point here. (Or, maybe only *I* have lost track!). The point I was trying to make is this: Karl Rove could not have spoken at any other top 20 university in the nation without suffering serious disruptions and threats.

If you think that Duke should have done more to repress protesters, you are entitled to believe that. But it is a separate question. Give Duke some credit.

Mungowitz said...

And as for my good friend Tom: Hey, buddy, summarize THIS, right here!

Anonymous said...

The lacrosse "incident" would have been as bad, or worse, at any "elite" school in the nation.

I'm not disputing that.
I'm saying "YIKES!" to the implications.