Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Will Reilly: Meet the Grand Inquisitor

[MODERATOR: In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky includes a famous scene, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” The Inquisitor imprisons Jesus for allegedly interfering with the mission of the Church. Jesus's arrival is disturbing the church’s mission. By interviewing both sides of the antiabortion protest Will Reilly reminds us

a) why free speech is important (its mission is to encourage debate); and

b) why some people—today’s Inquisitors—would ban objectionable speech in the spirit (if not name) of that "French twerp Herbert Marcuse."

Read Reilly’s account and make up your own mind]

So, today, I went to an anti-abortion rally.

As those of you who can see already know, there is a huge pictorial display called "Abortion as Genocide" currently up on the SIU campus. Sponsored by the pro-Yahweh RSO Warriors for Life, the display features the usual gory pictures of aborted fetuses and weeping non-mamas. The stated purpose of this exhibit is comparing abortion to historical genocides like the Holocaust. For the past two days, a group of 60 to 80 counter-protesters has been camped across the street from the display - carrying signs featuring bloody coat-hangers and unflattering descriptions of men.

Viewing this whole event as a living example of "conflict under law," I took my law class to see it earlier today. We spoke to both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, in order to hear them defend their respective positions. Our group talked to "pro-choice escorts" walking women around the display, pro-life advocates who had bused down to see the thing, and a brace of preachers. We politely questioned both sides. Almost everyone we hit up was willing to explain why they felt as they did; both conservatives and liberals were actually pretty difficult to quiet down.

But, there was one major exception to this rule. The very first group of people we spoke to was a bunch of liberal counter-protesters, dressed in typical "I'm-at-a-rally" gear. Two of them wore yellow "choice escort" signs stapled to their shirts. One had a piece of tape over her mouth - probably to symbolize that she was (like so many people at a public riot) unable to express herself. Another guy had a huge pink sign taped to his chest, with SIU Chancellor Sam Goldman's home number written on it. Apparently, passerby were supposed to call the Chancellor and demand that the anti-choice photos be taken down.

My students and I asked these liberal counter-protesters a few questions, mostly about whether demanding the photos be removed was anti free speech. The head of the liberal counter-protesters (let's call him the "Inquisitor") chased down a couple of my undergraduates and demanded that they give him my name and title. When I went back to confront him about this, he told me that he had been "horribly offended" by the questions I and my students had been asking. He noted that there was "no place at college" for questions like mine - much less speech like pro-life signs. Inquisitor told me that he planned to call the Chancellor's office and file a formal complaint about my "abuse" of him and his pals, and huffed off.

I called the Chancellor, who tells me that his office doesn't take too many unsolicited complaints from street protesters, but am still annoyed by this. The behavior of the liberal counter-protesters is a classic example of what French twerp Herbert Marcuse called repressive tolerance. In a famous essay, Marcuse argued that liberals should be totally tolerant of left-wing behaviors, but should feel comfortable not tolerating conservatives because conservatives are evil. Thus, the counter-protester and his friends expected people to be okay with them standing in the middle of a public road screaming about abortion, but literally attempted to fire me for asking whether his position made sense. Ah, sweet reason.

An additional note of humor is provided here by the fact that this self-appointed Inquisitor is in no position to push for limits on free speech. According to a brief Google search for the name of the person yelling at me, he's a well-known far-Left blogger. His blog is publicly available on MySpace and Blog-Spot. Even taking Marcuse into account, the Inquisitor would be one of the first victims were we to do away with the First Amendment. As I support his free speech rights, I will refrain from the ol' law school urge to post links to the most humiliating portions of the blog (here). I suggest that he and his friends extend the same courtesy to others.

In the interests of free speech from all directions, I will note that the Chancellor's number is 618-453-2341. Feel free to call him and criticize protesters, criticize conservatives, or note how awesome I am.


Anonymous said...

This Will guy sounds like a troublemaker. You aren't allowed to "question authority" on campuses, are you? I mean, is it legal?

