Dr. Charles Murray, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, came to Middlebury last Thursday to discuss his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.
It did not go well.
Murray was invited by the Middlebury student AEI chapter, and his talk was cosponsored (but not funded) by the Political Science department. The decision by the Political Science department to cosponsor the event was not universally supported on the Middlebury campus, nor even within the political science department itself, as chair Bert Johnson discusses here. Nonetheless, after extensive campus debate, the College administration remained committed to allowing Murray to speak, although they decided that only those with valid Middlebury i.d.’s would be allowed in Wilson Hall so as to prevent outsiders from shutting down his talk. Despite this precaution, as chronicled in numerous national news stories, Murray never got the chance to present his views before a live audience.
This was not for lack of commitment by the administration to upholding the College’s policies on free speech. At the start of the Murray event Middlebury communications director Bill Burger reminded students about College policies regarding protests and the right of speakers to be heard. Middlebury College President Laurie Patton also took the stage to note that while many – including her – did not agree with all of Murray’s research, the College was committed to upholding its policies regarding the free exchange of ideas. But when Murray was introduced, the student crowd erupted in a barrage of chants and sign waving designed to prevent Murray from speaking. They chanted, “Who is the enemy? White Supremacy!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!” I was not able to get into the event due to long lines so, after lingering for some time watching the protests outside the event, I went back to my office to view the event on the Middlebury website. However, you can get a sense of just how quickly the event degenerated into mob rule in this YouTube video shot by Middlebury student Will DeGravio.
Additional video can be found on the Middlebury campus student newspaper website here.
After about 20 minutes, when it became clear that the students would not let Murray speak, administration officials escorted him to an adjoining room. There he was interviewed by my colleague Allison Stanger who pushed back against some of his research regarding the role of race and genes in intelligence and asked him to clarify his views on other issues, drawing in part on questions submitted by other faculty. Students were able to join the debate by asking Murray questions via twitter as well. The event was streamed live on the Middlebury College website and broadcast to the audience in Wilson Hall, but it was interrupted numerous times as fire alarms were pulled and students continued chanting slogans that were picked up by the audio feed. (It will be posted by the College on its news site sometime later.)
The chaos didn’t end after the interview concluded, however. When Murray, Stanger and Burger, accompanied by school security, attempted to leave the building and go to the car that would take them to dinner, a crowd formed to block their path. During the ensuing shoving, Stanger was grabbed by the hair and her neck twisted with such force she eventually went to the local hospital to be treated for whiplash. (She is home now and recovering.) Although they made it into the car, the crowd prevented them from easily leaving, with people leaning on the hood and climbing on top. Eventually, after nearly running over a stop sign someone had displaced in front of the car, they managed to break free and head toward the campus location for dinner. When they arrived, however, rumors began circulating that the raucous protesters were on their way to shut that down too, so the small dinner group relocated to a nearby private restaurant, where Murray dined and conversed with more than a dozen Middlebury students and faculty late into the night.
Judging by the dominant reaction online and among most of those with whom I have talked, the effort to block Murray’s speech is viewed as an ugly display of intolerance and violence, one that has made almost every national news outlet, and which has reignited debate regarding issues of free speech and ideological diversity on U.S. college campuses. At Middlebury, the repercussions of this event are still unfolding even as I write this post. In an email to the Middlebury community, President Patton apologized to Murray and Stanger for how they were treated, expressed her deep disappointment at the reception Murray received, and pointedly noted that “We will be responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.” It seems inevitable that disciplinary action of some sort will be taken against the rioters, although how and in what form remains to be seen. (If I happened to be the parents of some of those students caught on the numerous video recordings of their violating College rules by shutting down speech, I would be worried right now.) At dinner that night after the event, Murray noted that it was the worst demonstration he had ever encountered and that he feared for his safety. He later tweeted, “The Middlebury administration was exemplary. The students were seriously scary.” Amazingly, in a student-run blog site at Middlebury, someone posted the Orwellian claim that the protestors were the ones who had been assaulted by Burger and others. Their logic? That they had only blocked the sidewalk and stood in front of the car, but it was Burger and others who were the aggressors in trying to reach the car and drive away. Thus the protesters were the ones under assault. (Note. This is not, as far as I can tell, an example of satire, although I deeply wish it was.)
