Monday, November 3, 2014

Is Bill Maher's Free Speech Under Attack?

I didn’t really plan on writing more about Bill Maher’s Islam controversy, but that was before he actually solicited my advice. Well, not mine personally, but that of “liberal college students,” of which I’m one. The issue at hand specifically is the call to revoke UC Berkley’s invitation to Maher to give a commencement speech, due to his recent comments about Islam. Berkeley is the home of the free speech movement, which, according to Maher, and a rather long article by Brian Levin, adds a particular layer of irony and hypocrisy to the whole matter.

First, let me address the actual campaign to disinvite Maher. I don’t support it. Although I think Bill Maher’s comments about Islam are offensive and I don’t accept his “Islam isn’t a race” defense against the charge of “racism” against him (criticizing Islam is one matter, championing our “liberal Western values” against the Muslim world’s is another), I still, on the whole, like Bill Maher. I agree with him probably the vast majority of the time, and he’s smart, and funny, and perfectly qualified to give a commencement speech at UC Berkeley.

That being said, I do kind of understand the campaign’s motivation. What Maher has said about Islam is genuinely problematic, and I do think it risks vilifying Muslims as a group. Bill Maher may have nothing against Muslims as people, as evidenced by his willingness to talk and be friendly with Reza Aslan, but when you promote the idea that a religion or ideology is fundamentally linked to violence and theocracy, it’s hard for that not to in some way turn into attacks on those who follow it. This isn’t helped by Maher’s repeated implication that the problem really is with Muslims as a group (such as when he challenged Charlie Rose to find him a moderate Muslim, as if it were on par with finding a four-leaf clover, or something). Maher himself has made it clear that he’s attacking Islam in ways he doesn’t attack Christianity or Judaism, and so, if I were a Muslim, I can’t help but think I might sort of feel a little alienated. Still, on the whole, I think Maher has demonstrated that he doesn’t have some sort of malice or ill will toward Muslims, and I think the things I noted before do properly qualify him to be the commencement speaker.

However, what I really take issue with here is the idea that those campaigning to disinvite Maher are somehow threatening his free speech. I sincerely can’t believe I have to lecture liberals about this, but choosing not to associate with someone because of what they say is not, and never will be, a violation of their free speech. If there were a movement to prevent Maher from every setting foot on the campus of UC Berkeley due to what he’s said about Islam, that would be one thing; but we’re talking about giving the commencement address, which is not something they would offer to anyone. Naturally, what someone says and does will, and should, have an impact on whether they will be offered the opportunity to give a commencement address. There’s a reason UC Berkeley didn’t invite David Duke to give the address, and the fact that he wasn’t invited doesn’t infringe on his rights to free speech, either.

Brian Levin quotes former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as commenting:

“It has been disturbing to see a number of college commencement speakers withdraw -- or have their invitations rescinded -- after protests from students and -- to me, shockingly -- from senior faculty and administrators who should know better.... In each case, liberals silenced a voice -- and denied an honorary degree -- to individuals they deemed politically objectionable. This is an outrage.”

This is just an absurdity, even disregarding the audacity it takes for someone like Bloomberg to pretend to be defending people’s rights. No one is “silenced” by having their invitation to give a commencement speech revoked; Bill Maher has his own TV show. Does he, or anyone else, really believe that by not being invited to give the commencement speech at UC Berkeley, he’s actually being “silenced?”

As for the idea that it’s somehow “an outrage” to oppose having someone as commencement speaker because of their political views, this is also completely ridiculous. If someone were discovered to have neo-Nazi ties, should a university still have them as commencement speaker (and, as Bloomberg notes, award them an honorary degree)? The ideas of tolerance for others’ viewpoints should not extend so far that people with truly heinous viewpoints should be given all the same honors and opportunities that anyone else could receive. You’d think that Bill Maher, of all people, with his championing of the idea that religions are not all equal, would understand why political views are also not all equal.

No, the question here is a much more narrow one: whether Bill Maher has really said or done anything to deserve having his invitation from UC Berkeley revoked. In my view, he has not, though I can’t claim to not at least understand why some people want him disinvited. Ultimately, though, as Reza Aslan has noted, I don’t think Bill Maher intends to promote some kind of bigotry or hatred against Muslims, nor do I think he himself is a bigot, even if his comments do somewhat reek of the idea that we Westerners are the more enlightened folk (which wouldn’t be so troubling except for how profoundly wrong that idea is, given the atrocities the West is guilty of). He should be the commencement speaker for UC Berkeley, and I’m sure his speech will be as witty and eloquent as he usually is, even when stating opinions I completely disagree with. I suppose, furthermore, I can understand why he and his supporters pulled the “free speech” card—it’s easy to object when suddenly people want to shun you for your beliefs. But that doesn’t make the objection any more sound, and if they don’t like being vilified by their opponents, they might want to avoid vilifying them back.

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