Last spring, Celebrate South Asia! (CSA!) and the Wellness Center were two of the organizations that contributed to inviting a sex therapist, Sonalee Rashatwar, to St. Olaf to address issues of body image and dieting in a modern social context. Following their main presentation, they held an open question-and-answer session for students who wished to speak with them further. At this session, Rashatwar made brazen, toxic and deeply hurtful claims about Hinduism and Hindu culture, a religious minority on this campus and in this country. Their primary assertions were targeted at Holi, the Hindu festival of colors.
They have also argued, in person and online, that Hinduism as a culture is racist, colorist, misogynistic, casteist and that people who practice this reprehensible tradition are complicit in its supremacist customs. This Hinduphobia is one of their main talking points on social media and is an integral part of their brand.
There was no response. Not from CSA!, who invited them. Not from the Wellness Center, who signed off on their talk as double-wellness-swiped. Not from the Taylor Center or administration about how unfounded libel against a minority faith on campus is not in line with St. Olaf’s values.
In fact, following this event, CSA! hosted a Holi celebration that began with a discussion of the supposed “dark side” of Holi, with its purported roots in colorism, racism and sexism – a fervent endorsement of Rashatwar’s perspective that Hinduism is a backward tradition that needs to be “saved” from its awful ideologic roots.
Not only did CSA! fail to respond constructively or factually to defamation of a faith it claims to include, but it provided a platform for willfully ignorant rhetoric – exploiting the festival for its revelry while denigrating the tradition from which it derives.
From this incident, one thing is clear: as students, we have to decide how we deal with attacks on minority races, faiths and cultures on campus. And we have to be consistent in how we respond to such rhetoric.
If we decide that any attack against a particular race, religion or ethnicity is reprehensible and against the values that we espouse on campus, we need to be consistent about it. We also need to distinguish between an attack on ideology and an attack on practitioners.
If an invited speaker declares (wrongfully) that Islam is an ideology of murder or if they claimed (wrongfully) that Judaism advocates child abuse (regarding the binding of Isaac), this would be an attack on ideology.
If an invited speaker declared (wrongfully) that all Muslims are terrorists because Islam is where ISIS claims its allegiance; if they (wrongfully) claimed that Jews are all ungenerous toads because they are stereotypically wealthy; this would be an attack on individuals.
Personally, I subscribe to the idea that no speaker should be silenced because they can bring reasoned critiques to an ideology; if we think they are wrong, we can then use evidence-based arguments to refute their assertions and show them the door. That is how the marketplace of ideas works and that is frankly how the world works.
However, if a speaker slandered a minority faith and its members at a St. Olaf-sponsored event, we would justifiably exhibit our anger over their presence on this campus and we would demand that better care be taken when inviting speakers that are meant to promote social equity and welfare.
So, is it okay for a speaker to insult Hindu culture and for a student organization to provide a platform for their views? If it is not okay to bring a speaker who insults Christianity, Islam or Judaism, then the answer is no.
If we truly wish to honor the diversity of faith and culture on this campus, we need to take a long, hard look at when we choose to protest and perhaps more importantly, when we choose to remain silent.
Neetij Krishnan ’20 is from Eden Prairie, Minn. His major is biology.