A conversation on free speech and the Middlebury incident

The following transcribes a discussion between two Colby students regarding the campus protests of Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopolous.

Ian Liphart ’18 (IL): Hey dude, did you hear about the protest of Charles Murray at Middlebury last Thursday?

Ryan Hara ’18 (RH): Yeah. It’s scary man. Incidents like that are becoming more and more common across the country. Like you heard about the Berkley protests because Milo Yiannopoulos was gonna talk.

IL: Seems like this specific protest was way more out of control than others—apparently one of their own professors was injured.

RH: I don’t understand why anyone would ever protest in such a manner. It’s just always so counter-productive.

IL: I’m not so sure. I think that when we (or those around us) feel personally threatened, it makes sense to react strongly. But I take serious issue when that escalates to violence. The moment that escalation occurs, you really delegitimize yourself.

RH: I always ascribe to the philosophy of the free market of ideas. Especially in our academic setting, if we present a situation in which an open exchange can occur, the best ideas will naturally win out. This is applicable no matter the subject or who you are engaging with.

Now I’m not totally familiar with who the speaker that Middlebury brought in is or anything. It seems that there is a lot of controversy around him, but he does seem to make an honest attempt to compile data to back up his thesis. If you disagree with his ideas, why don’t you simply present compelling counterpoints to show flaws in his argument? These are college students. Not only that, but college students at a prestigious and reputable college. As college students, a major part of their existence right now is to take in academic information, process it, and form some sort of thesis around it. It shouldn’t be that hard to apply that to the “real world.”

IL: I agree. Murray is an academic by education and profession, and so in order to dissuade him, or those who follow his work, from their opinions, only a data-driven criticism will stick. An open exchange of research or point-by-point argument should have been their weapon of social justice. He is only made more credible by the actions of his detractors. Midd can certainly do better.

However, I’m not convinced the same can be said for Yiannopoulos. He is mostly a comedian and antagonist, who seeks only to radicalize crowds. He isn’t a published political scientist or scholar, and so the appropriate response is different. In Yiannopoulos’s case I think protests are a more fitting rebuke.

RH: I mean, you don’t see any benefit to engaging with someone like Yiannopoulos?  I agree with you that he is a bit too antagonistic at times, but he does still back up at least a portion of his opinions with facts. Like him saying that “women aren’t funny” or “there is no such thing as lesbians” is just provocative BS that has no place in an academic setting. But saying that the gender pay gap is a fabrication that is not backed up by empirical economic statistics that take into account a number of factors—like that’s an actual debatable issue that you can’t engage with by simply protesting.

IL: Engaging with aspects of his ideology that are less obviously BS still gives him far too much credit. Discourse with someone so obviously opposed to honest discussion legitimizes his position as a commentator. There can be real discussions with conservative policy experts about the nuances of the gender pay gap that cut out the racist and sexist comments from Yiannopoulos. I see no reason to stoop to his level and call it discussion.

In Murray’s case, though, we have been presented evidence (that many may believe false) in a manner that invites substantive debate. Rejection of these ideas must then be founded on evidence.

RH: I don’t know man. Greeting Yiannopoulos with violent disruptive protests does infinitely more to give him credit than a discussion of the issues. If people only went to Q&A sessions and asked well-reasoned, hard-hitting questions, Yiannopoulos would be nowhere nearly as culturally relevant as he is now. If anything, it makes those who oppose him seem as irrational and unstable as he claims. And seeing the reaction that has come out from Middlebury, I think he may be right in that regard. I mean, do you deny that there is a growing culture that fundamentally rejects freedom of speech in favor of violent suppression?

IL: Though I am skeptical that Yiannopoulos would engage a serious audience interlocutor without a great deal of sneering and condescension, I can imagine that incidents like those in Berkeley and Middlebury improve his credibility with some listeners.

I do deny the frequent attempts to portray higher education as a temple of indoctrination and liberals as having lost touch with reality. Though there is increasing reevaluation of the importance of free speech, liberals don’t favor violent suppression. At most these examples are isolated cases of violence on college campuses, whose students and faculty typically profess an obvious distaste for such extreme measures, as Middlebury did immediately last Friday.

RH: But Yiannopoulos has surprisingly shown good faith in his Q and A sessions. He’ll quiet down the audience if they boo a question that he thinks is valid. I mean he’s still kind of a jerk, but not like 100 percent. I would be dubious of calling it an isolated incident. The anti-fascist movement is surprisingly well-organized.

IL: Though there is probably an argument for hosting him at a public university, I still think that his brand of dialogue is best left to for-profit media giants. In this case, the people who actually assaulted the Middlebury professor and Murray are believed to have been outside agitators. As for the fate of higher education, I think only time will tell if the characterizations from the political right become mainstream ideas.

RH: I mean we can disagree about the nuances of approach, but let’s just lay it down that the incidents like those at Berkeley and Middlebury are wholly disgusting and have no place in any civilized society.

IL: Agreed.