Have we become complacent and decadent in our pursuit of liberty, as the controversial author and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali asserts?
Well, yes and no.
It’s hard to argue that we have abandoned efforts to advance freedom and liberty entirely. Just look at the Lesley campus alone, and our work on a local level in concert with national figures and campaigns to address prison reform, police brutality, educational equity and so much more.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali graciously visited our campus this month to meet with faculty and staff as part of our yearlong focus on Islam, to foster greater understanding and discourse. Earlier in the week, we welcomed Harvard’s Dr. Ali Asani, who gave a presentation on an understanding of Islam.
Not everyone was eager to welcome a visit from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, who will also meet with Lesley students in January, and will present in our Boston Speakers Series. Some bristle at her critical views of Islam. Last year, even Brandeis University cancelled its plan to award her an honorary doctorate.
But what underscores all of this for me is our obligation as an academic institution – and as individuals – to encourage critical thinking and expose our students and the entire university community to a diverse range of viewpoints. We should be having uncomfortable conversations, and that is why I invited her to campus. It was a great opportunity for us all to gather together, and it was a precious reminder that we all have a right to speak, as well as the ability, right and obligation to listen.
“Your job and my job is to inspire and engage (students) in debate, to pull them out of where they are comfortable,” Ms. Hirsi Ali said to our colleagues gathered in Washburn Lounge. “If you do not do that, you are not a professor on a campus. You are leading a daycare center.”
She said education and critical thinking are the key weapons against radicalism. “We are faced with the totalitarianism of the day building on an age-old civilization and tradition, and what can we do to make sure the totalitarian predators do not invade the minds of young people? I know what we can do. Teach them not what to think, but how to think.”
Whether or not you agree with her analysis of aspects of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali offered some food for thought during her visit about the importance of questioning and the acceptance of controversy as “the underpinning of a free society.”
The concept of political correctness is a hot-button issue today, and we must walk a delicate line between respecting all viewpoints and being willing to rationally challenge those that seem wrong or misguided. A failure to do this is a “weakness of liberalism,” in Ms. Hirsi Ali’s opinion. She argues that extremists and fundamentalists exploit our political correctness and cultural relativism to advance their own ultimately destructive ends. Following the terrorist acts three days ago in Paris, her call for genuine dialogue and critical thinking may resonate with more and more people – which is one reason why Islamic extremists want to silence her.
As a university president and leader of an academic community, I believe we must educate ourselves as broadly as possible in order to make educated decisions as informed citizens. The stakes are too high to succumb to the current trend of political correctness. We must engage with integrity across differences, read widely, listen deeply, and speak openly and clearly. Only then can we truly move forward in the world as active and engaged citizens committed to protect the ideal of liberty and freedom for all.