A Timeless Argument for Freedom of Speech

Listen to Ahmadinejad,

Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen, September 26, 2007

The world is indebted to Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University. By allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the university yesterday, Bollinger not only gave us a revealing look at the character of this dangerous man, he gave us a powerful demonstration of why censorship is foolish.

"It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas," Bollinger said in his opening remarks, "or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honour the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible."

Bollinger then moved from the abstract to the particular, citing evidence of a growing crackdown on dissent in Iran, including the public hanging of up to 30 people this summer. "Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President," Bollinger said, turning to Ahmadinejad, "you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."

When Ahmadinejad took the podium, he opened with a prayer to Allah for the return of the Mahdi and then complained that Bollinger's greeting was "unfriendly."

This was followed by a rambling story about the Almighty, angels, Adam and the prophets. Quotations from the Koran abounded. So did references to science, scientists and the nature of man.

It soon became apparent that what Ahmadinejad wished his audience to know is that science and theology are indivisible. "Science is a divine gift," he said repeatedly, "and therefore, it must remain pure. God is aware of all reality. All researchers and scholars are loved by God. So I hope there will be a day where these scholars and scientists will rule the world and God himself will arrive with Moses and Christ and Muhammad to rule the world and to take us toward justice."

Now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a stupid man. He knew he was speaking a subway ride away from where the World Trade Center once stood. He knew most Americans believe him to be as fanatical and dangerous as the men who destroyed the twin towers. He knew the deeply unpopular president of the United States is seriously considering pounding much of Iran's infrastructure into rubble. And he knew his invitation to Columbia was an opportunity to speak directly to Americans that is not likely to come again. If ever there was a time to smile sweetly and say what the audience wanted to hear, it was then.

And yet, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chose to open his speech with a lengthy epistemological rumination of the sort that was popular in Europe during the era which we rather tellingly call the Dark Ages.

This man is a fanatic. A religious zealot. A bug-eyed lunatic. He could not have demonstrated this fact more plainly, not even if he had paraphrased the famous line of George H.W. Bush and declared to the audience, "Message: I'm nuts."

Ahmadinejad got slightly cagier -- very slightly -- when it came time to answer questions from a moderator. "Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state?" he was asked. "We love all nations," Ahmadinejad helpfully replied. "We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran, living peacefully, with security."

What about the Holocaust? "I am not saying that it didn't happen at all," Ahmadinejad responded. He merely wants more research because, as he reminded the audience several times, "I'm an academic, too."

And homosexuals? Persecution in Iran goes so far as torture and execution. What about that? Ahmadinejad's answer was so informative that I reprint the transcript verbatim.

Ahmadinejad: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country."

Ahmadinejad: "We don't have that in our country." (Audience boos.)

Ahmadinejad: "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it." (Audience laughs.)

Among the protesters who gathered to denounce the Iranian president and the university that invited him to speak, one man held a sign that read: "A man of lies does not belong in a place of truth."

It is tempting to agree, but it is at precisely moments like this that we need to remind ourselves of the words of John Stuart Mill.

"The peculiar evil of silencing an expression of an opinion is that it robs the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation," wrote the great champion of liberty.

"If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit -- the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

The "collision with error" is essential to truth's vitality, Mill insisted. Without it, "the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled."

Unchallenged by falsehood, the truth will continue to be accepted by people but only "in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds." No longer will it be a "real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience."

What happened two days ago at Columbia was a living demonstration of the wisdom of Mill's words. "Look at the reaction," a Columbia student named Ellen Miller told a reporter from Salon, gesturing to the mass of protesters around her.

She, like many others, supported the university's invitation. "These groups would not have come together and come out like this and protested if there hadn't been this event on campus."

By inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University, Lee Bollinger created a "collision with error" that has given us all a "clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth."

For that, and for the courage it took to do it, the world is in his debt