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OUR VIEW: A new attack on academic freedom (poll)

ed Updated: March 8, 2013 at 12:00 am

Academic freedom is essential to intellectual progress, free thought and freedom itself. If society doesn’t aggressively defend academic freedom, people are not free to discover truths about cultures, religions and scientific findings. They are not free to study theories of evolution, creation, or to discover that our planet is round.

The concept of “tolerance” has become a cleverly disguised, anti-intellectual threat to academic freedom. To advocate “tolerance” as a high moral principle in academe, one indulges intolerance and prohibition of free learning. That’s because genuine tolerance requires that we tolerate intolerance, or at least access to knowledge of intolerance.

One cannot genuinely advocate tolerance if he refuses to learn about or acknowledge radical Muslim communities on a basis of their common beliefs that women should be hidden away and forced to wear burqas. True tolerance requires that we tolerate people with beliefs we consider odd, politically incorrect, or even cruel. One cannot honestly advocate tolerance by renouncing a college professor for professing the merits of abortion, or for advocating prohibition of abortion.

Those who advocate tolerance, while denouncing others on a basis of their perceived intolerance, are not tolerant. They tolerate only themselves. These enemies of truth take their intolerance to an absurd level by suggesting others should not even learn about that which offends them.

In academe, we must value only tolerance of the freedom to exchange ideas, beliefs and accepted truths.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation claims to advocate tolerance, yet appears intolerant of Jewish teachings when the organization’s leadership finds them objectionable. It is fine to object to cultural and religious practices and values. The Gazette objects to the cultural practices of extreme fundamentalist Muslims who justify sexist mistreatment of women with interpretations of the Quran. Though we object, we would never advocate preventing radical fundamentalists from professing their views, much less suggest shielding students’ websites that teach about them.

We object to the Ku Klux Klan but defend their right to profess radical hatred. Furthermore, we encourage students at universities to learn all they can about people from all cultures and religions of the world. College must prepare them for the real world, not a pretend version concocted by the radically sensitive.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation wants to publicly “shame” the Air Force Academy because it did not act quickly enough after the organization demanded removal of a link in an online memo that led students to multiple websites that teach about religions. One link directed students to the website Judaism 101 at www.jewfaq.org.

To demonize the academy, the organization rented a billboard on Garden of the Gods Road this week that says “Shame on the USAFA” and “Homosexuality is not kleptomania.” The website does not compare homosexuality to kleptomania. It argues that homosexual activity is not excused, in the author’s understanding of Judaism, even if it is rooted in genetics. It uses an obviously undesirable activity — stealing — to show that society cannot accept all behaviors on a basis of proving genetic cause. That’s quite different from saying that homosexual activity is the same as shoplifting, but don’t expect foes of academic freedom to appreciate the nuance of an analogy that is obviously and intentionally disproportionate for the sake of explaining a point.

Foundation leader Mikey Weinstein characterized the website’s contents as “perniciously hateful... bigoted and virulently homophobic.”

One small passage of the website explains that sexual relations between two men are clearly forbidden by the Torah, which is true whether anyone likes it or not. It’s pretty clear in Leviticus: “You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.”

To teach this scripture, which is held sacred by hundreds of millions around the globe, is merely to educate students on a fundamental belief of a major religion that has influenced cultural practices and law. Graduates of universities must know about this, just as they should know about fundamental teachings of all religions that form cultures and conflicts throughout the world.

The website also tells us that Jewish law forbids male masturbation, yet we doubt American Air Force brass are on a crusade to eradicate such behavior. The website could offend opponents of abortion rights because it explains how Jewish law defines an unborn child as a “potential human life” until the body emerges from the mother. Would Weinstein support Right to Life in demanding a cleansing of the link, because it offends opponents of abortion? Doubtful.

When the Air Force Academy tries to teach about religions of the world, it needs to be honest. It cannot educate students with pretend versions of religious philosophies to appeal to those who tolerate only those messages that support their particular emotions and beliefs.

Society must oppose attacks on academic freedom and truth that only stand to stupefy higher education to the peril of all.

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