March 9, 2017 — The events around author Charles Murray’s appearance on the Middlebury College campus have convulsed both campus and community.
As news reports and commentaries have distributed word of the unruly crowd that blocked Murray’s speech, the events have taken on national significance.
Protesting students were rightly concerned about abuses sometimes associated with white male privilege, and the perception that inviting a speaker whom many regard as a racist was an insult to minority students. But Murray came to campus to talk about his book on the dangers of increasing class stratification – a subject that students at an elite college would do well to study.
There’s too much to be said about these events – which included a physical attack upon Murray and college personnel — to fit it all into one column. So I’ll offer just four points.
• The actions of protestors in completely shutting down Murray’s speech ultimately have no moral or ethical justification.
• They’re also politically stupid.
• What happened on campus last Thursday tells us something important about the state of our nation, and…
• It’s not the whole story by a long shot.
I’m always encouraged to see college students speaking out on issues of the day. We need their perspectives, energy and youthful wisdom.
But it’s incredibly counterproductive to shout down speakers with whom we disagree. It poisons the public debate, silences dissent, and denies the majority a chance to hear speakers with varying points of view.
Nobody has a corner on the truth. We look to institutions like Middlebury College to be guardians of justifiably lofty ideals such as freedom of speech.
John K. Wilson put it well in a commentary that appears on the Academe Blog of the American Association of University Professors:
“Shouting down speakers…is wrong,” Wilson wrote. “Plain and simple. It’s wrong. Shouting down speakers is morally wrong, unprincipled, anti-intellectual and utterly indefensible.”
I support dissent on campus, and in my college days at Middlebury I was sometimes a very loud dissenter. But I couldn’t then, and can’t now, support the efforts of a crowd to deny a speaker the right to speak, however noxious his views might be.
“What is the fundamental principle behind the idea of shouting down a speaker?” Wilson asked. “Is the principle that people should have the freedom to shout down those they don’t like?
“By that logic, white supremacist gangs should be allowed to shout down people of color whenever they try to speak. Is the principle that a big crowd of people should get to shout down those they don’t like? Obviously, bigots can form a big crowd, too.”
Denying radically conservative speakers like Murray the right to express their views in public – especially when they have been invited by a legitimate student organization – is also politically moronic. [Since I first wrote this piece, my friend Bill McKibben has made this point very nicely in an article for The Guardian, available at http://tinyurl.com/hpfztlz.]
I’m old enough to remember when these tactics were used against leaders whose views I supported as a young activist. What Murray faced here was the kind of mob mentality that denied a platform to civil rights leaders and anti-war activists in the Sixties and Seventies.
I’m thinking, too, of American-American thought leaders who have visited the Middlebury campus in recent years: Angela Davis, who was vilified in the Sixties for her left-wing politics; DNC interim chair Donna Brazile, and the wonderful Van Jones.
Would it have been OK if opponents of those speakers had massed to prevent them from speaking here?
Of course not.
At a time when moderate and liberal ideas are under virulent attack from the Trump Administration, it’s deeply unwise to legitimize the suppression of dissent.
Trump & Co. have shown little hesitation about trying to silence their critics. We’ve recently seen the administration attack the press as “the enemy of the people.”
The crowd that drove Murray from the stage was motivated by similar sentiments: that his views were so dangerous and so repugnant, they shouldn’t even be spoken.
When that’s the justification – and when the levers of the federal government are being pulled by the Right – well, it’s just power vs. power.
In that dynamic, progressive views will inevitably be the loser.
The Right is still pointing to the burning of one car at Trump’s Inauguration, plus a recent UC Berkeley incident that shut down a speaker, as “evidence” of how dangerous the anti-Trump forces are said to be. Regrettably, the same inaccurate claims are now being about the events on our local campus.
(In those incidents and last week in Middlebury, it should be noted, the physical violence appears to have been incited largely by anonymous outsiders in black.)
As to the state our nation, it’s pretty clear that last week’s protest was driven by greater anxiety about the uncertain governance emanating from the White House.
We have a chaotic Trump administration that came to power after losing the popular vote – and has nonetheless moved against multiple American institutions as if it had a mandate to attack minorities, Muslims, environmentalists, elected officials and anybody else who disagrees with them.
I’m not blaming Trump’s team for last week’s incidents. The responsibility for that rests with the participants who shut down Murray and attacked him when he was leaving the scene.
I’m saying that the anxiety and anger expressed by the protestors didn’t occur in a vacuum. And that Trump has done much to stir the passions of Americans to a dangerous boiling point.
Now to the last consideration, that what happened last week isn’t the whole story.
Both as a student and now as a Middlebury alumnus, I’ve found the college to be a haven for intellectual stimulation and free speech.
That’s not going to change based on one ugly incident.
Moreover, I’m encouraged by the deep and thoughtful discussion now occurring within the college and wider community. College President Laurie Patton has done an admirable job shaping this debate, both at the Murray event and in subsequent statements.
But there’s work to be done. As Patton put it in a public email, “We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us.”
I hope we will all learn from what happened.
I’ll even bet that most of the students who barred Murray from speaking will one day see what a mistake that was.
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