On the afternoon of September 11, 2013, a Middlebury student and four acquaintances, who are not enrolled at the College, removed 2,977 American flags that had been placed in the lawn in front of Mead Chapel by members of a pair of student groups—the Middlebury College Republicans and Middlebury College Democrats.
The flags were set as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks, and the act of vandalism left many in the community shocked, angry, hurt, and confused. The student who helped uproot the flags said she found the display offensive to Native Americans and believed the area on which they had been placed had once been an Abenaki burial ground (a claim a local Abenaki chief disputed).
In the days that followed, media attention—mainstream and social—prompted an outpouring of commentary, which included threats and vitriol directed at individuals and the College itself.
In the wake of these events, we sat down with President Liebowitz to talk about civility, responsible discourse, and community standards.
In your e-mail to the community after the incident on campus you made a specific point of stating that as an academic community it’s incumbent upon us to encounter difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that civility goes out the window when you do so, which is what happened.
Right. We cherish freedom of speech, but it can’t be at the expense of silencing others. And in this case, we had people who felt very strongly about something, and whether or not we agree with it, it’s their right to voice it. But they can’t voice it by silencing others, by being destructive, and that’s what they did when they forcefully removed the flags.
Civility is a must. We’re an academic institution, and so we don’t only teach facts. We also teach how to argue, how to debate, how to engage, how to learn. And being civil is a key part of doing all of these things.
It seems that when the degree of passion rises, civility starts to slip. Not always, but often.
I think the larger political environment is really in some ways the genesis or the driver of what you’re talking about. If we become less civil on this campus, it’s a reflection of, or it’s an inability to stay removed from, the vitriol that one sees in current national politics.
I mean, I don’t remember this ever—I’ve been a political junkie for a long time, and I can’t recall this level of vitriol. I believe in some ways that models behavior for some individuals, and it only takes one person at one point in time to create this feeling.
There’s a paradox here too, and that is the fact that within this community, we’re overly polite towards one another most times. We’ll have less rigorous and vigorous debate and discussion than one might find, say, if they were in Morningside Heights or in Cambridge. So things can get bottled up, and then when emotions do boil over, people don’t always know how to disagree.
So it’s a combination of things, but I think the bigger issue for us is that Middlebury in some ways is a reflection of a larger political environment that isn’t always pretty.
One of the things that happened in response to this was a flood of vitriolic commentary. Not to excuse the original act, but at the same time, nothing warrants threats against one’s life.
No, it’s terrible. I myself received hundreds of e-mails, literally hundreds of e-mails, and some of them were beyond imagination in terms of the anger, the vitriol, the hatred. The Campus editors told me they got these commentaries in comments on their blog as well. I think many of those writing were not a part of this community, but some of them were.
But let’s not forget what was done here and on what day. September 11 is still an emotional and significant event, and the impact of that day was felt—and continues to be felt—by many, many Americans. People were angry about the disrespect shown for the nearly 3,000 who perished in the attack, but the deep emotions extend far beyond that.They extend to all those who, on the account of that terrorist attack, went to two wars, many of them killed or injured. Their families, no doubt, would view what happened on our campus as unacceptable—not to mention the legal, but highly provocative desecration of the American flag. So the anger and harsh response, while itself very unfortunate, reflects the deep feelings held by so many. There are obviously other ways a protest can be done.
But I do think the tenor of the reaction is also linked to this polarizing political climate. Instead of debate, we mostly see and hear only the extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
When Bill O’Reilly talked about this incident on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, it was a terrible display of reporting. It was irresponsible and unnecessarily fueled the anger. The show’s producers obviously didn’t check facts with anyone familiar with what actually happened.
After the segment was over, I went upstairs and stopped at my computer. In the three minutes that it took me to close up downstairs and come upstairs, I had already received 18 e-mails, 18 e-mails from people who had watched The O’Reilly Factor, e-mails from Abilene, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Illinois—writing threatening comments that were largely uninformed. They took verbatim what they heard on the show from “reporter” Adam Carolla and from Bill O’Reilly. And it continued for several days.
And to answer your question, no, I don’t think such a response was warranted. Though again, I understand the anger and disgust at what happened. Certainly it’s disappointing to see any of them come from Middlebury students, but I would say the overwhelming majority came from outside the College.
But even the ones from Middlebury students point to something that you’ve talked about—close the laptop and go talk to somebody.
And don’t rely on a comment section or Twitter or—
Anonymous comments, anonymous comments.
Anonymous is even worse. But even when comments are attributable, go talk to someone. Why do you think folks are more likely to respond to a comment section than walk down the hall and talk to someone?
I think it’s just a reflection of how technology has made it so easy for people to comment. It’s far easier to do something in a faceless way because you don’t have to face the response. Angelique Kidjo, in her Fulton lecture, made this point very, very strongly. She told the students: “You must face the person with whom you have a disagreement. In the end, you might not ever speak to that person again, but you can’t end a relationship—you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to speak to my friend for 10 years’ and not speak to them, you’ve got to talk it out.”
This message is a tough one for this generation, because this generation relies so much on, and has really grown up with, social media as the major source for interpersonal communication. So it’s a real challenge.
There were opportunities for students to talk about the flag issue at a series of forums with faculty members. But they were poorly attended, with the exception of maybe one.
I think two.
One or two.
There were, I believe, at least six sessions, and the best-attended one had maybe 12 students, which is a nice size for such a discussion, but yes, overall attendance was less than what we thought it would be.
In the days after, I went up to Proctor, and I sat down at a table with students and tried to figure out why that was the case—why an incident that created angry debate did not lead to large gatherings to discuss it with faculty. I think by the time the open sessions rolled around—which didn’t take place until the following week for a whole host of reasons—people were formulating their own ideas, they were having so many discussions about this in the dining halls, in their dorms, in their classes, that they were unsure about what the open sessions would be like. Or maybe it was our students’ already full schedules.
And there’s an interesting twist that students are talking about, which is to say, “What do you think President Liebowitz, what do you think the ultimate harm to the community has been as a result of this?” I pushed them to explain what they meant. At first I was thinking they were concerned that Middlebury’s reputation had been dragged through the mud. But no, they didn’t mean that at all.
What those in Proctor meant seemed to be much more nuanced. They said, “If, in the future, this act serves to silence people who want to speak out and have honest debate, it will have hurt us terribly.” And this was coming from people who largely disagreed, some passionately so, with the act this student committed. Students feared it would further shut down future conversations on important issues.
The strength of this institution is the ability to engage in debate and hear other people’s views and learn from them. And if this incident leads to even a subtle silencing of people to speak out and question the status quo or the prevailing thought, and question even the institution’s perspective on any and all issues, we will have really hurt the College and our students. They need to hear different viewpoints—we all do. This incident cannot diminish people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics. If it does, then the College will have become a lesser environment for learning.