Saturday, February 12, 2005

Free Speech, Controversy, and Poor Decisions

The sorry saga of Ward Churchill continues, even as the flames of Easongate die down. Nancy Rabinowitz, director of the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture at Hamilton College, has resigned under fire for inviting the controversial Churchill to speak (hat tip to Myopic Zeal).

Most of the blogging community has adopted the position that Mr. Churchill is incredibly offensive, but his disparaging comments should not be cause for his termination. Jim Spencer of the Denver Post agrees with that...but there's more to it than that (it should be noted in passing that both Churchill and Rabinowitz have prior histories of moronic decisions to suggest that these lapses weren't hasty mistakes).

This post in Power Line touches on one issue of interest: can a person be fired for stupidity? Manifestly, the answer is yes: When Eisner fired Ovitz from Disney, or when Carly Fiorina is forced out at HP, isn't this an implicit statement by the investors, directors, and executives that poor judgment has been exercised? Could anyone not blinded by ideological blinders fail to see that the same applies to Rabinowitz?

The only thing that makes Churchill any different is that his poor judgment was the action of 'speech' (generally agreed upon to include writings, of course). I'm not interested in trotting out the old "Fire" in a crowded theater argument, but I would like to make this distinction. Any academic institution (any institution at all, really) worth its salt should always allow for a good measure of controversy. When physicists talk of string theory and its 'extra' dimensions, that is surely controversial - but there is a good body of evidence and theory to back it up. When Lawrence Summers talks about gender differences in career choices, that's definitely controversial (and he shouldn't have backed down), but again, he was hypothesizing in an academic context.

I could go on and on with the examples, but the point is clear. However, when Ward Churchill refers to the victims of 9/11 as "little Eichmanns" and expresses a wish for even more of these tragedies, that's not academic controversy, that's opinion, and inflammatory opinion, at that. Still, I guess I reluctantly side with those who say he shouldn't be fired. I don't see any reason why the good people and students in Colorado shouldn't continue to protest this pathetic wretch's venom through that same protected speech that we grant him. Maybe he'll have the good sense to resign, too. As for the people who hired this buffoon - well, that's the kind of poor judgment that gets people fired every single day.

No comments: