Prameet Kumar | ‘Shutting down the debate’
Guest Column | Penn professors shouldn’t silence discourse on highly politicized issues
March 10, 2013, 11:57 pm·
Just a year ago, Penn professor Ania Loomba co-wrote a letter to The Daily Pennsylvanian in defense of the controversial Penn Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference.
“As teachers, our role is to model respectful and rigorous intellectual exchange,” she wrote, “especially on highly politicized issues that evoke such impassioned responses.”
I’d encourage Loomba to reread her own words and to extend her embrace of “rigorous intellectual exchange” to a more recent hot-button international political issue: the invitation offered to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be the keynote speaker for this year’s Wharton India Economic Forum.
Loomba, along with several other Penn professors, penned a petition to the WIEF criticizing Modi’s human rights record and successfully urging its student organizers to withdraw their invitation.
In an interview with The New York Times, Loomba elaborated: “What we are opposed to is the Forum, which is an element in a larger institution of which we are a part, granting him a position of honor to increase his personal legitimacy, and thus further a political agenda which we find reprehensible.”
I’m struck by the hypocrisy Loomba displays in rejecting outright any political debate about Modi’s tenure while having just recently championed an open discourse over the Palestinian BDS campaign against Israel, another political agenda that many other members of the Penn community find reprehensible. It’s insincere of her to support discussion on a controversial issue she approves of and then to stifle a talk by a controversial leader she disapproves of.
Last year, I interviewed Loomba for a DP story about the BDS conference. My article ended:
“Loomba said she was dismayed by [Penn President Amy] Gutmann’s dismissal of the movement. ‘Amy Gutmann made it sound like it’s some loony, fringe thing,’ Loomba said, adding that the BDS movement is ‘widely supported’ all over the world.
“‘Every political issue has to be debated,’ Loomba said. ‘If you just out of hand dismiss it, that’s also shutting down the debate.’”
It’s hard to believe those words came from the same professor who is now trying to shut down a speech from a significant political figure. It’s hard to believe that Loomba is trying to portray Modi as “some loony, fringe” politician. Whatever criticisms he has received, he is still very much “widely supported” — he is the democratically elected leader of a state of 60 million people and could very well become India’s next prime minister.
I should emphasize that I have no strong political leanings on either the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on Modi’s ministership. My concern lies with the intellectual atmosphere of Penn and Wharton.
It is my hope that Penn, as one of the preeminent universities of the world, can be a place where contentious international issues are debated. And it is my hope that the Penn community — professors in particular — will not silence discourse on highly politicized issues in fear of evoking impassioned responses.
Prameet Kumar is a 2012 Wharton graduate and former Daily Pennsylvanian editorial page editor. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @prameet.