In the midst of all of the news about repealing Obamacare, accusations of the Trump campaign working with the Russians, accusations of president Obama spying on Trump, and North Korea deciding to launch missiles it is easy to miss the significance of what happened in Middlebury, VT last week. What occurred is a chilling attack on academic free speech. Unless we properly assign responsibility for what occurred, it will happen again.
Charles Murray, politically conservative author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, was scheduled to deliver a talk at Middlebury and then be interviewed by Dr. Allison Stanger, a politically progressive professor.
It didn’t happen that way. Protesters shouted down Murray’s talk.He couldn’t continue until the Middlebury administration moved Murray and Stanger to another on-campus location to stream the discussion to those interested in listening. The protesters found them there and tried to break in. They pulled fire alarms to disrupt the live stream.
This was more than stifling Dr. Murray’s free speech rights. This was intentional violence.
When the talk was finally finished, the protesters — who could better be described as rioters by this point — were waiting outside to assault the party, and in fact injured Stanger enough to send her to the hospital. Murray made it safely to the car that would take him away, but the rioters surrounded and pounded on the car until it could finally leave. Upon arriving at their restaurant, the party learned that the thugs had found them, and they had to relocate to another restaurant outside of town to eat in peace.
This was more than merely stifling Dr. Murray’s free speech rights. This was intentional violence. Protesters physically threatened the program’s participants even after they left campus.
Outside Agitators or Not, Middlebury’s Students Are to Blame
The Middlebury College events have been covered here at the Stream, but I want to focus on the students and their violence, which is certain to chill future discussion on controversial topics at Middlebury and at other campuses. Speakers from non-leftist perspectives have long had reason to wonder whether their speeches would be heard. Now they have reason to wonder if they will be physically attacked.
Some of my friends have argued that Middlebury students may not have been responsible for the violence; that there could have been outside agitators among them leading the assaults. We don’t know for sure, so how can we say it was students engaging in the violence? This is similar to the attitude some commentators took toward the February riot at Berkeley.
We can only absolve students, however, if we are sure we know who it really was instead — and if anyone knows, they really ought to take that information to the police.
Even if the primary violence was done by outsiders, however, and even if students didn’t throw a single rock, they still shared culpability for the violence. Their protests created the atmosphere in which the violence occurred. Once it began, they made no visible effort to curb it.
You can be sure the violent agitators expected the mob of students would make it safe for them to hide. Students this implicitly promoted the violence that resulted. I suspect to some degree it was intentional, in support of students’ goal of ensuring that speakers they disagree with would be prohibited from speaking on campus.
Free Academia at Stake in America
I have never read Murray, so I’m not confronting this issue out of any desire to defend his controversial positions. I am concerned instead for free speech, for if we do not defend free speech for all, then we do not have free speech. If we cannot pursue ideas wherever they may lead, we do not have academic freedom.
The very nature of our academic enterprise is at stake. If academia is no longer open to the free engage of ideas, even ideas some may consider hateful, then it is merely a propaganda machine. If we who are academics become known for suppressing uncomfortable ideas, then the rest of society will soon disregard what we have to say – just as many people are doing with the media today.
For the sake of academia, as well as to do what is right, scholars have to speak up for free inquiry and against physical harassment of ideological minorities. This professor certainly will not be silent.
George Yancey, stream.org