Ian Almond is Professor of World Literature at Georgetown University
ICYMI– Georgetown was set to have a debate on 9th October, but due to increased security concerns the debate was cancelled. Although the debate received criticism from the twitterverse, it sparked numerous conversations about free speech among the students. In light of this, I sat down with professor Ian Almond to talk about the issue of freedom of speech, a culture of debate and how we, as a university, can do better.
Interviewer: What was the immediate reaction from your students? Was there some sort of discord among the students?
Prof. Almond: I had lessons immediately after when the debate should have taken place… I was kind of taken aback, asking my students in both my classes, ‘cause there was not a single student who said that the debate should not have gone ahead. It was unanimous in both classes of 15 people each. That surprised me– I thought that maybe the students who disagreed would keep quiet… there was divergence about the topic and certainly differences about the poster, and I felt as well that the poster– they should have used a different poster, but it was unanimous among my students at least.
Interviewer: What do you think was the main issue that sparked the response it did on Twitter? Was it the image on the poster or the title of the debate?
Prof. Almond: The image… I think if you want to have a dialogue with people you need to invite them to a middle ground, and with an image like that you’re really sort of making a statement. Again, I don’t want that to be a criticism of the students who put that poster together to feel personally attacked or anything, it’s easy to be wise about things in hindsight. Everyone’s got wisdom in hindsight.
Interviewer: Do you think this is a free speech issue?
Prof. Almond: I am pretty cynical about free speech, to be honest. I’m really cynical about the way the west uses free speech as some kind of massive difference between itself and the so-called “muslim world”. I didn’t think I would find myself wrapped up in something like this– even on things like Salman Rushdie and that, I don’t know if I necessarily take a hardline free speech position.
Interviewer: Considering Georgetown is an American university in the Middle-East, there are bound to be people who think that this is some sort of western or imperial pursuit… how can that perception be resolved?
Prof. Almond: I don’t think it’s explicitly that, but you could be cynical about it and say that it Westernises students and produces a certain kind of subjectivity which doesn’t believe in extremes and develops sensibilities towards western consumer culture, and western intellectual and cultural tastes. And it is a subtle way of winning hearts and minds– the classic phrase. I don’t think that it is an explicit agenda, but I wonder sometimes whether just the basic idea of having an American syllabus… Many of us, myself included, try our hardest to work against that, and even in working against it we still end up replicating it. I think the solution would be to have really really great local universities, I’ve heard good things about the Doha institute.
Interviewer: How do you think this affects how Georgetown is viewed by the public?
Prof. Almond: I think it’s going to mean different things in different directions. To the very conservative parts, it might [laughing] confirm things they’ve always thought, but there are definitely going to be positive effects, however ridiculous it sounds. Georgetown will look, for some people, as a place in the region where limits are pushed and where some sort of space where people can say what they want is created.
Harleen is a sophomore at Georgetown University