the truth is stanger, then friction

Two weeks ago, I co-wrote an essay on CMatMC with two MC alums (Maya and Becky). It was originally written as a response to some of the bad coverage in the NYTimes (looking at you, Frank Bruni…), but by the time we had something ready to submit the NYT had just run a recap from Allison Stanger, the event moderator who was later caught up a physical struggle after the talk. No thanks, said the NYT, they felt the CMatMC story was overdone at that point and they had other news more fit to print. We weren’t thrilled with the decision, but if they were no longer publishing stories on the topic, what could we do? We settled on another outlet, Inside Higher Education, with a far smaller and narrower reach (they were, nevertheless, great to work with and we were glad for their support). The NYT, after all, had decided to put a wrap on the story. Time for all of us to move on.

And yet they are not quite done with the story. In fact, not only are they back on the CMatMC beat, but they have even returned to their previous correspondent, AS, to describe the “divided campus” of MC. It seems there is only too much focus on the story when it doesn’t contribute to the dominant narrative the NYT wants to tell. [UPDATE: I contacted the editor at NYT we were communicating with 2 weeks ago, and she pointed out that it was not her decision, that this came from a totally different department. Slightly less nefarious, perhaps, but still disappointing and indicative of the larger media coverage.]

divide by zero

So, what does AS have to offer now that she’s had a month to think about it and recover from her injuries? While “our side” is expected to be open to learning lessons, it seems that her argument is the same as it’s ever been. I guess it helps if you are always already right. Rather than building a coherent and nuanced take, I instead provide scattered reflections and refractions, offering something that approximates a live-tweeting of reading the essay.

He [Edward Snowden] spoke without disruption, despite being charged with espionage for leaking classified information, and was rewarded with thunderous applause. Two weeks earlier, Charles Murray was prevented from speaking, and protesters did their level best to stop our attempt to salvage the event via livestream from a remote location.

AS starts with what is by now a classic trope in these takes, the false equivalence. Yes, ES is controversial. So is CM. Yet ES is treated differently than CM. Crazy! If only we could consider how the source of their controversial status might be significant in some way. The fact they they are treated as structurally equivalent tells us all we need to know as we proceed with the argument. Caveat emptor!

We were attacked as we struggled to leave the building. The lingering effects of whiplash and a concussion continue to compromise my daily routine.

I am sorry that AS was injured in the scuffle after the event, but I don’t appreciate the way she places herself and her injuries as so central to the argument. She already told that story in her previous (!) NYT story, and the reason to start with it here is to place herself as the reasonable one in this affair, with the other side as an angry, and sometimes violent, mob. (We still don’t know all the facts on what happened here, but most point to the fact that the contact was unintentional and not planned.) This is more than an effort to build sympathy for the narrator, it also is a way to make the charges she later makes about the other side seem more reasonable because the other side is so unreasonable. They are not.

The majority of faculty and students are progressive. A small minority are conservative; many of them are in the closet, afraid to speak their minds for fear of being denounced as reactionary bigots.

There’s a lot here that needs to be considered. First, while many faculty and students are indeed, by current standards, progressive, that is very much not equivalent to being non-racist (and certainly not the same as being anti-racist). Second, we see another classic narrative trope: the college conservative, living in fear of people finding out because of what will happen to them. Again, I ask what does it mean to be a conservative these days, given that the republican party openly celebrates active racism? Can we not call racists racists? I don’t think these college conservatives are really worried about people calling them out for wanting tax cuts, but maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to see some concrete evidence of this, because in my classes plenty of conservatives (and progressives!) seem to not think twice about saying racist things.

If I might generalize about circumstances at my institution, the natural sciences largely see no place for politics in scientific inquiry; the social sciences and the humanities are another story.

I don’t even understand the point AS is making here at all. Is AS saying that the natural sciences are devoid of politics? Has she heard of climate change denial? Intelligent design? What is, in fact, the other story is that somehow the politics of the natural sciences on campus make it possible for them to exclude some things they see as obviously wrong. Maybe the social sciences and humanities don’t. But it’s not because one side has politics and the other side doesn’t. Again, this is a sign we shouldn’t expect much reflection on what speech really means, given this aspiration for the “objectivity” of the natural sciences.

[I promise I am going to stop doing this line by line at some point, but it’s not happening anytime soon, since it doesn’t let up.][Update: I didn’t do a good job at keeping this promise.]

