Allowing hate speech conflicts with Jesuit mission

Allowing hate speech conflicts with  Jesuit mission

“Higher Purpose. Greater Good.”

With these words, Dr. Pestello closed his email to SLU last week. He reminded us what commitment to our University’s purpose and values looked like, following crass comments made against the Muslim Student Association (MSA) by invited speaker Colonel Allen West. Though he personally condemned the remarks, SLU’s commitment to the free enterprise of ideas obligated Pestello to allow Lt. Col. West to speak.

As President of Political Round Table, I understand how critical differing thought is to discovering truth. Without a medley of distinct ideas, even the most well-crafted roundtable becomes a pulpit. I respect finding common ground between free speech and our Ignatian values. But with the utmost respect, I completely disagree with Dr. Pestello’s statement. There are two reasons why.

The first is the incongruity between hate speech and our University’s commitment to both the common good and sense of community. Lt. Col. West, in response to alleged “censorship” by the University, wrote multiple posts on his website, calling MSA a “stealth jihad radical organization” intent on “waging a civilizational jihad” to “destroy Western civilization from within.” This hateful speech fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the widely peaceful religion of Islam. He transmutes our fellow classmates, the brothers and sisters we are supposed to work for and with, into objects of terror, the omnipresent enemy we must stomp out at any cost. Allowing this speech on campus is inconsistent with our values. We cannot say we are men and women working for the common good of others and also allow invited speakers to dehumanize significant populations of our community, especially not in a building committed to global citizenship. At least, we can’t say this without being called hypocrites in the same breath.

But let’s put hate speech aside and accept that SLU has a commitment to freedom of speech, and this freedom of speech is in itself indicative of our mission of intellectual inquiry. So naturally we’ve had a continuous history of allowing controversial speakers on campus to broaden perspectives, right? Wrong. This is one of the few times that SLU has used its commitment to free speech to justify a controversial speaker. SLU is well-documented in clinging to its Judeo-Christian values to deny speakers. The most salient examples from the University’s recent history include denying Planned Parenthood speaker Linda Raclin and the Vagina Monologues for their lack of adherence to our Jesuit-Catholic values. Worse, still, is the precedent denying events like these has established in the culture of campus conversation. Political Round Table, for instance, is a group that discusses “conversations that matter” by engaging students in dialogue about issues beyond campus. But even we don’t dream of having conversations about abortion and atheism because we know these conversations, though popular, would never get past University mission-based standards. SLU has historically created a dichotomy between our mission and free speech—the two are regarded incompatible, and when in conflict, Jesuit values reign.

However, in light of Dr. Pestello’s email, it seems SLU has reversed these standards and declared this dichotomy false. No longer can we deny speakers based on the content of their speech—we simply must adapt and treat all their views with courtesy and legitimacy, even if they stand to fundamentally degrade our students’ humanity. It seems we are left with two options: either (1) Lt. Col. West and his speech are an exemption to SLU’s commitment to its values, or (2) there is a new precedent on speaker engagements that Dr. Pestello is intent on rolling out. If it’s the former, we have obvious issues to address. If it’s the latter, then is there any limit on what speakers can be brought to campus? Can we bring back Linda Raclin, bring back the Vagina Monologues and do away with the silly speaker agreements which force all speakers to adhere to SLU’s Jesuit values? The answer at this time is, sadly, unclear.

Values and ideals do not gain their power from their invocation or mindless repetition, whether in emails or speech. They gain their power through the actions committed with their guidance. If we are to become a University who prides itself in allowing every speaker—even speakers who preach hate—to come to our campus, then that is fair. But we cannot live in this hypocritical middle ground where we pretend to also be living out our Jesuit Mission. We must make a choice. In the protests against West, SLU students made their choice. I respectfully urge SLU’s administration to do the same.

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