Opinion letter to the editor

PhD student responds to column on MIT India Conference

This is a response to an article published Feb. 9, “Shunned by Harvard, Feted by MIT.”

To the editors,

I’ve been fairly concerned by deplatforming events in the last five years at U.S. universities. Deplatforming, also known as “no platform,” is a form of boycott that denies a person or organization a platform to speak. Now it appears to be happening here. This may not be the first time this has happened — please feel free to bring other instances to my attention — but this is as good an opportunity as any to explore the topic.

Much of my discussion is general to deplatforming and not relevant to Subramanian Swamy because, without knowing the topic of his talk — though it appears to be only about economics — I find it difficult to make any judgements as to the appropriateness of his presence. Nonetheless, others have made judgements.

There is currently a petition asking that President Reif consider disinviting Swamy from speaking at the 2019 MIT India Conference. I'm surprised to already see 1,941 people sign the petition. And, I’m concerned that those signing have not considered the full implications of their actions.

In a recent opinion piece published in The Tech, the strongest argument for deplatforming is a claim that MIT’s reputation would be tarnished by allowing someone to speak here who is linked to racist or Islamophobic ideas, regardless of the topic of their speech. This is a fairly immature viewpoint that is tribal in nature and counterproductive to its own objective. Our goal is to discover the bad ideas and replace them with better ones. You want this to happen in yourself and in other people, which can only occur when those different ideas meet.

While the work of refining ideas is certainly carried out by all institutions, it is our academic institutions which are best suited to the task, especially when ideas are radical. If you dislike Swamy’s viewpoints, then imagine what a positive experience coming to MIT could be for him. Positive interactions with our community could soften or change his views with time. Now imagine how likely he is to make those changes on his own if we give him the boot in such a disrespectful way. The world would not function if we treated each other solely based on everyone’s worst attributes and ideas.

If you’d rather not hear ideas you disagree with, then don’t — perhaps you worry they will sway you, otherwise what actual threat do they pose? But don't be so condescending as to imply that anyone who hears Swamy speak will be instantly converted to share his full set of beliefs. Disinviting him wins protesters brownie points but does nothing to improve humanity. It is a foolish request.

Please don't sign the petition and prevent the exchange and refinement of ideas. Let an academic institution do what it is good at: skeptically investigate any idea with respect, integrity, and minimal bias. If not in the academic institutions, then where, my friends? Who will do the difficult work of critically evaluating even the most radical thoughts if not us?

There is no courage in not having a conversation and denouncing a person before they can even speak. It takes courage to have the conversation and challenge another person's ideas, not from a place of disgust or self-righteousness, but from a place of understanding and compassion. Let that be the path forward. It is the more difficult and less traveled path. It requires patience and compassion.


Stephen Filippone

Editor's note: this letter was sent to The Tech a few days prior to the MIT India Conference, which took place Feb. 16.