On October 9, 100 attendees, made up of both Columbia students and outside guests, joined in Lerner Arledge Cinema for a conversation between Faisal Al-Mutar and Zachary Wood on freedom of speech, censorship, and foreign policy.
Born in Iraq, Faisal Al-Mutar came to the U.S.A in 2013 as a refugee and began a career in human rights activism. In 2017, he founded the NYC based, non-profit Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB). The organization’s goal is to stop extremism at its root. One of their main projects includes translating books professing enlightenment ideas into Arabic to break down the language barrier to the free exchange of ideas. Having lived under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Al-Mutar knows first hand what it is like to live with limited access to information and knowledge.
Zachary Wood graduated from Williams College in 2017. He was President of a club called Uncomfortable Learning, which brought speakers with diverse viewpoints to campus. Wood won national attention when he invited Charles Murray. Despite the severed friendships and physical threats he received, the event, he said, ended up well. Although his differences with Murray remained, he was able to see why Murray thought the way he did. This experience of uncomfortable learning is valuable and lacking on college campuses.
The NYC based speakers met about a year ago. Al-Mutar shared that the idea to have a speaking event with Wood originated after they spent six hours at a bar discussing foreign policy. Although they disagreed on many points, their conversation remained civil throughout the night, which was for them, both rewarding and rare in our polarized political climate.
For a speaking event, the best moments are when the speakers disagree. After introducing their own experiences of living in an echo chamber, the conversation delved into the issue of extremism on the internet. Al-Mutar says his views on censorship have changed over the last few years, as ISIS continues to recruit people into their terrorist organization. When he first came to the U.S, he was more of a free speech absolutists. These days, he’s open to censoring dangerous speech, pointing out the vulnerability of democracy. Under a dictatorship, opposing ideas are squashed. However, a democratic society permits not only ideas that challenge democracy but let them flourish, thus endangering the system that allowed those ideas in the first place.
Wood pushed back with several points: 1) who decides what is dangerous 2) bad ideas should be challenged with good ideas, not censored 3) censorship is a slippery slope. Al-Mutar responds: 1) dangerous speech can be detected the same way porn is. You know it when you see it 2) he fears bad ideas can win and then it will be too late 3) the slippery slope is the slippery slope. The last point drew laughter in the crowd and perhaps left the audience with more questions. The audience remained engaged until the end, bringing challenging questions to the Q&A section.