VIEWPOINTS FORUM: Smith College’s graduation no-show — lost chance, or injustice avoided?
CAROL LOLLIS Graduates at the Smith College commencement Sunday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »
EDITOR’S NOTE: These comments from readers concern International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde’s withdrawal as Sunday’s commencement speaker at Smith College.
A point Ruth Simmons made at Smith’s graduation
I was pleased to see the front page coverage of Ruth Simmons’ graduation speech at Smith’s 2014 commencement on Sunday. The article did a nice job reporting on one part of her speech — the importance of students standing up for what they believe in. However, many of us in the audience also very much appreciated the other important message in her speech — that colleges and universities have an obligation to protect free speech and open discourse. Simmons said, “Don’t complain when the statement of your views leads others to disagree. Implicit in the affirmation of your right to voice your views is your obligation to protect the rights of others to their views.
Don’t shut the door to new knowledge and greater discernment by closing your eyes and ears and hearts and minds to what others have to offer.” I regret that the Gazette coverage did not represent this position.
Lauren Duncan is a professor of psychology at Smith College.
‘Liberal fascism’ on the move in Valley
There has been a distinct uptick in the incidence of what I call liberal fascism. Just for starters, we’ve just witnessed three spectacular women, who were about to give commencement addresses, be rudely vilified by zealots. And zealots almost never bother to get their facts straight. There is something so primitive and juvenile in the spectacle.
There is such intellectual rigidity and simple-mindedness, such ascribing of malevolence to the “other.” There is a quasi-religious and self-congratulatory fervor at having outed imagined moral blemish in others, which — in their minds — compels them to shout down speech. This is what just happened, and what a disgrace.
Christine Lagarde, after she is done rolling her eyes, will in 10 seconds do more good in the world than a hundred brigades of censorious know-nothings.
A protest led by people of color
Much of the media coverage surrounding the protests at Smith College, and Christine Lagarde’s subsequent withdrawal, has elided one important truth: the protests were visibly led by people of color.
As soon as demonstrations began disgruntled students, faculty and administrators sought to undermine the protests by drawing attention to anger and noise surrounding them, by comparing them to tantrums and by characterizing them as aggressive and lacking the civility befitting a college environment.
Noisy. Angry. Infantile. The race of the protesters matters because these words, far from being random descriptors, are the historical weapons of white supremacy: a caricature-focused narrative that’s been used again and again to subhumanize, deride and delegitimize people of color when they resist violence and silencing.
As a white alum, I know that many of my counterparts within the Smith community and at large don’t realize the supremacist impact of “arguments” that draw on this loaded imagery.
They feel logical and weighty precisely because they reproduce a meme: we know the story of subjugation justified by savage behavior deep within our collective bones, and it resonates with those of us who benefit from it even when we don’t explicitly or consciously recognize it in our arguments.
But consciously deployed or not, this historically significant, coded language should be a red flag. Just as it is sexist to delegitimize women who speak up with the language of hysteria, it is racist to delegitimize people of color with the caricature painted by accusations of incivility, noise and aggression.
At the same time as community-members tried, however unwittingly, to silence protesters with racialized language, they insisted that Lagarde deserved a chance to speak. But as one protester commented, “Christine Lagarde did not lose her audience.” As the head of a globally powerful institution, she is not marginalized and her voice is more than protected — speaking both literally and figuratively, she will be handed a microphone wherever she goes. The same cannot be said for people stripped of their rights and sovereignty by the IMF, a non-democratic organization underwritten by western corporations. Who will amplify their voices?
As members of the Smith community will know, Lagarde’s selection followed the launch of the college’s Women for the World campaign, which purports to empower women from around the globe. Faced with this bitter irony and a racialized backlash, many students and alums found themselves asking: which women, and for whose world? It pains me to say, but it seems like the answer might be “the most powerful women, for a world subjugated to their economic interests.”
There are many feminisms. Though Madame Lagarde certainly represents some of them, she doesn’t represent mine. My feminism is not about breaking down that final barrier which prevents me — white, western, documented — from enjoying the spoils of imperialism, military and corporate, alongside my male counterparts. It isn’t about silencing the disenfranchised so that the ubiquitous narratives of the powerful may go unchallenged. My feminism is about destroying systems of domination, all of them, and it begins with the choice to take a step back from the stage, hand the microphone to the marginalized, and listen.
Áine Sweetnam is a member of the Smith College Class of 2013.
Global player in a system built upon greed
In an email to the Smith College community, Smith President Kathleen McCartney said of Christine Lagarde’s withdrawal as commencement speaker: “Those who objected will be satisfied that their activism has had a desired effect. But at what cost to Smith College?”
McCartney goes on to say she supported the trustees’ decision to invite Lagarde and then to claim that inviting the IMF director to speak is not an endorsement of “the views or policies of an individual or the institution she leads.” This rationale falls flat when that invitation is accompanied by an honorary degree. It is a widely held understanding that bestowing an honorary degree is intended to pay respect to and “honor” the contributions of a person of influence, privilege, prestige or power. Accordingly, the message is that Smith has chosen to hold in great esteem and reward someone who heads an organization which is notorious for suppressing democratic practices and forcefully imposing failed austerity and market-based policies that favor the interests of corporations, wealthy investors and the financial sector that are responsible for growing economic inequality and environmental destruction across the planet.
Essentially the IMF offers loans to “developing countries” (countries historically pillaged by European colonialism and imperialism), and more recently to “developed” countries whose economies have been subjected to the new order of economic imperialism based on the prevailing “wisdom” associated with neoliberalism, globalization and financialization.
Over the past several decades, the IMF has played a major role in ensuring the success of this plutocratic political and economic order and continues to do so today, despite Lagarde’s recent claims of a kinder and more benevolent IMF.
Just this past month, the IMF reached a loan agreement with Ukraine, where The Nation magazine reports, “The IMF loan comes with demands for ‘economic reforms,’ i.e., austerity measures, that will be borne by the working-class Ukrainians, one-fourth of whom already live below the poverty line ....”
President McCartney you ask of the protesters’ actions “at what cost to Smith College?” The value of these “women of promise” who are truly living “lives of distinction” have restored some level of integrity to the college in spite of its leadership. That is priceless.
Tim Scott is a social justice educator and serves on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association .
Free speech on campus is never really that
The furor over the rejection by Christine Lagarde of her invitation to speak at Smith College’s commencement, has nothing to do with free speech.
To begin with there is very little resembling free speech on college and university campuses. All those speaking in those venues with the permission of the institutions are very carefully vetted beforehand.
There are few places in the world more constraining over who gets to speak than on our college and university campuses. To become a member of the academic community at Smith or the University of Massachusetts one must pass through scrupulous scrutiny of their credentials and past performance. No one teaches at any of these institutions without their administrations and faculties’ belief that they will not be saying anything that they would find unacceptable.
In regard to Lagarde, there has been no hint that she is unwelcome to speak at Smith. As I heard one of the professors who was questioning her politics and her economics say, “she is welcome to speak on campus.” It was at the college commencement that some students and faculty felt she was an inappropriate choice, as in that case she would be presented as the voice officially chosen to represent the college and to articulate a message that students should value most highly.
If indeed the president of the college wants to defend the freedom of speech and the right of her students to benefit from the views of Lagarde, I believe she will take the opportunity of all the current publicity to work energetically to bring her here so we may all have the opportunity to get her point of view.
Gary Michael Tartakov