Reflections on speech and protest at Colby

I admit to being conflicted. Following the ugly events at Berkeley and Middlebury, I am certain about only two things: a) members of the Colby community need to talk more openly about speech (including speech that is hateful and speech that is protest) before a similar crapstorm erupts here, and b) we need to find a reasonable middle ground between free speech absolutism and social justice absolutism.

Here’s the background: last month, a planned speech at University of California Berkeley by former Breitbart editor and professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos triggered violent protests, causing university administrators to cancel the event. Masked demonstrators dressed all in black caused an estimated $100,000 in property destruction. One “anti-fascist” chucklehead even assaulted a Syrian Muslim student dressed in a suit, mistaking him for a “Nazi” who supported Yiannopoulos.

Then, more recently and closer to home, protesters at Middlebury College managed to shut down a talk by Charles Murray, the right-wing author of The Bell Curve, which purports to show that blacks and Latinos are, based on their genes, generally less intelligent than whites. The anti-Murray crowd became so hostile that a Middlebury professor trying to help the speaker escape from a campus building was injured in the melee.

The two events generated yet another round of totalistic speech about speech.

On one side, libertarians, usually straight white men, recycled familiar clichés about the current state of American higher education. College students, they told us, are “special snowflakes,” sequestered in “safe spaces,” and “left fascists” who refuse to tolerate dissenting views. They called for more, not less, speech, a “civil exchange” of ideas. On the other side, social justice vigilantes argued that hate speech is never permissible and must always be confronted. They defended efforts to muzzle Yiannopoulos and Murray and sometimes even excused the violence, saying that oppressed peoples are subjected to far worse brutality every day and have a right to defend themselves.

In a perhaps wishy-washy nutshell, I find both perspectives untenable.

To my libertarian friends, I have to ask: How can you ignore the power of a speaker? Members of a privileged, dominant group naturally enjoy a larger megaphone, a bigger platform. And they abuse that power when they spew hate speech vilifying vulnerable members of a community. I am unable to “tolerate” this.

To my vigilante friends, I pose a different question: In the case of intellectual exchange, how do we decide who is able to speak? Philosophically, I do not think any fraction of an academic community—here, a group of protesters—can rightfully claim this authority for itself. And strategically (because I share your long-term goals), I believe it is unwise to counter intellectual arguments with force, especially violence. Everyone not already holding a pitchfork will turn against you.

So what do we do? As a way to launch a discussion among members of the student body, faculty and staff, and key members of the administration, especially President Greene, I leave you with these recommendations:

1) Let’s not create space on our campus for hate-speaking provocateurs (including homophobic or Islamophobic  politicians such as Maine Rep. Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst), misogynist comedians like Bill Burr, or racist and transphobic “entertainers” such as Yiannopoulos) who target marginalized members of our community. They contribute nothing of intellectual value; rather, as trolls, they mostly try to sow chaos. A university is not required to make room for flame-throwers who would come here and yell “fire” in our crowded theater. But…

2) Let’s not silence more serious, more sober voices advancing controversial, even distasteful ideas. We can (and should) rally in peaceful protest against bigoted intellectuals, but I don’t think we should ever “shut them down.” Murray is a case in point: He might be a “white nationalist,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center contends. However, he also is an intellectual with whom you can easily argue. Years ago, he came to Colby to peddle his pseudo-social science and left the audience with raised eyebrows after a rigorous Q&A. Which brings me to this…

3) Let’s not ever allow prominent personalities to speak on campus without fielding questions. The best speech almost always moves in more than one direction. I don’t really give a damn if an important guest was invited here; if their views raise reasonable concerns, they should have to address them. This should apply to commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients alike.

So that’s my little speech.  Feel free to fire back. As my students, colleagues, and dear friends know very well, I like to argue. But, as is important in times like these, I also like to listen.