critical musings on CM

Most of the world is in the very fortunate situation of being able to move on from the CM at MC protests from 10 days ago. Some of us, alas, are not so lucky. Those of us who work for or attend MC will live with the fallout and the responses to that fallout for a long time to come. And then, of course, there are the pundits, using MC and our terrible intolerant students as an opportunity to make the same arguments they’ve been making all along. Hot takes abound. Pundits gotta pundit.

I, perhaps for good reason, have lost the audience I had a week ago, but I am still writing, because I still want to make sense of all that’s happened, and I don’t have the luxury to reduce it all to one fine point. So in light of the complexity of the issue, what follows is a set of issues that continue to fester that I want to have better answers for. As always, this is a work in process.

Equivalences, making and faking

If you had the (mis)fortune to hear me and others discuss CM at MC on the radio last week, you might have noticed that not once, but twice, the protest skeptics and free speech advocates (and in one case, a newly declared absolutist! (more on this below)) drew parallels between CM and Shaun King (SK), saying that they would be just as likely to support him speaking on campus. The reasons for this comparison are both innocent and insidious. Innocent (maybe!) because SK did visit our campus last fall, so that visit may be still fresh in their minds. Insidious, though, because of what that parallel betrays some really disturbing assumptions driving so much of the response to CM. First, it highlights just how hard it is for them to come up with viable examples from (for lack of a better term) the left. While there could be speakers associated with progressive causes and politics who might raise concerns, they were unable to produce someone who would also be of a similar stature which would carry the same weight. The right and left are not two sides of the same coin right now. To treat them as equal ignores the historical moment and the actual content of their claims.

Most importantly, equating CM to SK betrays a really problematic understanding of the range of acceptable debate. They honestly (if we take them at their word) that the debate around race will include both racists and anti-racists, and that is the full range, with extremists on both sides. In the comfortable, mushy middle stand the non-racists, their moderation a mark of moral superiority.

This is the wrong debate to be having. Let’s have debate, but the acceptable range is between the non-racists and the anti-racists. The racists don’t have a place here. To treat anti-racist politics as equivalent to racism is little more than an expression of elite white privilege. Conservatives win by making us continue to debate long settled issues. Race, climate change, evolution, etc. Somehow the latter two examples aren’t seen as reasonable debates on campuses, and yet we still have to keep including racists to our debates on race. Why?

Free speech? Absolutely!

At one point in the radio interview, one of the critics of the protests was asked about what lines should not be crossed, specifically if David Duke should be allowed to speak at MC. He responded that his thoughts were evolving in response to the CM at MC events, and he is moving closer and closer to an absolutist stance on free speech.

I was unable to fully respond on air, because there’s a lot going on here. First, DD? What debates or ideas do they think the students will get from that? How about Richard Spencer? Milo Y? Where does it end? I hate to point it out to my learned colleagues, but the “slippery slope” we are defending against is, if I remember my undergrad logic class correctly, a logical fallacy. That is, it is exactly how not to make an argument. We have standards! We enforce them all the time. (See more below)

How does one get to this place? What exactly about recent events would lead one to become an absolutist on this issue? (Again, let’s all remember we’re talking about campus speakers here. When people post Noam Chomsky quotes about defending all speech no matter how loathsome, he is referring to the state. I really hope these free speech advocates are around when I go looking for a contract for my Halloween book!) I believe this is partly a face-saving strategy. Rather than admit that a) they might have made some mistakes and/or b) that they do have standards, they just don’t exclude known white supremacists, then the only reasonable answer becomes one of absolute freedom. I don’t mean to question the sincerity of some of these people (although I don’t accept it either), but I think it’s better to think that they do have standards, they just haven’t ever been asked to articulate them yet. What does that say? How come they get to be some comfortable, when discomfort is the key to learning? It means there are plenty of debates they know will not happen on campus, leaving them safe to make absolute claims.

Careering: it’s ugly head.

I’ve made this point previously (you could say the same of all of these, so apologies), but I am continuously dumbstruck and enraged by how easily my colleagues can forget the students in all this. The students are not the primary audience for far too many people. They are far more interested in showing off to their peers at other colleges, their friends from grad school, or their allies in the liberal intelligentsia. I understand the impulse (and also understand why it’s easy to resist that impulse, since I lack on all those fronts). After my visit to the small time at Vermont Public Radio, I certainly see the draw of the big time of CNN and the Wall Street Journal. But the tactics being used are, to say the least, deeply problematic. To circulate letters demanding absolute freedom of speech (again, for speakers only), for anyone to sign, then to go public with that letter in a way that actively shames those who did not sign it is wrong. It’s wrong because it’s dangerous (see below), but it’s also wrong because it jumps up to a broader, more ego-stroking realm skipping any space for the much-celebrated conversations that are supposed to be happening on our fair campus. But why talk to you colleagues when you can grandstand in public?

