That student was skimming the books in the Department’s library when he noticed a copy of a book he always thought was racist. Shocked, he took the book in his hands, thinking it was a mistake. Someone must have forgotten it here. Nope: the label was there. As the student could see, while literally shivering, there was on the first page the Department’s logo. And just above an Ex Libris with a teacher’s name in evidence.
One of my teachers -thought the student- believes that this book is worth reading and studying and has donated it to the library. To the library of this Department. What am I doing here? The student thought. In this place, it is legitimate to hate me. I do not belong here.
In the afternoon, the student met with his mentor. The subject of that book came out during the conversation (the student was terrible at concealing his feelings). The mentor’s reaction was a further shock. Yes, it’s that book. Yes, it’s that teacher. And why are you making such a fuss? It’s just a book.
The student asked for a meeting with an advisor. Shockingly, the answer was the same. It’s just a book. While I understand your feelings, you should acknowledge that no one forces you to read that book.
That seemed to be the line in the Department. Every time the student raised the topic of that racist book, the answer he got, from senior students and teachers alike, was inevitably the same. It’s just a book. No one forces you to read it. And what do you expect the Uni to do? To burn books in the public square? Are you invoking censorship?
Does it sound familiar? I bet yes.
But it is not another episode of the contemporary drama “free speech vs cancel culture”, which is currently on stage in the Humanities Departments.
It actually happened more than 20 years ago. The student was me. The book was “The Founding Myths of Modern Israel” by Roger Garaudy, a Communist-turned-Muslim French philosophe. The book is a cornerstone of Holocaust denialism, widely quoted by the European Far Right and Far Left and vastly popular in Arab Countries, especially for the part about the “myth of six million”.
The book’s donor was a not particularly brilliant lecturer. One of these scholars whose career has been stopped and remains stuck to a marginal role. His only publications were books’ reviews.
I was told that he was not going to trouble me anyway (meaning he did not have any power in University’s politics). As a reviewer, he receives tons of books; he has not much room, so he donates many books to the library. He’s not indulgent toward Holocaust denialism; look, it’s not even his field…
Many of the things I was told back then will sound familiar to contemporary opponents of cancel culture. Suppose we banish Garaudy’s books from the University’s libraries because they are antisemitic.
In that case, we should banish the works of the guy who wrote: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money”. His name is Karl Marx. And what about “Be men and not undiscerning sheep / that in your midst no Jew may laugh at you”. That’s Dante Alighieri. Will we mutilate the Western canon because it does not fit the contemporary understanding of antisemitism?
And mind, censorship is a booster: it turns cheap booklets into important secret documents.
These were the arguments I was faced with. And these are the arguments we hear now. We are often reminded that freedom of speech is a luxury with a price. Such a price is the tolerance we must give to horrible positions, such as Holocaust denialism, slavery’s apologist, homophobia, misogynists… the list is long.
I disagree. I find the posture of those who support cancel culture sanctimonious and irritating. But I cannot forget how I felt holding that book in my hands. I remember I looked around the room. Other students, non-Jewish, were working on their papers. I felt (and I was right) that they had no time for (another) Jewish grievance. The same, I learnt, for the teachers.
Some of the teachers with whom I raised the subject displayed an almost naif belief in academia’s self-regulating capacity.
Holocaust denialism, they told me, was going to be defeated with the strength of ideas, that is, with well reasoned and well-argued pieces of researches. How optimistic they turned to be. Just open Twitter. Count how often you can read nonsenses such as that Zionism is a theocratic and supremacist movement. Or that “settlers” descend every day on poor Arab villages to devour the children because they have been brainwashed by some Evangelical minister. This garbage comes straight from that book by Roger Garaudy. And it is still circulating.
I wish I had the same faith as my teachers in the self-regulating power of academia. I have not.
Books may be banished (that antisemitic book was not, in Italy). Lecturers may find deserved opposition. But do we seriously believe that the academic world is exempt from pettiness and acts of revenge? Are certain voices silenced only because they make the students feel uncomfortable? Then why do certain minorities have the strength to make their discomfort heard while others have not? Has any lecturer with a posh Eatonian accent -and there are plenty of them- ever been no-platformed for the distress caused to students of working-class background?
Here’s an open secret for you, University students can be manipulated. Half a century ago, in Italy, under the flags of Far Left movements such as “Autonomia Operaia”, academic rivals of luminaries such as Tony Negri -informal leader of Autonomia Operaia- were bullied and attacked daily. One of them, Angelo Ventura, was shot to the legs by terrorists in 1979.
Based on my experience, I welcome interventions from outside to find the balance between freedom of expression and students’ psychological well being. And if this external intervention comes from the Government, so be it.