When it comes to a conservative like Mr. Murray, the majority here will start a discussion with “While I strongly disagree with Murray….” Even our president prefaced her introductory remarks at the Murray event with that qualifier. Yet few issued disclaimers about Mr. Snowden. People listened quietly as he condemned unprecedented forms of government surveillance. There was not one protester.

More false equivalence! Here’s a helpful hint. Substitute “racist” for “conservative” whenever it’s used in this piece and see if/how it changes the meaning. Students were not protesting CM because he is conservative. It was the racism. People can reasonably disagree on government surveillance policy without it calling into question the fundamental humanity of members of the college community. Is it really so hard to see that this is not the same thing? I’m beginning to think that this person might not have been the best moderator for CM’s visit or, indeed, the best public spokesperson for MC on the aftermath. But somehow the rest of us don’t get the platform of the NYT to explain our views. Is almost as if having a platform or not matters in what constitutes speech and authority.

In contrast, my willingness as a liberal to grill Charles Murray face-to-face was deemed entirely unacceptable.

The “willingness to grill” was not the part deemed unacceptable, it was the fact that leading up to CMatMC (and out of it, as we see in this piece), AS minimized many of the valid concerns of the students and faculty upset about CM’s work and visit, including whether or not CM’s work could legitimately be considered racist.

But the event had to be shut down, lest the ensuing dialogue inflict pain on the marginalized.

Wait, what? This is an incomprehensibly bad take on what happened. It was NOT the ensuing dialogue that was seen as the primary source inflicting pain on the marginalized. It was the platform! It was the event that was the problem, the lecture that students were being asked (ordered?) to sit through in order to get to this “grilling.” This is the source of pain. This. To make it about the dialogue is just a cheap shot to make it sound like the protesters are against speech. This is false.

Plus, if you remember CM’s previous visit to MC 10 years ago, he actually did insult students of color in the “dialogue” portion of the evening, so to dismiss student concerns as imagined is to ignore not just their concerns but actual empirical history. Sure, I can understand AS not caring about the former, but as a social scientist, I’d think the latter would matter at least a little bit.

And “the marginalized”? Yes, the marginalized were experiencing pain but some of the rest of us felt it to. While I agree we should emphasize the real pain of the students of color and/or working class students, they were not alone in being hurt by the platform given to CM by MC.

Never mind that “Coming Apart” explores the negative consequences of marginalization, one of which is the election of President Trump.

This is one way to describe “Coming Apart,” but it really doesn’t do justice to the nuance of how it tracks the failures of low-IQ whites, which is used to further justify CM’s anti-safety net politics. This is not just a problem because it is based on CM’s dangerous and flawed reliance on IQ-science (and it dependence on heritability), but also because it too easily supports the soft-racist, meritocratic beliefs of too many in the MC community (even those disgusted by CM), since “we” so easily see ourselves as the high IQ winners in this story (at least the white ones…).

Moreover, this fits all too easily into the larger discourse for the need for empathy for the white working class (not that CM himself has it, but maybe we progressives can still learn it from him…), while at the same time lacking empathy for people who we so-called progressives are supposedly on the same side with: people of color. If we really want to understand the causal factors leading to the election of DJT, it is not, as so many have claimed, the plight of the WWC, but rather it is racism. Which is why CM was not welcome here. If you want to really talk about marginalization of the poor, there are so many better people to bring. (I can name any number of great sociologists — and they can even do it without the racism!) But that’s not what happened. I wonder why.

Students have expressed fear that they are not allowed to disagree with their professors, who might punish them with lower grades.

I certainly hope this is not happening. If it is, let’s stop it. But before we make efforts to stop it, let’s prove it’s happening first. Let’s see some actual examples — not just of the fear (which does matter somewhat, to be sure), but more importantly, of concrete examples of when people have gotten lower grades because they have “unpopular” arguments. (Please note that sometimes “unpopular” arguments get lower grades not because of their popularity, but because of the quality with which they are made.)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have no educational experience, but she was right when she told the Conservative Political Action Conference that professors should not tell students “what to say, and more ominously, what to think.”

Do I really even have to respond to this? Here’s someone with a right-wing, anti-public school agenda, no educational experience, speaking to a right-wing political group and denouncing one of their favorite bogeymen, the “politically correct professor,” and we the readers are supposed to accept this as a valid claim? I guess if you claim to be a “liberal” then you don’t have to worry about citing CM and BDV approvingly — rather than being bad evidence, it actually shows how open-minded and fair you are, not like those horrible anti-speechers who would never take BDV seriously!