Target practice

Speaking of the above letter of support, the ironic (if wholly predictable) outcome of the letter in support of free speech is that it is being used as data to help people figure out who to target for harassment. The list of faculty who signed a letter asking the college president not to introduce (excuse me, “offer introductory remarks for”) CM is being compared to the list of faculty who signed the “free speech” letter. Departments that score “poorly” are deemed insufficiently supportive of free speech, and individuals are receiving threats — primarily over email, although I’ve heard a few examples of calls to their home. While the free speech absolutists are no doubt gritting their teeth and tsk-tsking this harassment, they’ve left themselves little room to maneuver. Do they have standards or not? Where is the letter condemning the targeting of professors and students?

This does offer some remarkable insight into the mind of the right wing trolls, however. While some people who have been quite public in their support of the protest (yours truly) have mostly escaped harassment (knocking on wood), others who did little more than sign a letter asking the president to reconsider her actions are getting much more attention. Maybe my time is coming. Maybe there is a more complex algorithm at work. Regardless, people should consider it significant that the same group of students and faculty who felt vulnerable and unsafe on this campus before they ever heard of CM now feel even less so. And not enough people are responding to that reality.

[update: just got word that some are calling for my tenure to be revoked, so they’re going for a different strategy than email harassment]

Next Halloween, I’m dressing up as CM

Middlebury already has guidelines regulating racist speech. Let’s consider the wholesome holiday hijinks of Halloween. A couple of years ago, as part of a larger national debate about cultural appropriation, racism, and Halloween costumes, the college issued a statement about inappropriate costumes. Blackface is the most inflammatory example, but it is only one of many things students were told to avoid. Why? Because racist costumes were making students uncomfortable, and a lot of white students were completely clueless (or careless) about the implications of their choices. The decision was made to have a more inclusive and safer space on college, and few people on campus went to bat for those who wore blackface or dressed up as “illegal immigrants” by explaining the need to have those uncomfortable debates.

To be sure, we saw a similar anti-college PC backlash against these decisions (most famously at Yale, another example of how news only matters when it happens on elite campuses). Some of the same names currently lining up to wag their fingers at MC students did the same about the precious snowflakes who can’t handle a racist costume from time to time.

My point is not to re-litigate the Halloween debate (for that you’ll need to read my in-process book!), but rather to point to the fact that Middlebury is already engaged in constraining “free speech” in order to exclude racist statements. Of course, here again we see that it is easier to regulate the free speech of students, who only pay for the privilege of being here, rather than some discredited known-racist pseudo-scientist, who is paid to come.

Apparently MC thinks Halloween costumes are more dangerous than CM. I could take comfort in what that says of their opinion of CM, but that’s not so easy. In fact, his speaking on campus is at least as hurtful to the same students that the Halloween guidelines are there to protect, and yet nothing? If the students had a blackface party and invited the president, would she be willing to come? Why can’t we have the same standards of care for campus speakers as we have for holiday celebrations?

Treat them like students, but don’t treat them only as students

I have continually made the point that the students need to be taken more seriously and listened to more carefully. This is not because they are students, but because they are people, and people who are in a position of relative powerlessness in the community they belong to and are asked to represent and be represented by.

I’ve already gone on at length elsewhere about how thinking of them only as (ideal) students in a(n ideal) classroom got us into this mess, but now there are growing expectations that we respond to this mess by “teaching the students to be better protesters.” As if your average college faculty member knows anything of protest!

But some take this teachable moment even further, turning the protest into one more class assignment. I heard from a colleague (passing on a suggestion from someone at a different school), that we need to teach the students to put as much care into a protest that they do into an essay.

This analogy is flawed, most importantly because it misses the role of the teacher. To make this analogy work, we have to consider that students got the term paper assignment less than a week before it was due. And, by the way, it will be a group project that you will orally defend in the national media. It would be irresponsible to give students such an assignment, let alone to evaluate them on the standards for normal work. If we give bad assignments, we shouldn’t be surprised if the students don’t turn in perfect work, and we should take some of the responsibility.

Sometimes rage is dignity

This is a response to my friend and colleague Bill McKibben’ piece in this week’s Guardian, where there is a distinction between acting with rage and responding with dignity. When the college brings in a speaker who supports ideas that fundamentally question the full humanity of you, of your family, of your friends, then responding with rage is dignity.