Clearly the student riot has left an ugly stain on Middlebury’s reputation, although it is too early to say how indelible it might be. One alumnus noted to me that while he still hoped his children would attend Middlebury, his wife was now dead set against the idea. I expect many others feel this way as well. How many depends, I assume, in part on how the College administration responds. In the short run, of course, the protests prevented those students who wished to engage with Murray from hearing him speak and, more importantly, it prevented them from pressing back against his research. Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings. My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray. A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall. Unfortunately, due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter. What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature “snowflakes” and “liberal fascists” bent on promoting intolerance and hate.
The ability of a vocal minority of students to impose their will on the majority of their peers – and evidently to feel no compunction in doing so – raises some important questions regarding Middlebury College’s central mission and whether and to what degree it is in danger of slipping away. To be clear, as I noted above, not everyone was comfortable with the decision by the AEI student chapter to invite Murray in the first place, nor with the College’s choice not to rescind that invitation. Some of my colleagues felt strongly that allowing him to speak gave him a platform to spread views that they found racist and hurtful, and which many argue are based on shoddy research. Others disagreed, noting that Murray’s views as expressed in the Bell Curve were not particularly controversial among some experts even when they first came out. Moreover, they pointed out that he wasn’t even presenting that research this time around. Nonetheless, when it became clear that a group of students were determined to protest, I am told that administration officials reached out to them to negotiate how those protests might be conducted in a peaceful and appropriate manner consistent with Middlebury’s stated policy. It soon became clear, however, that the protesters would accept nothing less than a complete shutdown of Murray’s talk. This prompted the administration to develop the backup plan which they implemented when the students’ chanting prevent Murray from speaking.
Note that this is not the first controversial speaker we have invited to campus. In fact, Murray himself came to Middlebury to give a talk a few years back and was met with no overt opposition. So what, if anything, has changed since Murray’s previous visit? When asked this question by a Boston Globe reporter early today, I openly wondered whether Donald Trump’s election, and more importantly some of the College’s reaction to his victory, may have inadvertently appeared to license the kind of behavior we saw on Thursday. It may be, I speculated, that in reassuring students that we did not support the more inflammatory rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, some students took that as a sign that speech which they felt was hurtful could and should be shut down. To repeat, this is pure speculation on my part, as I made clear to the reporter. But something seems to have changed to persuade a minority of the current generation of Middlebury students that if they don’t like what someone is saying, it is appropriate to make sure no one else hears it as well, regardless of whether they would like to. (Elsewhere I have pointed out that even Trump’s supporters did not agree with all that he said even though they voted for him. However, that distinction has sometimes been lost on a few of my students.)
In my public comments on social media regarding the Murray incident, I have stressed the need for dialogue to discuss why the disturbing effort to shut down speech occurred, and what lessons are to be learned. But I am increasingly worried that the time for dialogue has passed. It is understandable why some students may find Murray’s research findings offensive, although I also believe many protestors actually have almost no familiarity with what Murray actually wrote. It is less clear, however, why so many believe that the appropriate response was not to simply skip his talk, but instead to prevent others from hearing him and, in so doing, inadvertently give him the platform and national exposure they purportedly opposed. For some reason a vocal minority of Middlebury students now believes that if they find speech hurtful, it is their right and obligation to act on those feelings by shutting that speech down.
In his magisterial work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. (italics added.)”
It easy to blame those Middlebury students – and many do – for not fully understanding the importance, particularly at an institution of higher learning, of the free expression of ideas and the need to tolerate opposing views. (After all, Mill is a dead white male!) However, I wonder whether we, as faculty, should shoulder some – most – of the blame for their ignorance? Are we teaching students why we hold so strongly to these ideals? Perhaps if we spent as much time discussing the reason why even speech they view as hurtful should not be suppressed as we do explaining the College honor code, Thursday’s event might not have happened. If we do not explain to students what underlies the College’s rules regarding speech, how are they expected to understand why their actions last Thursday are viewed by so many, including almost every Middlebury student with whom I have talked, as abhorrent and unacceptable, and why some may face disciplinary action?
For understandable reasons the administration decided beforehand not to respond to the student protest with a heavy show of force, for fear of escalating the violence. To be sure, not everyone agrees with that decision. But President Patton has made it clear that this type of student rioting will not be tolerated going forward. Disciplining students, however, is in my view only the first step toward insuring that this unacceptable effort to suppress speech never blights Middlebury’s campus again. Somehow we, as an academic community, must teach students the reason why when confronted with what they sincerely believe to be hurtful speech the proper response is not to impose their views on everyone else by shutting that speech down. I am not sure the best way to do this. But, at the risk of appearing naive or hopelessly idealistic, or both, I am committed to trying. I hope you are too. Let the teaching begin!