Also, please notice the shift that is taking place in the argument. We started out discussing questions about the content of invited speakers to campus and now are talking about professors policing the speech and thinking of their students. While one could say that MC has experienced conflicts over the first of those, the second one comes out of nowhere in this context. Are we supposed to see these as all part of the same problem, two sides of the intolerant left coin? If so, then it would certainly help the argument a lot if AS could show a) evidence that the latter is actually happening and b) that it is causally connected to the former. Because right now this conflation is only making me more and more suspicious about the “good faith” I should grant this argument.

The moderate middle at Middlebury currently feels it cannot speak out on the side of free inquiry without fear of being socially ostracized as racist.

Not sure who this moderate middle is, but notice how they are only afraid of the crazy left. I guess it’s because this MCMM is clearly on the side of free inquiry, and only the left is against that. And legitimate question: is it not okay to ostracize racists?

Most alarming, I have heard some students and faculty denounce reason and logic as manifestations of white supremacy.

If only this were a Wikipedia entry instead of a NYT op-ed (!), we could edit it with [citation needed], since I’d like to see examples of these denunciations. I’ve seen plenty denunciations (even written a few), but none that relied on this kind of argument. Notice how expansive the argument is becoming, incorporating all kinds of conservative shibboleths about college today. It was not MC’s “logic” that got him labeled a racist. It was his racism.

Also keep an eye on how “racism” and “white supremacy” are being used in this piece — they are never objective facts, they are only names that people get called (mostly, it would appear, unfairly).

This is not what the life of the mind is supposed to provide.

This wonderful “life of the mind” is part of the problem — it turns us all into disembodied selves, which erases a lot of lived experience, which “coincidentally” erases some people more than others. Maybe if we recognize that MC is not just about the life of (some people’s) minds, we’d do a lot better educating all of our students (and maybe even some of our faculty).

In response, more than 100 Middlebury faculty members signed a statement of principles on free inquiry.

Great. While I suppose thefire.org can be chalked up as just a free speech defender, the other site, heterodox academy, is much more targeted at the “leftist slant” on college campuses. Is it not possible to cite something a bit less biased? Or is this another example of the magnanimity of the “moderate middle”? Is this also the same conservative website that used this list as a basis to identify faculty to harass for not signing, or are those different ones? Asking for a friend.

Many of us have also signed the subsequent statement on freedom of expression by the scholars Robert P. George and Cornel West, to which I was asked to be the first signatory.

Nice! This really is doing wonders for AS’s profile.

And we are now proposing that Middlebury adopt a free speech statement as part of our rules.

I will not say much about this now, since this proposal is coming up in a faculty meeting later this week. I will say that in the previous meeting, this group blindsided the faculty present with their unannounced proposal and now are forcing the issue before there can be a full debate. I guess only CM deserves dialogue…

While heartfelt and brave, the intellectual premise of “Broken Inquiry” is that Charles Murray is a white supremacist. It cites as evidence one quote, taken out of context, from the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Having read Charles Murray, I would not lump his writing in the same category as Klansmen.

Here we see the crux of the matter. In critiquing the students’ critique of the faculty’s “free speech über alles” manifesto, the real issue seems to be that CM is not, in fact, a white supremacist. Sure, the SPLC says so, but that’s not compelling. After all, if he’s not a member of the KKK he can’t be a white supremacist. This is a really shallow understanding of white supremacy, and one reason it has proven so resilient to this day. White people think you have to burn a cross (oops! CM actually did burn a cross when he was younger, but claims he was not aware of its meaning, so we’ll give him a pass on that) to qualify as a white supremacist. Nope. You just have to think whites are better than blacks and advocate for policies that reinforce that belief. It’s pretty simple. No sheets required.

A precondition for fruitful dialogue would thus be to start with a shared definition

I agree. What’s your definition of racism?

It would also require students and faculty members who have not yet done so to actually read Charles Murray rather than outsourcing their thinking to a website.

How dare students not do their homework and read all of CM’s work, work which had already been thoroughly debunked by famous scholars going back to before they were even born. After all, we never read secondary sources in college! It makes me wonder why we academics publish any commentary on anything at all, since students might just cheat and use it to avoid reading the primary sources. Why then even listen to CM, since he himself is also a secondary source? If you want to know the real truth, go out and talk directly to the low-IQ white working class!

And it’s not all just false equivalences. Sometimes there are real equivalences left unmade. In this case, if anyone should have done their homework, it was the AEI students who invited him to campus. Did they read more about him than the blurb in the AEI menu of speakers? Did they know about his “controversial” views? From what I’ve heard (which is admittedly not definitive) the story is that they have claimed ignorance of any work except for the “objective” Coming Together. Would they have still invited him if they’d known? Is that the debate they wanted? Sometimes maybe checking a website could be helpful after all.

