September 2007 Ethics Dunces

Ethics Dunce: Columbia University President Lee Bollinger

Whether it is appropriate for Columbia University to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a supporter of terrorism, a human rights violator, a sworn enemy of America and a Holocaust denier, to speak to its students is a matter over which reasonable and ethical people may disagree. Bollinger, Columbia's president, made a plausible argument that it is in the educational interests of students to hear all points of view from a full spectrum of speakers, including enemies of decency, our culture and our nation. Okay. I hope he remembers that argument when his students try to prevent, say, the Vice President or Justice Thomas from speaking on campus, but I respect the sentiment.

Bollinger, however, apparently decided that he had to acknowledge and mollify critics who felt that giving Ahmadinejad a prestigious forum was offensive and wrongheaded. So he used his introductory remarks before Ahmadinejad spoke to condemn, excoriate and generally bash the head of state whom he had invited to come to his university. Here are some of Bollinger's barbs:

…It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas or our weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naivety about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas…we do not honor the dishonorable when we open our public forum to their voices; to hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

…Let's then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

…When you have come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. You should know that Columbia is the world center of Jewish studies -- us a world center, and now in partnership with the -- Institute of Holocaust Studies.

… I close with this comment frankly and in all candor, Mr. President. I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do.

When he finally had the chance to speak, Ahmadinejad remarked that in his country it is considered wrong and rude to insult guests. It is in this country too. By trying to straddle the controversy of his own design, Bollinger managed to make his university and his country look boorish by abusing the international champion boor. Yes, his extended exposition of what a rotten person his invited speaker was got thunderous student applause, but it was unethical and inexcusable conduct nonetheless. Bollinger's own rhetoric defending his invitation of the Iranian president emphasized that students should be able to hear all opinions and make up their own minds about the speaker and the speech. Then he went to great lengths to tell the students before Ahmadinejad had even opened his mouth that he was a lying, murderous low-life. So much for trusting his students form their own judgements.

The proper treatment of invited guests is not subject to a sliding scale of civility, fairness and manners according to how much you dislike a person, his or her deeds or what he or she stands for. The Golden Rule applies to all guests: treat them as you would like to be treated. Was what Bollinger said true? It doesn't matter. When you invite a prominent person to speak, you have the obligation to treat that person with respect even if he doesn't deserve it. A guest, any guest, has a right to expect polite treatment, not a verbal ambush. Imagine: "And now, our next speaker is former President William Jefferson Clinton. Sir, your inability to keep it in your pants disgraced your office and forever lowered the level of political discourse!" Uh-uh. "Our featured speaker is author Gore Vidal. Let me be clear: you are a pompous intellectual bully whose paranoid contempt for our government and the public is only exceeded by your inherent mean-spiritedness!" Never. "It is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker, Congressman Larry Craig, who is, as you all know, a gay-bashing hypocrite who apparently prowls the men's rooms of large airports, and has embarrassed his constituents, gay and straight alike, with his lack of candor and courage. Welcome."


Just because Americans now routinely call each other vile names over the Internet and on Cable shout-fests, the rules of human interaction haven't changed so much that it is acceptable to invite a guest and then abuse him. Hosts have obligations to guests, duties rooted in centuries of tradition and history. A host must keep a guest safe, fed and cared for, and must treat the guest with dignity and respect. If you can't stomach those obligations regarding a particular individual, the remedy couldn't be more obvious: don't invite him. The only other alternative is to tell the reviled potential guest, "Come be my guest, but be warned that I intend to publically insult you." This is not known as a good way to get a lot of RSVP's. But it is still more ethical than what Bollinger did: adopt a fun house mirror version of the Golden Rule, one that goes something like this:

Do unto others as the people who didn't want you to invite them to speak would do unto them!




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