Now is your chance, if you’re an academic or affiliated with a college or university, to sign a well-crafted statement in favor of free and untrammeled expression on campuses. The statement, “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression” was written by Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and Cornel West, a professor of African-American Studies at Harvard. The statement appears on the website for Princeton’s “James Madison Program in American Institutions and Ideals.”
West, a well-known African-American public intellectual, left Harvard 14 years ago for Princeton after a battle with ex-President Larry Summers, but has now returned to his original job.
Apparently the motivating factor for this statement was the unfortunate incident at Middlebury College in Vermont in which Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, was prevented from giving his talk at the College by a bunch of petulant, yelling, fire-alarm-pulling students, most of whom had almost certainly not read Murray’s book; and at any rate, Murray was not going to talk about that book, which had led some to accuse him of racism. He did give the talk, but in a sequestered room with a live feed, but then was attacked by students (and perhaps some outsiders) as he left the venue.
Since Murray’s shabby treatment, over 100 Middlebury College professors have chimed in supporting free expression and implicitly denigrating what their students did to Murray. You can see their signed statement, “Free Inquiry on Campus” at the link; here’s an excerpt:
Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.
The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of free discourse can never justify efforts to silence speech and debate.
Exposure to controversial points of view does not constitute violence.
Students have the right to challenge and to protest non-disruptively the views of their professors and guest speakers.
A protest that prevents campus speakers from communicating with their audience is a coercive act . . .
This, and the rest of the document, is a strong repudiation of Middlebury students’ privileged and entitled whining against what they consider “hate speech”, which really consists of things that Facebook and other Lefties have told them is speech that violates their purity code and should offend them. This is, of course, the reverse of the situation in the 1960s, when we the students, were the liberals and were opposed by a conservative faculty. Things have done a complete U-turn since that time. Now it’s the faculty fighting censorship by the students.
Lest you want to say that Murray had no business talking at Middlebury because he was a racist (an accusation I will not make since I haven’t read his book nor followed his doings), remember that Cornel West is a black man who has spent his entire career combating racism. Nevertheless, he and George are standing up for the right of Murray and others to speak freely.
Here’s the George/West statement in its entirety. It is wonderful, and the emphasis is mine.
The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.
That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.
None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.
All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.
It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
If you have any affiliation with a college or university, be you faculty or staff, I recommend that you sign this statement. I have. You can join me simply by sending your willingness to sign, your name and your affiliation to jmadison@Princeton.edu. Over 600 people have already signed, including Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris and former Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier.
It is ironic that Harvard itself, largely through the actions of President Drew Faust and her deans, has created a climate on campus that represses alternative political views and tries to punish students for exercising their freedom of association in single-sex “Finals Clubs” which are not formally affiliated with Harvard. Those clubs are both all-male and all-female, and yet although they’re independent of the University, Faust promised to punish any student belonging to them. (I’m not sure whether these punishments were ever meted out.)
And don’t forget Harvard’s shameful episode of the “social justice placemats,” in which students were given Leftist “talking points” on four issues of social justice (Islamophobia, etc.) to use when they went home for Christmas. Faust, it seems, is at odds with many of her faculty and at least some of her students.