November 19, 2018 | ° F

PANISH: Disinvitation reflects consumer mentality


Opinions Column: Leaving the Left


The fight over disinvitations, in which public figures are invited to speak on college campuses and then uninvited because of student backlash, is several years old now. There is nothing to be said about them that has not been said before, and that also goes for the recent disinvitation of journalist Lisa Daftari from Rutgers University. Andrea Vacchiano, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, wrote an op-ed for The Daily Targum entitled “Lisa Daftari is not Islamophobic, deserves to speak.” She has already explained how the Change.org petition that sparked the controversy misquoted Daftari and mischaracterized her beliefs. But more concerning than the fact that students apparently denounced Daftari without listening to the speech in question is the pervasive consumer mentality that their tactics revealed. 

Explaining their organization’s decision to officially denounce Daftari’s invitation, Jhanvi Virani, chairperson of the RUSA Student Affairs Committee and a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said that the speaker’s presence would make Muslim students feel marginalized and unsafe. Presumably, the fact that somebody poses a threat to the safety of Rutgers students would be reason enough to bar them from campus. But the chairperson went on to cite the use of University funds to sponsor Daftari’s visit as the real grounds for their denunciation. “So essentially this is just a bill to denounce the decision to bring her as a University-sponsored speaker," Virani said, according to the Targum. 

If we take seriously the idea that Daftari’s views are so noxious that her presence on campus will put students in danger, then why would those who spearheaded the disinvitation campaign make an issue of funding? A person posing a threat to students is a very different issue than the University spending its money against students’ wishes. The former is something that should be reported to the police. The latter is something that should be debated by students. As far as I know, nobody proposed to take the first approach. So as it stands, the message sent by RUSA seems to be that individuals who threaten students’ safety can come to campus, but only if they are not sponsored by Rutgers. 

This attempt to frame Daftari as an imminent threat to students’ safety one minute and nothing more than an unwanted allocation of funds the next speaks to a larger hypocrisy that is common among student activists. Rutgers’ most ardent protestors and organizers, many of whom signed onto the Change.org petition and backed RUSA’s denunciation, tend to be vocal in their opposition to the individualist mentality engendered by capitalism. Yet, by framing their opposition to Daftari’s appearance in terms of funding, they unwittingly played their part in furthering the commercialization of the University.

The very idea that college students ought to behave like customers and colleges like businesses is a recent phenomenon, a product of the increased impetus on personal choice that emerged from the 1960s counterculture. The basic premise of that rebellion against the old way of doing things at American universities was that students knew best. The schools were there to teach them what they wanted to know, and if they failed to do that, the students would take their business elsewhere. Faced with these demands, the status of the American university as a sight of philosophical and cultural transmission quickly eroded, replaced by the isolating and dehumanizing logic of the exchange relationship that Karl Marx famously decried. As a result, the social sciences and humanities that were long the heart of a liberal education are under increasing pressure to become profitable or else suffer severe cutbacks.  

From a market-oriented perspective, this outcome is perfectly rational. When students see themselves as thrifty shoppers rather than pupils, it does not make sense that an educational service that they purchased should confront them with ideas that they do not want to hear. And since today’s student activists share their 60s predecessors’ conviction that education should always service the cause of egalitarianism, it makes sense that they would focus their efforts on ridding the university of speakers who might poke holes in egalitarian narratives.

Which brings us back to Daftari. Despite claims from the Change.org petition that her views constitute Islamophobia, blanket condemnations of Muslims are nowhere to be found in her work. Her real crime seems to be talking about the roles that religious and communal networks play in transmitting radicalism. This type of analysis tends to complicate narratives of victimhood by showing that, in addition to histories of belligerence and meddling by powerful actors, local norms and institutions can contribute to ills like violence against women. Unfortunately, the students who would gain the most from engaging with this argument have deemed it not just wrong, but too harmful to be spoken on campus. Rather than giving themselves the chance to confront these ideas and refute them, Rutgers’ activists have responded like dissatisfied consumers — by returning the product. 

Adam Panish is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in political science and history. His column, "Leaving the Left," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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Adam Panish

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