The signatories of “Broken Inquiry,” that is, believe they have the right to shout down speakers they view as perpetuating injustice, regardless of college rules not to disrupt events.

Yep. Just like AS believes in the right to bring in racists. Seems like a fair trade. If you want to renegotiate their rights, then maybe you should be willing to renegotiate yours.

The last paragraph of my instructions reads as it has throughout my nearly three decades of teaching at both Harvard and Middlebury:

Nothing like spending your entire life inside elite institutions to have the authority to lecture others about being in a bubble.

This follows with some stuff on assignments and grading, which all sounds fine, but it is not controversial. Again, I don’t think anyone is advocating for having politics affect grading or for students getting away with making poorly made arguments. If that’s not true, I’m willing to be corrected. [I will leave aside the catty comment about how this op-ed might not live up to the standards laid out for an effective essay.]

One side sees the free exchange of ideas as fundamental and nonnegotiable. The other sees inclusivity and social justice as the supreme value. As Middlebury’s president argued at a recent faculty meeting, the two goals are intertwined

I agree. I just think it is a real problem when people act like the only way to get to more inclusivity is through demanding more speech of “all” kinds (except for some kinds, like over in the non-political natural sciences). Maybe that’s true, but the fact that they never, ever seriously consider that inclusivity could come first and make for better, more expansive speech is a serious limitation. Or that the only way to resolve the tension is through more speech. Basically, speech is the first and only default. (It is, after all, “nonnegotiable.”) I love speech (look at me writing!), but it’s never that simple. And claiming it is simply shuts down the conversation.

The university cannot renounce enlightenment values and continue to be a university.

Sure. But what enlightenment values are we talking about? Colonialism and racism? Or just free speech? Because it seems that they are tangled up together in very real histories, in mutually constitutive structures, and we can’t be so cavalier in how we champion some values without recognizing how they depend on other structures, structures which we might not be so keen about now. Let’s not forget, it is not only bad ideas that help maintain bad institutions — high-minded ideals can serve the same purpose. But we can’t change structures without rethinking values. The values have never been abstract, we just have to face that fact now.

divide & bonkers

And so we reach the conclusions…

It must be a battleground for competing ideas, not a megaphone for a particular point of view. The growth that liberal education inspires is never comfortable, and learning is a lifelong process. All of us can benefit from civil engagement with those with whom we disagree.

And we bring this to a close with a return to several more cliches of the genre: battleground of ideas, the power of being uncomfortable, learning as lifelong, the value of disagreement, and the demand for civility above all.

But what if this is not just a battleground over ideas in the abstract, but a battleground over resources and access and belonging? What happens when we erase the latter and treat everything as an idea? Battlegrounds, after all, have casualties. It’s a weird metaphor to use when you are making an argument that people’s fears of getting hurt are misplaced.

Who already feels comfortable and uncomfortable on this campus? It’s striking that the discomfort of conservatives was treated as much more real and actionable than the discomfort of the “marginalized.” Who felt uncomfortable when ES spoke? Is that the same kind of discomfort as when CM spoke? Does it matter? I think so.

If learning is lifelong, then it’s time for the adults in the room to start learning that things are different now. I’m not saying this is easy, and that it won’t be uncomfortable, but it is not just the students who need to learn.

And disagreement is one thing, but racism is another. To lump all these issues into the same category creates countless false equivalences. Because if we as an institution disagree over whether or not racism is bad or that black people are less intelligent than white people, then we have serious problems. So if you really want people to take promises of the value of free and open inquiry seriously, then it would help to start with having a more nuanced view of the meaning and effects of these “simple” disagreements.

But right now, more effort is going towards defending the honor of someone who may or may not be a white supremacist©, but who is clearly peddling racist science that is used towards racist ends, and has been for a long time (look it up!) and in arguing for the good faith and innocence of those who invited him to campus, than is going into understanding the lives and feelings of a lot of students (and faculty) on campus. This does not provide much comfort for students when they are continuously told by the faculty and administration to have more trust in the system, that the adults in charge know what they’re doing, and that it will all work out because they have these students’ best interests in mind. In fact, they have every reason not to trust the good faith of this institution. Where in this op-ed is any statement of efforts to rebuild that trust?

AS then closes with the following statement:

Looking both within and without, it seems to me, the real enemy is ignorance empowered.

It’s good to see we agree on something!