This interview with Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain appears in VPR’s Spring 2015 issue. The interview is prefaced by a brief introduction written by the interviewer Darby Hobbs, a member of VPR’s editorial staff.
On Wednesday, January 7, 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and unleashed gunfire on maintenance staff, a room full of editors, and the police officers who were responding to the scene. The gunmen killed a total of 12 people before fleeing, causing a three day manhunt in Paris.
The gunmen were two brothers who were also terrorists from the Yemen branch of the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda. The gunmen sought out the magazine in response to cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a variety of situations including the prophet naked in pornographic poses, the prophet kissing a Hebdo cartoonist, and a cartoon claiming he was fed up with fundamentalism. As the gunmen were leaving, witnesses heard them shout “We have avenged the Prophet Mohammed” and “God is great” in Arabic.
This massacre amassed a worldwide response as thousands stood with the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign. The public responded with this slogan as a gesture of solidarity, proclaiming that they would defend freedom of speech—one of the main tenets of western culture.
One of the people who responded to the attacks was Professor Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University. In light of the massacre, Professor Swain took to The Tennessean to express her growing concerns about Islam in an op-ed piece titled “Charlie Hebdo Attacks Prove Critics Were Right About Islam.” When the article went to print on January 15th, the response, or–more accurately–the uproar, was almost immediate from the Vanderbilt student body. A protest was organized, an email was sent to the entire student body from the Dean of Students encouraging expressive action, and students took to social media to express their outrage caused by the opinion piece.
Fearing for her safety, Professor Swain did not return to the University for two weeks. When she did return, she was met with sweeping harassment, including a package containing a cardboard replica of male genitals. The Slant, a satirical magazine for Vanderbilt, posted multiple articles about Professor Swain including a false quote saying she masturbates to female porn stars, an article claiming she leaves the toilet seat up, and that she praises Allah when no one is looking.
As the events from both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the backlash to Professor Swain’s article unfolded, the irony was evident. Many people were quick to defend the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, yet many students were equally quick to turn their backs on Professor Swain. Both published controversial and polarizing statements about Islam but were met with very different responses. Why was freedom of speech defended in one situation, but not the other?
Professor Swain sat down with me at Portland Brew in Nashville on March 21st to discuss the response she received from writing the article.
DH: What prompted you to write the article?
CS: Well the Charlie Hebdo attacks were the immediate impetus; also I wanted to heighten the awareness of other Americans because there is something happening right under our noses and we’re not paying enough attention to it.
DH: Did you think that it would have the backlash that it did?
CS: No, I never anticipated that because, you know, I write every week and usually there is some discussion but I certainly didn’t anticipate that an article that had nothing to do with Vanderbilt or its students would generate a campus wide email from the dean of students, a protest, and then you know at least two weeks of my being castigated on campus and ridiculed by the student body.
DH: Do you feel like you’ve been a victim?
CS: I do now and I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, it’s a new territory for me to see myself as a real victim. I know that the attacks and the hurt have been real, it’s been personal and individual, but there is nothing about me that is comfortable with seeing myself as a victim.
DH: What was your goal, or what did you hope the article would achieve?
CS: That it would cause people to think, I think that was successful, that it would heighten people’s’ awareness to what I see as a growing problem in our society.
DH: Do you believe you were acting within your rights guaranteed by the first amendment?
DH: Do you wish you had said anything differently?
CS: If I had known it was going to get so much focus, I would have been more careful in my choice of words, but as far as what the overall piece is? I would not have changed any of that, and I have refused to apologize for the piece because I don’t feel that I have done anything I need to apologize for, but I probably would have made it clearer that is wasn’t an attack on all Muslims.
DH: Do you feel that the article you wrote was any more or less offensive that what the magazine Charlie Hebdo published? Why do you think people were so willing to stand with them, but turn their backs to you?
CS: The University sent out that campus wide email that elevated it, that escalated it, they sent a signal to students as to how they were to respond. I think what has been most painful for me is that on my own campus I was treated like a pariah. If the university really was about education, they would respond with a strong defense of freedom of speech and the constitution and use such incidents as a teaching opportunity, that’s not what Vanderbilt and most universities are doing, they are not trying to open them up to other ideas and teach them how the real world operates because in the real world people are not concerned about you getting your feelings hurt.
DH: So in the Vanderbilt Hustler article, the student who organized the protest was quoted as feeling that you felt that she was a threat to the American people and children, she also states that she was born in New Jersey, so she is definitely an American citizen, did you see that?
CS: It didn’t matter as far as I’m concerned, she chose to take offense at an opinion piece in the local newspaper, and I think on university campuses, the appropriate response to incidents like that is to have a dialogue and to bring in different sides, it’s not to organize a protest condemning an individual member of the faculty.
DH: Speaking of the protest, it was reported that the one student who tried to speak on your behalf had her mike cut and all of the other students turned their backs to her.
CS: I wasn’t there, but if it was a rally to denounce bigotry and hatred and to support inclusiveness and free speech, you would have thought that they would have allowed one person to speak on my behalf. I think that for students who are conservative that may have been sympathetic to my cause, that it was a very intimidating environment and I know that I didn’t want to be in it and they live on campus so it was a dangerous situation for anyone who wanted to speak on my behalf or in defense of free speech.
DH: Do you feel like you were silenced by the university or by the students?
CS: There was an effort to silence me, but I always push back when it comes to restriction on free speech. I feel like the worst thing I could do be to allow an institution to silence me when I am speaking as to what I see as the truth.
DH: What do you think that means for democracy?
CS: It means that we are in trouble nationally, as well as at our institutions of higher education. They’re not teaching students how to deal with, they’re not teaching students how to engage ideas that are different, that would be challenging.
DH: Do you feel like your opinion, because it was the unpopular opinion, was deemed less worthy than other opinions?
CS: It was definitely characterized as polarizing language, hate speech by some, bigotry, it was certainly deemed something unworthy of a Vanderbilt faculty member. It implied that you had to think and act in a particular kind of way, otherwise you could be banished from their community.
DH: What kind of consequences do you think this event is going to have?
CS: I think that if Vanderbilt sees itself as an institution that is trying to train the leaders of tomorrow, it makes it less likely that they would turn out leaders that would have a healthy respect for the constitution, the rule of law, and the traditions and values that have made America great. I feel like in all of this, the group that has been short changed the most is the students, and the students they look to the faculty, they look to the administrators to sort of set the tone, to create a healthy learning environment and that’s where the university has failed. And it’s not just Vanderbilt, other universities across the country that are failing in the same way.
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