80s Flashback

We’re still arguing about Salman Rushie? Really?

This news is a few days old, but for those who haven’t heard, Rushdie is scheduled to speak at Nova Southeastern University and some students are upset because Rushdie “blasphemes” Islam in The Satanic Verses. Now, I can certainly understand being more than a little sensitive to all the anti-Muslim nonsense going on right now; I can understand being upset about the crap that regularly appears on conservative websites, about racist cartoons, and even about what Rushdie wrote. However, the fact remains that Rushdie is one of the greatest writers alive (and yes, I’m probably a little biased because I really enjoy his work). He’s been at the center of one of the biggest free speech conflicts of the past quarter century. He’s a man of great intelligence and integrity, not to mention incredible talent. Universities should be — and I’d imagine are — chomping at the bit to have him come and speak.

Should every student get in line and go see Rushdie if they can’t stand him and think he’s personally insulting? No. They certainly don’t have to attend graduation if they find him so abhorrent. But suggesting that he’s an inappropriate choice is just silly. Universities should, and usually do, pick speakers who reflect their values and the character of their community. It would, for example, probably be a poor choice for a school like NYU to invite someone like John Ashcroft to speak at graduation, because he’s so far out of line with NYU’s instititutional values. It would not be such a poor choice for them to invite EL Doctorow, or Toni Morrison, or even Al Gore. Is Salman Rushdie the kind of person whose reputation runs counter to all the things that institutions of higher learning should hold dear? No. He represents what higher education seeks to achieve — skillful writing, expression of inborn talent, and personal courage. So it saddens me to see students at NSU speaking out against him for the least courageous reasons:

“Who is to say there is not someone willing to try and kill him while inflicting harm to everyone else at the ceremony?” said NSU student Randy Rodriguez-Torres in an editorial published in this week’s NSU student newspaper.

I can understand being offended. If, for example, John Ashcroft was the speaker at my graduation, I might consider not attending. I support and respect any individual student’s choice not to go to their own graduation because they disagree with what the speaker stands for. But I’m not sure that there’s a good argument to be made that Rushie is an inappropriate choice, or that a graduation speaker must be someone who pleases everyone in the audience. I can see a better argument against selecting controversial political figures, since those people tend to be inherently polarizing. But agitating against the selection of one of the most well-regarded literary figures alive? Give me a break.

About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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7 Responses to 80s Flashback

  1. Tony says:

    It’s all a matter of degree Jill. You “might consider” not attending if John Ashcroft was your graduation speaker (also, if Ashcroft were to be invited to your school it could be passed off entirely as due to his official function as former attorney general. Rushdie is a writer and only a writer, and his writing is inherently political in a controversial way in which Ashcroft’s work was not. A better comparison might be between Rushdie and Dan Brown.) Many of these Muslim students probably feel that their graduation ceremony is ruined because of the choice of speaker. Besides, parents tend to be much more conservative on these matters than students. The IMU probably feels obligated to speak out on behalf of these students and their families.

    That said, I don’t agree with changing the speaker just because someone is complaining, if only for the practical reason that it would set a poor precedent severely limiting the selection of speakers. I don’t pretend though that the university would have selected the speaker if, say 50% of its student body were Muslim. Overall, it’s a matter of degree, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But given how highly controversial Rushdie is, if indeed only to a small minority, it’s a poor choice for graduation speaker, a person who should be able to appeal as broadly and noncontroversially as possible.

  2. Well, the “who’s to say someone’s not going to try to kill him” argument is pretty darn weak. I can understand Muslim students being offended, but I can’t understand anyone wanting Salman Rushdie not to be the speaker because they’re scared.

  3. Jill says:

    Tony-

    I’m not sure that “uncontroversial” should be a prerequisite for a graduation speaker. Many of the foremost literary figures of the past century have been highly controversial; heck, Shakespeare was pretty damn controversial. Creating art isn’t inherently political, but it may often ruffle feathers. I think universities should embrace those people who represent their values — and you’d have a hard time arguing that Salman Rushdie doesn’t embody the values of most American universities.

