The UN General assembly is meeting in New York this week and so many world leaders are in New York. The leader that has elicited the most controversy in his visit is Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who asked to visit the site of the World Trade Center to lay a wreath down. As can be expected, this was refused.
But he was invited by Columbia University to speak before students, which has led to many students and organizations protesting the decision. There have been quite a few news stories about this, some critical of Columbia’s decision (i.e. International Herald Tribune, Ynetnews) others attempting to maintain journalistic neutrality (i.e. AFP, USA Today).
Personally, despite some of the rather unsavory views of the Iranian President, I think this is an excellent opportunity for students at Columbia University. It is not often that one gets to hear a speech from a foreign leader, especially one who comes from a nation considered an enemy of our own. Because of the UN’s position in New York, Columbia has a unique opportunity to host speeches from world leaders.
Now obviously, there is opposition to the idea of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli, Holocaust denialist views receiving a forum in America. I disagree with this sentiment. Yes, Ahmadinejad is an effective Holocaust denialist, never outright denying it (the strongest word he has used is “myth”, which, as those who understand the term know, is ambiguous in meaning) but always ensuring that anything close to an affirmation has an air of uncertainty and is loaded with hypothetical terms.
But the idea should be suppressed because it is wrong or dangerous goes against American ideals of free speech and critical thought. Ahmadinejad’s ideas may be wrong and he may be our political enemy but he has a right to speak, but even more importantly, we have the right to hear his views, for free speech is not just to the benefit of the speaker but also to the benefit of the listener, who can then more completely consume and process the information presented.
As well, it is not as if Ahmadinejad faces a compliant audience. He will not be rallying Columbia University students in favor of Iran’s policies and his views. Instead he will be faced with critical consumers of information, who are seeking not to join his cause but to broaden their understanding of Iran’s politics and of geopolitics in general beyond the picture painted by our domestic media.
I remember listening to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States visiting Grinnell College as part of our “The Rise of China” series of talks. The audience was respectful but many of the questions directed at him were quite critical of some of China’s less savory practices. The talk gave me a better understanding of the discourse employed by diplomats and their methods of avoidance. I suspect that this talk will benefit many Columbia University students in much the same way.
They will learn for themselves exactly what terms the Iranian President uses to crouch his positions. Those opposing his views will better be able to do so by hearing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments in full context. And most importantly, this will allow students entering a world of more global connections a better appreciation of the discourse of world leaders, including those who oppose us.