Coming together and coming apart

Two days ago, Charles Murray (henceforth reduced to CM) came to Middlebury College to speak. By some accounts, it did not go well (see, for example, the coverage from the NY Times.)

I teach at the college, and this morning I am angry — but not for the reasons that the media and the college are asking us to be.

Of course, I am angry that Professor Allison Stanger was hurt during the aftermath, but I am also angry at how security forces treated some of the students and community members. I condemn all violence at these protests, violence that is more complicated than the official storyline. In addition, let’s not forget the real violence of bringing a known and active racist and anti-poor people “intellectual” into our community. While legal scholars can debate the nuances of what constitutes hate speech, telling us that this falls far short of official standards, many of us recognize hate when we see it.

I am angry that Middlebury gave CM a platform to speak on our campus, and that the people in charge — the so-called adults in the room — handled it so poorly. They treated it simply as an opportunity to prove how open-minded they are rather than consider the actual effects on the students, the community, and the world we all live in. I am angry that the students got caught between the AEI and the college, both trying to “teach them a lesson” even if it was a lesson they neither wanted nor needed to learn.

I am angry, but nevertheless not surprised, that many professors choose to see the entire world as a classroom or teachable moment, where rational and truth-based claims will prevail and there is the possibility that minds can be changed purely through the strength of a better argument. While this might be the mode we aspire to in class, it has little relationship to how things work in the so-called real world. Moreover, for many people the arguments CM makes are not just “flawed ideas to be put to the test through rigorous debate” but rather material attacks on their reason for being on campus, not to mention their very reasons for being. It is strange when academics want to claim ideas matter, but then ignore instances where they truly do. Some things really should not be up for debate. If there is any “liberal bubble” which we are accused of inhabiting, it is likely the faux Habermasian public sphere they imagine the college campus to be, driven only by the power of rational debate.

I am angry that students’ views were delegitimized because they had not read CM’s entire oeuvre, meaning that to be able to fully participate in this rational debate they had to do extra work to prepare. So not only did they have to accept a racist on campus, they had to waste their weekend to read his work —long discredited by many already — in order to be able to take part in this wonderful dialogue. It is amazing how frequently people can miss how some people are more burdened in these open debates than others. I hate to break it to my fellow faculty, but sometimes students don’t read the primary sources. They’ve found that frequently secondary sources work just fine.

I am angry that the people with power to stop this earlier did nothing, even though they should have known better. This is not the first time CM has graced our fair campus. Ten years ago, he paid us a visit. That time, he insulted the Black students in the audience, telling them they would be better off going to a state university [editing note: this formerly read “8 years ago” and “community college” but has been corrected based on talking with people who attended the talk], rather than being over their heads at an “elite” institution that they did not really earn the right to attend. We are extolled to rise to the challenge and debate the issues, but is this a model of such debate? Do we really need to condone a speaker who tells our students they don’t belong, that they are not good enough? CM has time and again shown us who he is, and yet too many at the college acted like this history does not matter, as if this time we’ll finally catch him in his lies and contradictions. And to those who said that last time there were not the same level of protests, I say that this is exactly the problem. Last time, as we basked in the glow of our promised post-racial world, we could more easily pretend that CM was a marginal crank, at least those of us with the privilege to feel comfortable that his crankiness would not touch us. But here we are today with open white supremacists in charge of the country. Maybe we should have protested a little harder last time? At least some of us are finally catching up and catching on. Many of our students were already there, and are glad we’re finally standing up for and standing with them.

I am angry that too many in the administration and faculty decided to nationalize and abstract this event, and to do it in the wrong way. Yes, this has national implications, and yes, I understand the power of the media and the fact that there are real pressures to perform correctly. I am just not happy with how it seems like the media narrative and abstract principles of free speech overrode the real effects on large numbers of the student body. The first priority should have been to defend the community and say there is no room for this kind of speaker here, media fallout be damned. (And you know what, you might have just gotten a better media reaction if you’d gone this way — maybe be proactive rather than reactive next time.)

I am angry that in all these claims of abstract universal principles that are used to support and legitimize CM’s visit (President Patton policy that she says yes to all student groups that ask her to speak, PolySci claims they will co-sponsors all talks with any interest at all to their discipline, etc) are not as universal as they claim. I suspect there are limits, but we’ve yet to find out what they are. I mean, even CPAC said no to Milo, even after celebrating their commitment to free speech. (Note: Why weren’t conservatives everywhere smeared as much as our students for their hypocrisy on this issue? There’s a lesson here.) Sadly, whatever their unstated standards, a discredited white supremacist and perpetrator of flawed and dangerous IQ social science does not yet reach that limit. I want to hear what that limit is. Now before this happens again.

I am angry that free speech is conflated with civil discourse, which is then equated with allowing a known racist and pseudo-scientist to stand on stage and gain the legitimacy of being on our campus, and only then we can ask smart and devastating questions in return. That’s one model, sure, but it’s not the only one. Students have speech rights, too. There is no right that others will remain silence, that you have the right to be heard.

