Letter to the Editor: Professor Hoffman, who extended lecture invitation to Flemming Rose, responds to controversy

Why I Invited Flemming Rose to Campus:

As the person responsible for inviting The Tyranny of Silence author, Flemming Rose, to speak on campus on Thursday, I would like to provide some context to explain this decision. When I arrived at the entrance to Stahr auditorium for the talk on Thursday, I encountered about 35 students protesting Rose’s appearance. Feelings of anger, hurt, and distress were palpable in their faces and words. They expressed feeling threatened and unsafe, offended by Rose’s presence on campus because of his role in the 2005 publication of a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Among their questions and criticisms, the one that reverberated most loudly was ‘why’? Why did you bring someone to campus who contributes to our ever-increasing feelings of vulnerability, marginalization, and fear for our safety? Why couldn’t you have chosen anybody else to discuss the issue of free speech, someone whose presence would not make us feel even more under siege and unwelcome? I feel compelled to offer an answer, one that in the heat of the moment on Thursday, I was unable to give fully.

To begin, I think it is important to know something about who I am. I am a Jewish history professor and am Jewish myself. Among other topics, I regularly teach about the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in my courses. I have personally felt the sting of anti-Semitism in my own life, being called “dirty Jew” many times as a teenager, and a “Jew devil” as a grad student in Berkeley.  I am a progressive Democrat who “felt the Bern,” a secular humanist and civil libertarian, who believes fervently in human rights and equality for all oppressed and historically marginalized groups. I have taught a course for several years called “Why We Hate” that explores the origins and history, as well as the contemporary realities of group hatred and discrimination in all of its varied forms. My deep commitment to the ideals of free speech, free expression, and the free exchange of ideas is grounded in the belief that these are the bedrock of a pluralistic democracy and liberal education. I would be very unhappy if my invitation to this speaker damaged my ability to serve as a messenger and advocate for these values and ideals.

I found out about Flemming Rose as part of my my ongoing interest in issues of academic freedom and debates around free speech and free expression around the world. Over the last couple of years, I have brought other controversial speakers to campus to shed light on these topics. Much to the chagrin of some of my Israeli and Jewish friends and colleagues, two years ago I hosted Steven Salaita, an Arab-American professor fired from a tenured position for anti-Israel tweets that many Jews believed to be deeply anti-Semitic. My interest in bringing him to campus was in honoring and protecting his right to speak and protesting the trampling of his academic freedom, not to give credence to the views expressed in his tweets, which I myself mostly opposed. 

My invitation to Rose resulted mainly from reading his book, an illuminating, personalized account of the global crisis sparked by the “Muhammad cartoons” he published in Denmark in 2005. His story was a fascinating look at so many central issues in our world today: diversity, tolerance, absorbing immigrants, religious extremism, terrorism, and free speech versus censorship. I believed that Rose’s insight and personal connection to the issues of free expression in our world would be eye opening for our community, and especially for our students. Even though I didn’t agree with everything Rose said or did, I admired the complexity of the issues Rose tackled in his book and the clarity and insight of his analysis of these issues. I had hoped that his visit would be stimulating and thought provoking, inspiring an enduring debate and reflection on these topics. I invited him to speak driven by my belief that in confronting the kinds of difficult and complex issues Rose presents, we all could learn and grow.  For me this type of intellectual enterprise is part and parcel of pursuing a liberal arts education in which being exposed to views that one doesn’t like is fundamental to cultivating critical thinking.

In my ambition to provide a thoughtful and challenging intellectual experience for our campus community, I did not recognize the degree to which Rose’s presence on campus would be perceived as threatening and hurtful. I saw clearly that for the student protesters, some who were members of marginalized and stigmatized groups, this was an emotional experience, one that touched a raw nerve of fear and vulnerability. While I had spoken with colleagues who raised the possibility of students reacting this way, I felt motivated by my belief that Rose’s work, with its deep reflection on the controversies he’d experienced, and the liberal values he espoused, made him an important voice to bring to campus. However, when I saw the students gathered in protest, I realized I had not truly understood the extent to which his presence on campus, regardless of the substance of his book or the content of his talk, might hurt them emotionally.

Before the talk, I tried unsuccessfully to engage some of the protesters in intellectual debate on the issue of the cartoons, and speak to the value of free speech as beneficial for the oppressed and marginalized.  I am grateful that the protesters chose to enter the hall and listen to Rose’s talk. Indeed, their vociferous protestations, and, at times, discourteous shouting of comments at the speaker exhibited precisely just how important the right to free speech is for all, regardless of power or privilege. However, I did not address the emotional distress they were experiencing that I now realize was for them the heart of the matter.  And for that I am truly sorry. I never wanted to cause anybody pain and didn’t think that Rose’s words or ideas should have done so.

I believe that if those who were offended had read Rose’s book, or the articles that I sent to student group leaders before the talk, they would have been better able to grapple with his words, ideas, and arguments. It is my hope that they would have seen that he does not believe in discriminating against or defaming Muslims, and has even publically defended the rights of Danish Muslims to preach as they see fit in their Mosques without fear of legal sanctions. The cartoon Rose is most infamously associated with might still offend some to their core, but Rose is much more than that cartoon. It is a shame that some students let their emotions primarily guide them without engaging seriously in the actual ideas Rose was presenting.  My hope as an educator is that people can learn how to move past their initial, sometime passionate, often incomplete views of complex issues, and listen to other people’s stories and viewpoints. Opinions based on emotions alone and limited engagement with evidence and ideas will never allow us to grow and learn as individuals and as a society.

Matthew Hoffman

Associate Professor, Department of History and Program in Judaic Studies

print