  4. Tony says:

    I don’t think said uncontroversial should be a prerequisite. The problem is that the standard “those people who represent their values” is an extremely broad and loose one, and while almost no one would support inviting someone like Ward Churchill or David Duke to be a graduation speaker, I don’t think that alone settles the question of what is a poor choice.

    Inviting Rushdie to come speak at a non-graduation ceremony setting would be a good idea, IMO. In this case though, controversial status is one of many factors that should be taken into consideration. In my opinion it is generally a negative because the graduation ceremony is for families and students to mark and celebrate commencement in a positive memorable manner, which that detracts from. The university is providing a service to all of its tuition-paying families and should seek to satisfy them insofar as practically possible.

    The perhaps unfortunate reality is that Rushdie is known primarily because of his political controversy. Without that his public name recognition as a writer, like many other writers who produce great work but are not household names, would be much lower.

    So I think it really depends on what the options the school had. If the next most prominent choice after Rushdie was some unknown author who had published two or three books– then fine, Rushdie is the best they could do. But given anyone else who are comparable to Rushdie in terms of achievement and cost, I would argue the less controversial figures are better, and how much better they are is generally a function of what percentage of the student population is offended, and how offended they would be.

  5. Freeman says:

    I’m with Jill here.

    I love Salman Rushdie, and while I certainly thought that “The Satanic Verses” was controversial, I ultimately thought that his tone came off as more respectful of Islam than not. I think he simply pointed out that many Muslims overlook a glaring inconsistency in the origins of their fath. Such an inconsitency needs to be addressed rational if the faith is to grow.

    If it does not bend, it breaks. As Rushdie, speaking as God and Gibreel, put it, “What sort of idea are you?”

  6. Sally says:

    I love Salman Rushdie, and while I certainly thought that “The Satanic Verses” was controversial, I ultimately thought that his tone came off as more respectful of Islam than not.

    That’s great. But I’ve never heard any Muslim say that. I worked at a bookstore with a Muslim woman who was a huge Rushdie fan, who hyped Midnight’s Children at every opportunity, but she still said that The Satanic Verses was blasphemous and (deliberately) offensive. She didn’t want to kill Rushdie or ban the book or remove the book from our store, but it offended her. And unlike a lot of book-protesting nut-jobs, she had actually read it. FWIW. And I don’t think the question here is whether you think the book is offensive. It’s whether you should have a graduation speaker whom some students find really offensive.

    I’m actually not sure what I think the purpose of a graduation speech is. In my experience, they generally stink. On the one hand, most schools do try not to offend the people who are there celebrating, and I think there’s something to be said for that. A graduation isn’t an academic lecture, with a respondant and questions from the audience and whatnot: it’s a celebration. Having a controversial graduation speaker is a bit like having the best man at a wedding give a speech about how fab it is that the groom renounced his parents’ Catholicism, because Catholicism oppresses women and gay people and is a shitty, oppressive religion. If anyone is going to be crying at a wedding or graduation, I’d like them to be tears of joy, not tears of anger and humiliation. On the other hand, being relentlessly non-controversial makes for a pretty boring speech.

    (My graduation speech managed to be both boring and offensive. I would rather have had no speech at all, to be honest.)

  7. roswitha says:

    One reason I think Rushdie would actually be a great choice for a graduation speech: past performance.

    As I have been, in my time, accused not only of gravy abuse and wearing brown shoes but of hubris, too, and since I have come to believe that such defiance is an inevitable and essential aspect of what we call freedom, I thought I might commend it to you. For in the years to come you will find yourselves up against gods of all sorts, big and little gods, corporate and incorporeal gods, all of them demanding to be worshipped and obeyed – the myriad deities of money and power, of convention and custom, that will seek to limit and control your thoughts and lives. Defy them; that’s my advice to you. Thumb your noses; cock your snooks.

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