I am angry that I am compelled to make consumer-based arguments, since it the growing student-as-consumer model hasn’t exactly been a step forward for higher education. The students pay an ungodly amount of money to be here, taking on enormous debt. And, unlike the adults, they also LIVE here. Their education is not just the classroom; it’s full time. And why shouldn’t they have a say in what happens on their campus. Yes, I know that nominally CM came at the behest of a student group (one that relies entirely on external funding, and where the students couldn’t be bothered to do their homework on their speaker to find out the nature of his beliefs). We don’t make free speech claims that anyone can show up at a place of business and give a speech or that someone can come into other private spaces and spew nonsense. I know college campuses are unique and special places, and I want to defend those qualities. But that does not mean that anything goes.

I am angry that this talk of free speech ignores important power differentials, on this campus and the world we live in. No one silenced CM. He has book contracts and various outlets to spread his ideas. In the end, he got to talk at length on a livestream, projecting his ideas far into the world. The students simply said, you can go ahead and do your thing, but don’t do it here. Protest is the response of those who lack institutional power otherwise. If the college had respected the students beforehand, they might not have needed to protest. Civility is nice, I guess, but only when its warranted. It was not warranted here, and was used, instead, to silence students who had important things to say.

I am angry about the people wringing their hands about how this fits into conservative narratives about free speech and student snowflakes. And yet, before they even finish their statement, they reaffirm these very narratives. The students I saw protesting were not snowflakes, they were not hiding in “safe spaces.” They were working to make their space safer. That’s a big difference. They were being strong and active and taking huge risks to defend and define their community. And it is sad that the right wing conservatives (who are in charge of the country, in case you hadn’t noticed) can actually be attacking free speech right now (see numerous examples, including our current president), and somehow it is college students who have to bear the brunt of defending some abstract principle, and have to tolerate bad science and racist ideology to do it. That is, they can only prove their tolerance by being put in a situation of intolerance and hate. That’s not fair, and it’s a bad model. Meanwhile, we are being told we can’t even call racists racists since it will turn them against us (ps. if they are racists, they are already against us (some of us, at least… Which side are you on?)). So who are the snowflakes here? Not those protesting.

I am angry that people believe that students have to be exposed to CM’s ideas, in order to hear the “full range” of opinion, as if they could somehow manage to go through life (let alone a day on this campus) without having to deal with racist garbage. We don’t need to bring a speaker in to give these ideas voice on this campus. They are already here, and letting CM speak only deepens them further. We don’t need to bring a discredited racist to campus to have a conversation about race. The fact that some people make this argument at all may be one of the things that makes me angriest.

I am angry that people are conflating every action that happened in protest of CM’s visit as one big event, riding a slippery slope from disruption to violence. Yes, it’s possible to condemn violence and still stand in solidarity of all the protestors.

I am not angry at the helpful attempts to place this in a comparative context, but I believe that those miss the larger issue. We are not China or Iran, we are the US. And while for some people that means free speech and open exchange of ideas, it also means a long and ongoing history of institutionalized racism (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration, etc etc etc). This history was made possible by people like CM. It was also made possible by the people who politely disagreed but still supported people like CM to speak wherever he wanted. We like to toss around feel-good cliches about the arc of history bending towards justice, but there’s nothing natural about that trajectory — it only bends that way when we not only gain victories but also continue to defend them. I am angry that we are still asking our students to debate CM — he’s been discredited since before they were even born. What new can they add? The science is in: we won. But the politics is also in, and, sorry to say, but we’ve lost, and will continue to do so if we don’t take a more active stance against this nonsense.

By all means, let’s offer support for students in their protest because this is going to keep happening. I think they did great, but I want them to do better. And better. And better. They are students, after all, so I want to encourage their learning. Again, I am very upset about Allison being injured in the aftermath, but I do not want that to be the only narrative that comes out of this (if we are so concerned about “the narrative” of the protests, then why don’t we do more work shaping that narrative rather than giving that power to others — or, more cynically, why are we contributing to the very narratives we claim we don’t want out there?) Yes, provide training for the students if you want. But if anyone needs to learn about protest, it’s the college.

To put this bluntly, y’all/we got played. I am angry that students were put in a bad situation, just so the college could prove that they are openminded. If we really wanted to head off the media controversy, then think twice about who we legitimize by letting them speak on our campus. Would that have been a news story? Probably, but so what? The right wing has us over a barrel right now. And they don’t care about hypocrisy. They are playing to win. Free speech matters to them if and only if it can be used to attack their enemies. That’s the new (?) reality, so it’s time to adjust. Don’t take the bait. Don’t feed the trolls, because when you let the trolls come onto campus to take the stage and gain more legitimacy, it’s too late.

And if you angry that I am undermining the spirit of academic discourse, and are not quite ready to move past your love of debate and dialogue, consider this deal (borrowed from David M. Perry, medieval historian and disability rights journalist): When the groups targeted by the speaker ask for the debate, then it’s acceptable. Thus, if the students of color and working-class students wanted this debate with CM, then invite him, and let the students set the basis of the dialogue. Free speech, after all, does not mean the speaker gets to set the terms.

The problem is that faculty and administration have been socialized into always telling students what’s best for them. We treat everything as homework or a test. But there are times when we’d be better off listening more to students. You know, it’s for our own good.