The Politics of Disinviting
On education and engagement with ideas
The tactic of disinviting controversial speakers has become increasingly common across college campuses. Consider, for example, what happened to the Iranian-born human rights activist Maryam Namazie (a prominent anti-racist activist and a central committee member of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran), who was recently denied the opportunity to speak at a student society event at Warwick University given her “inflammatory” stance against religious extremism. Of course, as with any political tactic, it is also possible to find examples where the protested speakers have been more obviously controversial, high-profile targets, as in the case of speakers who have traditionally supported imperialist politics around the world. In attending to this type of cases (think of Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde withdrawing their commencement speaking engagements back in 2014 as a result of the protests carried out by students and faculty at Rutgers and Smith College, respectively) it is easy to neglect the fact that protesting an invitation is not the same as disinviting a speaker. The main distinction lies in the fact that, as political tactics, disinviting and protesting, when considered in light of the sociopolitical conditions each of them fosters, channel very different approaches to communal resistance.
Responding to the growing frequency of disinviting speakers, several articles have attempted to trace the impulses giving rise to the practice of circumventing or redefining freedom of speech as carried out by college students as well as to consider the potential long-term effects said behavior could have on the individual and collective consciousness of students. Most of these articles tend to agree on one detail: current students are much more “sensitive” (that is, preoccupied with their immediate emotional well-being) than were previous generations. Some have then interpreted this understanding to reflect a lack of fitness for responsible engagement with ideas students had not entertained or supported in advance. In other words, a common conclusion has been that students nowadays do not want to hear about what they do not agree with beforehand. However, not everyone agrees with this view. Given that students have no say in the speaker selection process, other voices argue, protesting and disinviting are the only means left to those who would care to resist the authoritarianism of college administrators and politicians.
In unpacking my take on this issue, it is crucial that I make a clarification: there is an important reason why I do not consider protesting a speaker as the same as disinviting her. In protesting, the countering of what is perceived as oppressive takes the form of engagement. Protesting provides an opportunity to produce an account of embodied dissent insofar as those who are resisting are also existing with and against the controversial other. That being said, there is also the question of whether there are indeed certain circumstances that justify a turning away from an oppressive other, even when doing so implies erasing the other’s presence.
After all, it is undeniable that some disinvitations are part of a broader counter hegemonic political strategy. As such, they are not simple attempts to hinder utterances, but instead seek to address violent acts carried out by patriarchal-imperialists structures and in so doing to expose the way in which discourse, as carried out by the representatives of the status quo, is vested with a performative power that tacitly shapes the material realities of everyday life as well as the broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce such discourse. Consequently, it becomes evident that the danger of certain instances of speech cannot simply be evaluated in terms of the words utilized. Rather, it is imperative to consider the ways in which certain words racialize, sexualize, genderize, and marginalize those who are exposed to them.
In the light of this performative power of language, many have turned toward the practice of disinviting speakers as a means of resisting the constant attempts at self-perpetuation carried out by the status quo. And yet, I remain skeptical about embracing this strategy for two reasons. First, in my view, the distinction between disinvitations and blatant censorship remains unclear. Second, I am afraid that the exercise of disinviting speakers does little to advance an ethical approach to human relations that places emphasis on accountability toward ourselves and others. These two concerns present two sides of the same coin.
Disinvitations become censorship when they preclude the possibility of genuine engagement by the opposing parties. In muting the words of others, we deny these others any possible “way out,” that is, we reproduce the exercise of crude, coercive power — which ultimately promotes the assumption that the other cannot change or revise her position. In other words, power is not used as a force of transformation but of re-production, as those who disinvite speakers are simply turning the tables around and doing exactly the same thing their oppressors often do. In this regard, it is useful to think of Paulo Freire’s reflections from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, where the Brazilian educator reflects on the form in which the oppressed in their reactions to oppression often internalize the oppressor’s mode of relating. My concern regarding the use of disinvitations as a political tactic, in the spirit of Freire’s insight, is that by disinviting those with whom we disagree we move away from the motto “another world is possible,” and instead merely follow the oppressive patterns we know; as a result, we indulge in the reproduction of the same kinds of shortcomings we are trying to address.
This is not to say that war criminals should be granted a free pass or welcomed with a red carpet, but they should not be made martyrs either. They should be asked to speak to us, not for us. Merely cancelling their campus speaking engagements does not seem to achieve this goal. If college administrators choose a speaker that many students find problematic, students should demand that said speaker must agree to share the stage with at least some student representatives, who in turn commit to voice the concerns of all those who oppose the visit. This stipulation should be a mandatory condition for the visit to take place at all. This way, we would have a scenario where no one is exempt from engaging in an act of self-making with others and where accountability and not censorship becomes the engine of interaction.
To conclude, my intention has not been to produce a one-size-fits-all kind of judgment. Rather, my intention is to show the complexities of the issue at hand precisely because I do not believe in the universalizability of political tactics, given how they can easily be used to sustain the status quo (the strategy of disinviting is not an exception insofar as its application tends to legitimize the binary: respectful-offensive, speaker-audience, us-them). At the same time, as stated above, I do not doubt the good faith of many of the activists who have resorted to this tactic to resist oppression. For that reason, I think a detailed, interdisciplinary analysis addressing the extent and manner (if any) in which disinvitation tactics actually affect the functioning of white-supremacist imperialist patriarchy is in order. Once such analysis is produced, we will be better equipped to judge whether disinviting speakers represents the best resort against oppression within certain circumstances. Meanwhile, let us recall essential thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza, W.E.B. Du Bois, Simone de Beauvoir, and Vandana Shiva, each of whose body of work was, to a large extent, the product of their engagement with ideas they found problematic, and even damaging. Undoubtedly, we have to be glad that they decided to engage with and respond to the words of those they opposed, instead of simply censoring them. Had they done only the latter, our loss would have been enormous.