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"It is easy to paint 'Resist' on a poster, but harder to define what that should mean. Aren't we ... akin to authoritarian countries if we begin to choose whose speech is acceptable or not?"
That is the eloquent question asked by on student at Middlebury College, after events there last week once again have the nation wondering about the health of free speech on American campuses.
In case you missed it, a conservative student group at Middlebury hosted controversial speaker Charles Murray on campus. Murray is the peddler of widely discredited theories on race and IQ. The Southern Poverty Law Center says Murray uses "racist pseudoscience" to justify the elimination of the welfare state.
Last Thursday, Murray had come to Middlebury to share his views on the American class divide.
He was introduced by President Laurie Patton, who stressed that her presence at the talk was not an endorsement of Murray. She said, "We are an intellectual community. And part of the job of an intellectual community is to argue. If there was ever a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now."
Tensions were already running high on campus. Patton reminded attendees that if anyone shuts down the speech of another, they would be in violation of Middlebury policy, saying, "The very premise of free speech on this campus is that the speaker has the right to be heard."
Patton left the stage. Following a student introduction, Murray approached the podium.
The audience stood up, turned their backs to Murray, and began their protest. They chanted, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away" and "Who is the enemy? White supremacy!"
Then, political science professor Allison Stanger took the stage. She had been scheduled to moderate a Q&A after Murray's talk.
She said, "I spent a lot of time preparing really hard questions. We're going to have a great dialogue if you let us continue. I am here and it is a dialogue. I think I have the answer. You're not going to let us speak. I think that's a terrible shame."
Murray and Stanger eventually had their Q&A via livestream in a other room. That, too, was disrupted when students set off the fire alarm. The conversation ended. But as Stanger and other university officials accompanied Murray on the way to his car, they were attacked.
Professor Stanger's neck was twisted and her hair pulled. She suffered a concussion and was later treated with a neck brace.
Stanger later wrote in a Facebook post: "For those of you who marched in Washington the day after the inauguration, imagine being in a crowd like that, only being surrounded by hatred rather than love. I feared for my life."
There are conflicting accounts of why and by whom -- some say outside agitators, some say students, others say public safety officers escalated the situation.
One thing is certain, there is a lot of soul searching going on right now at Middlebury.
On whether the student’s violated Charles Murray’s right to free speech
Siyuan Lee: “... It wasn't that [Murray] wasn't allowed to speak. He could have still spoken. He just simply couldn't speak the way he necessarily wanted to ... There's also a right to free speech in terms of the freedom of the students to speak.
We were protesting this idea of whether this academic institution should be giving this individual, you know, a stage and a microphone to be able to express ideas that have been, you know, academically dubious and have very serious racial implications.”
On what kind of speech should be at an academic institution
Jay Parini: “We get all sorts of people speaking at Middlebury College. I was horrified to see anybody's free speech abrogated. And I do think the students, for whatever reason, were not well trained in productive resistance... I would have been very happy if the students silently turned their back on Murray and let him talk. I would have said ‘hurrah for them.’ But to actually, you know, drown them out is just it's...too much playing into the hands of the right and it's playing hands into the hands of all those who want to say ‘oh these snowflake [politically correct] students, they're horrible.’”
On whether student opinions were being heard
Lee: “Because we're trying to maximize the educational value of having Mr. Murray here, I think that it is best that students would be able to voice their opinion or at least have somebody channel their opinion through what they go through what they find acceptable means.
And I think that, in this case, I don't think [there] was enough of a counterpoint to Mr. Murray to really make students feel that their concerns were actually being heard when this is such a pressing subject and such a huge subject that's on national headlines right now.”
On how students should evaluate challenging opinions
Lee: “... I think that you are right to ... feel that individuals should have be exposed to very controversial opinions and I think that people on campus have definitely been exposed to Mr. Murray's opinion ... I think what we've come down on or many people have come down on is that this is a very harmful point of view and ... a point of view that dehumanizes or undermines the humanity of a lot of individuals on campus. And that's what we're worried about.”
Parini: “I think it's just plain wrong to shut anybody down. I think that these kids are strong enough mentally and physically to listen to an argument they don't like and then raise their hand and say ‘but listen that doesn't make any sense. Your data are wrong. Your conclusions for these reasons are foolish and wrong,' ... then you are in the great debate and that's what the college is all about.”
On why students should be able to respond to Murray’s ideas
Lee: “... It's really easy to talk about things such as rationality or simply calling out pseudoscience when you see it when you're really in a position of power where his words don't really affect you. But as a person from a community of color, I think that it is it is rational ... to have to be able to respond to the kinds of things that he is saying ... and so I think that when it comes to this large power dynamic it is absolutely necessary or it is more necessary for people to be able to stand up for themselves and to say what you're saying is wrong.”
On how students could handle controversial speakers in the future
Parini: “I'm worried ... I think if it happened at Middlebury, which is basically a fairly docile campus of, you know, mostly quiet students. As I said I've been teaching now 41 years and haven't seen much of this but once you start shouting down speakers ...
I'm all for intelligent resistance. I think that one has to do it, especially in a university setting. It's incumbent upon us to articulate our point of view carefully to listen to others and to counter with rational arguments and more data ... That's very easy to do with Murray...The students could have had a real opportunity to show their stuff and to argue with him and that would have been exhilarating.”
This segment aired on March 8, 2017.
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