Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Prof. Kaplan Explains Himself

At last, after two weeks of angry mass meetings, bizarre accusations, and very embarrassing world-wide media coverage, Leonard Kaplan has issued his own account of what he said and what he meant. You can read it here. I will add a comment of my own about it, below, later on.

Added Later: I guess the first thing to say is that I, for one, find his account substantially very believable. Admittedly, he has a motive to make what he said sound good, but it is also true that he would likely be better at remembering what he said than anyone else present because -- he was the one who said it! Also, if you look at the two known ear-witness accounts (both of which can be found on this blog) and the second-hand report in Ms. Moua's email, you can see how these other accounts could indeed represent impressions, mis-impressions, and distorted rumors of what he said, even if what he said is exactly as he represents it here.

In the article in yesterday's Badger Herald on Kaplan's statement, the only one of his accusers who could be reached for comment said that they were "disappointed" with it. What is the nature of this disappointment, I wonder? Probably, they wanted him to agree that he had said the absurd things that had been attributed to him, and apologize for having done so. If you think someone has said something that you find offensive, and they say that they didn't say it and don't agree with it, why isn't that the end of the matter? If the statement was not an epithet or a personal insult, why would they be lying about it? Do you think David Duke ever denied having anti-black or antisemitic opinions? What for? He thinks those opinions are true! I don't understand.

One more thing. Prof. Kaplan says in his statement that his case does not involve academic freedom, because he has been misunderstood. I disagree with the underlying principle here, which seems to be that academic freedom would only be involved here if he actually were a racist. Being misunderstood is not censorship, and he has merely been misunderstood.

I think he is wrong about that. Throughout history, attempts at suppressing expressions of opinion often take the form of "misunderstandings." In the old Soviet Union, people who were put away for weird, impossible crimes like "Trotskyite-fascist conspiracy" were actually "guilty" of much less serious offenses, such as telling a joke making fun of Comrade Stalin's policies. The weird charges relieved the Communist authorities of the necessity of actually discussing those policies in public. If you say something that offends me, and I give an exaggerated account of it, I no longer have to do the work of dealing with what you actually said. This is true, even if the exaggeration is unconscious and, in a way, perfectly sincere. The present case could very well be an academic freedom case if the accusations are motivated (if only unconsciously) by real offense at what he actually did say. Or if they tend to deflect people in the future from saying anything that could lead to the same sort of misunderstanding.

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