Hamline Student Newspaper (the Oracle) Removed Published Defense of Lecturer Who Showed Painting of Muhammad
One of the twists in the Hamline blasphemy firing story is that the Hamline Oracle—the student newspaper—published and then removed a defense of a lecturer who showed the painting of Muhammad. The essay defending the lecturer was written by Prof. Mark Berkson, who is the chair of the Hamline Department of Religion, so one would think that it would be worthwhile for students to read, especially as a counterpoint to the Oracle’s story that seemed to endorse the criticisms of the lecturer. But Prof. Berkson’s essay (reproduced below) was taken down two days after it was published.
On Saturday, I e-mailed the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper to ask why this happened, and on Sunday got a response pointing me to this item (which was published Sunday):
The Oracle is Hamline’s independent, student-run newspaper. One of our core tenets, to minimize harm, exists for us to hold ourselves accountable for the way our news affects the lives of individual students, and the Hamline community and student body as a whole. Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm. We have decided, as an editorial board, to take it down.
In no way are any of us on this staff or on the Editorial Board experts about journalism or trauma. We are, however, dedicated to actively supporting, platforming and listening to the experiences and voices of members of our community.
We are a student publication that is here to provide a space to elevate the voices of students. Our work is of no value if at any time our publication is participating in furthering harm to members of our community.
Our website acts as a space to widely share information and as a digital archive. We believe that what we publish is a matter of public record that reflects and includes the viewpoints of our community that creates space for having conversations in the open that would otherwise be left in private. We hope these conversations can lead to transparency and accountability. However, our publication will not participate in conversations where a person must defend their lived experience and trauma as topics of discussion or debate.
Pulitzer Center describes minimizing harm as having “compassion and sensitivity for those who may be adversely affected by news coverage.” We will continue to consider and scrutinize our coverage and angles to elevate the stories of members of our community. It is not a publication’s job to challenge or define sensitive experiences or trauma. If and when situations arise where these stories are shared, it is our responsibility to listen to and carry them in the most supportive, respectful, safe and beneficial way for the story’s stakeholders and our readers.
We have learned and experienced from our first day at Hamline, a liberal arts institution, the importance of seeing things from a nuanced perspective. However, trauma and lived experiences are not open for debate.
We also want to take this opportunity to thank the members of our community who continue to read, respond and discuss with us about how our publication affects them. We recognize it is never these members’ job to educate us or anyone else at this institution and we hope to be an area of support, allies and, as Alicia Garza said, co-conspirators in the journey to a more just and equitable institution and society.
There’s a lot going on here, but I wanted to highlight a few items:
[1.] The newspaper’s position goes beyond the view that displaying a painting of Muhammad in art history class “harm[s]” students. Rather, it’s that even publishing Prof. Berkson’s detailed, thoughtful, and expert defense of the display itself “caused … harm” to students. In this debate over academic freedom, Islamic history, and the firing of a teacher, one side, in the newspaper’s view, just ought not be expressed, because its very expression is “harm[ful].”
[2.] Now why is it supposedly harmful? Not because it itself contains allegedly blasphemous images (it doesn’t). Nor does it include any slurs or insults towards Islam or Muslims. Rather, the “harm” apparently arises on the theory that anything that challenges some people’s characterization of their “lived experience and trauma” cannot be legitimate “topics of discussion or debate”—”trauma and lived experiences are not open for debate.”
Prof. Berkson’s essay does identify two important debates. First is the debate about whether one religious group’s offense at material that its members see as blasphemous should suffice to justify banning such material from the university, e.g.,
[Concluding that the very act of displaying an image of Muhammad is itself Islamophobic] would mean that these images could never be seen by, or shown to, anybody. In effect, it would require an erasure of an entire genre of Islamic art. Should no student be able to see this art? And what would it mean for a liberal arts institution to deem an entire subject of study prohibited?
And second is the historical debate within Islam about whether images of Muhammad should indeed be seen as blasphemous, which can be read as suggesting that Muslims should be more open to at least considering the possibility that such representations are indeed permissible, e.g.,
Muslims have created and enjoyed figural representations of Muhammad throughout much of the history of Islam in some parts of the Islamic world…. Over the past few centuries, Shia Muslims, notably in Iran, have been far more accepting of visual representation in general than many Sunnis…. Furthermore, in recent years, there have been Muslim jurists and legal scholars who have issued fatwas—legal opinions—arguing that certain representations of Muhammad are permitted.
Of course such topics have to be open for debate, regardless of how strongly some people may feel that the representations are blasphemous, “Islamophobic,” “trauma[tizing],” or whatever else. Indeed, it is precisely when people feel strongly that some things must be banned (either in general or from classrooms) that we need debate about whether the objections are indeed sound. In a liberal democracy, no group can be entitled to just assert its own feelings as obligatory and demand that those feelings not be challenged.
[3.] This is of course evident if we change just a few of the facts. Say that some Jewish students condemned certain criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic; and say that a professor who specialized in Jewish history responded with a detailed essay that argued those criticisms should actually not be perceived as anti-Semitic, and should be allowed in university classes. (Again, note for purposes of this analogy that Prof. Berkson’s essay had nothing in it that was objectively insulting to Muslims, unless one views all disagreement on such matters, however politely put, as bigoted, insulting, or “caus[ing] … harm.”) Should a newspaper delete the essay on the grounds that the Jewish objectors’ assertions of “lived experience and trauma” connected to the incident “are not open for debate”?
Or say that some conservative Christians condemned certain criticisms of conservative Christianity as bigoted; and say that a professor responded with a detailed essay that argued those criticisms were not bigoted (and were indeed part of a longstanding debate within Christianity), and should be allowed in university classes. Should a newspaper delete the essay
Article from Reason.com