Did Will and his students make the counter-protesters "uncomfortable?" Create a "hostile learning environment?" This sounds like fodder for the "sexual" harassment code.

OMW said...

No, in certain areas at SIU, disagreement with prevailing viewpoints is looked upon at the very best with great suspicion and usually with barely disguised contempt. Intellectual discussion is not allowed and seemingly every means--from shunning to outright and false accusations of whatever qualfies as the Unpardonable Transgression of the week to expulsion from the University in violation of the 14th Amendment's Due Process clause--is employed to maintain the raw power these people actually seek. The same Due process clause, incidentally, that gave the Warren Court the avenue through which to declare segregated public schools Unconstitutional--and make other landmark decisions such as Miranda v. Arizona (as I understand the ruling) or other cases in which the federal government had the right to intervene in state affairs, but now seems as convienently forgotten by administrators and others throughout the Universities as the life long claims of "Federalism" were to the 5 Justices who intervened in the affairs of a state in Bush v. Gore. Presumably these same people who howled at Bush's creative legal manuverings are now inviting those of us who wish they would live up to their own principles to "get over it."
Such a "getting over it," lack of basic discussion or even open disagreement does not foster collegiality. It does not enhance the sort of scholarship that SIUC claimed it wanted under the now (thankfully) forgotten "Southern at 150." It does not permit even the most basic forms of human interaction such as saying "hello" to someone around campus without having to worry about being perceived as "insensitive" and having an accusation filed that can potentially ruin one's career. Such inhibited discussion does result, however, in exactly the sort of conformist adherence to the sort of Institutional University Apparatus that, in its state forms, has done so much to stifle the creative, cognitive and human spirit within each and all of us. Thanks for your response to the posting: let's keep the conversation going--

Anonymous said...

I agree with all you say, OMW. One slight correction:

The key issue in Bush v. Gore was settled by a 7-2 decision.

Or go to findlaw for the full decision.

Anonymous said...

Monday morning, I listened to a colleague state her position that a prolife rally should not be allowed on campus. I pointed out that it was free speech, she countered that this particular display was too graphic and disturbing, and, in an attempt to reach stasis, I agreed that many would be disturbed by the imagery.

I proceeded to point out how disturbing the rape t-shirt project is, and that a number of rape survivors have found it difficult to enter Faner for class and for work when the t-shirts are on display. She ignored the part about survivors entirely, and said that rapists deserve to be made uncomfortable.

I brought us back to the subject of the survivors. She said that the t-shirts promote "Community" among victims (I capitalize the word facetiously). I pointed out that all survivors do not feel the same way about these issues.

She became angrier and less logical, both about the t-shirt project and about the pro-life demonstration, and I realized that there was no potential for dialogue. I excused myself to work on lesson plans.

Later that day, I approached the pro-life demonstrators, and pointed out that having some positive images, such as 3-D ultrasounds, might be more effective for many, and also led them to some other post-abortion resources for men and women. They were courteous, civil, well-spoken, and capable of defending their own position, without resorting to ad hominem attacks against the pro-choice position. I admit that I baited them slightly, and they resisted any anti-pro-choice rhetoric.

But these aren't the "intellectuals!" These people don't have a "right" to speak!

Honestly, my brain bleeds from frustration. And the anecdote with my colleague, described above, is far from the only situation that has occurred this week. At this point, I'm averaging 1.3 per day.

Anonymous said...

I saw the anti-abortion displays and happen to know a couple of the counter protesters. Part of the issue for them was that Sam had censored a feminist art display because it might offend children, yet Sam took no action against a graphic depiction of nude dead fetuses. Exposing this double standard was the point at least some of them were trying to make in addition to being anti-anti-abortion. However, I can see how the point could easily become blurred at a rally.

None-the-less, it is unconscionable to give out Sam's home phone number so people can harass him.

Anonymous said...

This whole thing has really become quite a debate on the SIU campus. You should check out the thread for it on the Daily Egyptian website ( The protesters who argued with this guy are doing a vehement - and incoherent - job of trying to justify themselves. Go look at this stuff...