Williams College, a very prestigious school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is currently in the throes of a debate about free speech. In this case the professors (not all of them, but many) want Williams to adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression (the “Chicago Principles”). The students, however, don’t want any stinking principles; they want endless discussion about marginalization and oppression of minorities at the College and about how speech of some groups isn’t free, but “erased”. (You can read the student petition, signed by 363 undergraduates, here.) Unlike Berkeley in the Sixties, the roles are reversed here: it’s the faculty rather than the students who want free speech.
I wrote about this last week, posting an endorsement of free speech by Luana Maroja, a biology professor at the school. Now the Williams Record, the school’s student newspaper, has several articles on the controversy. Note especially items 4 and 5, in which students, including the paper’s editorial board itself, either oppose free speech or waffle about it. Each headline (click on screenshots) is followed by a quote from the article (indented).
1.) A news report by two of the paper’s editors on the latest free-speech developments, which gives a pretty objective overview.
2.) A student writes defending free speech. Good for Essence Perry! In view of statement #4, in which angry students connect free speech to racism, I’ll point out that Perry appears to be a woman of color.
To combat bigotry like racism, sexism and xenophobia – beliefs that are rooted in ignorance and fueled by fear – we must be able to tactically invalidate their fallacies and falsities. Remaining ignorant of their arguments allows these ideologies to fester. It is important to understand the roots of hate ideologies; it isn’t acceptable or useful to simply label people as irrational. Yes, at first, it will make students feel uncomfortable. But we need to use that discomfort as a fuel to convince others of our ideas. We need to challenge ourselves to take into consideration their mindset, listen to their opinions to make our own ideas stronger and approachable.
Being “right” isn’t enough anymore; we need to connect and reach people of all types. This can only happen through discourse that provokes us and forces us to reflect on how we can make change.
3.) Luana writes a letter to the paper, largely reiterating what she wrote on this site and supporting the Chicago Principles:
When we hear unfamiliar and unexpected ideas, we are often disoriented and disquieted. This disquiet is the background noise of a brain that is working. After we process and assimilate the unfamiliar idea, and ponder it with our friends, we might find it is worthless and reject it outright. And once in a great while, we might find ourselves won over by a novel idea that we have never considered. If that is not happening to you from time to time, it is a sign that you have closed your mind to all ideas you don’t already accept. I will not attempt to stop those who stick their fingers in their own ears to block out what they don’t want to hear. But I don’t want them sticking their fingers into everyone’s ears.
As I said many times before, I have learned a great deal from hearing from people I deeply disagree with (e.g., creationists and climate denialists). In the end, that is the only way to have your counterarguments become clear, logical and ready to be used when the need comes.
The writers, more than 20 undergraduates, are writing under the rubric of “Coalition against racism now” (“CARE Now”). They start out simply rejecting the validity of a free-speech debate, because free speech is, to them, a ploy by racists and oppressors to silence the marginalized. Instead of a debate about free speech, they want the dismantling of racism on the Williams campus. They give no examples of such racism, and from what I hear of the place it’s extraordinarily inclusive. The piece, which you should read to hear the infusion of Marxist and postmodern rhetoric into modern undergraduate life, is a long whine by entitled students playing victims. A few quotes (my comments flush left):
It is vital to say that CARE Now is not interested in entering a debate about free speech in this current moment. A policy or committee that deals solely with free speech or expression is not the solution. Rather, we insist on recognizing the positioning of “free speech” for what it has become: moral ammunition for a conservative backlash to increasing diversity. As a grass-roots collective of student organizers, we are concerned with long-term base-building that far surpasses rebuttals to “free speech” crusaders.
This claim is ridiculous. Over 100 Williams professors signed the original statement endorsing the Chicago Principles, and it’s crazy to call them all of those professors conservatives opposed to increasing diversity.(I suspect that 90% or more of Williams professors are on the Left.) The statement goes on to assert that free speech is useless because it has no effect on dispelling the bigotry they claim to experience (but never describe). But they fail to recognize that without free speech, civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights protestors would never have brought attention to these successful movements. Just imagine where we’d be if opponents of those movements had the right to censor calls for equality!
Prejudice cannot be talked away; more “dialogue” is not the answer. Oppression can’t be fixed with rational debate because oppression is not rational. Once we all agree that bigotry simply is not an “opinion” that can be swiftly invalidated in a “two-way discourse,” that such discourse instead needs to involve dismantling the very institutional and systemic forces that demean and denigrate marginalized students, and that the faculty petition represents institutional anxiety towards a more diverse student and faculty population, then we can take steps and move forward. Perhaps the authors and signers of the faculty petition did not have the intent to harm and silence students and faculty of marginalized identities, but they have chosen to enter a national debate that is harmful, toxic and ultimately must be recognized by the faculty and administration. Intent does not equate to impact.
I will give just one more excerpt, but if you read the whole thing you’ll realize why I say that Williams is going the way of Evergreen State, becoming a place full of entitled and authoritarian students who don’t for a minute consider that they might be wrong, or even want to hear why they might be wrong. They’re too busy stringing together social justice buzzwords and feeling hurt. Have a look at the last sentence:
We do not need yet another committee to investigate how our educational environment can be made more “open and inclusive.” Again, we ask: open, and inclusive for whom? Instead, we challenge the Williams community to consider, together, the fundamental anxieties of “diversity” which underwrite the contemporary discourse of “free speech.” How might we offer forms of redress or protection to those institutionally, historically and currently imperiled bodies-in-question? We can and must make way for alternatives. Until then, all efforts at “dialogue” are but a ruse.
Beyond this statement, we have chosen to not comment on our next steps as we are focusing on building coalition and self-care.
Self-care? I don’t remember Martin Luther King and his allies withdrawing from debate to give themselves “self-care”—except perhaps to dress their wounds from police dogs and billy clubs.
These students instantiate what Stephen Fry was criticizing when he said, in a debate about political correctness (he was in favor of social justice but against its instantiation in “pc”), “My real objection is that I don’t think political correctness works. . .I believe one of the greatest human failings is to prefer to be right than to be effective. And political correctness is always obsessed with how right it is without thinking how effective it might be.” (See his statements on the video beginning at 33:40.) These students perfectly illustrate what Fry objects to, for their anger and hectoring will not for a moment change the minds of those professors who endorsed free speech.
5.) The editorial board of the Williams Record waffles and waffles, totally unable to endorse principles of free speech while paying lip service to them. (Click on screenshot):
What is most disturbing about the anti-free speech stand of Williams undergraduates is the mealy-mouth defense of that speech by the student newspaper. While recognizing that they absolutely require free speech to operate as a newspaper, the editors can’t quite bring themselves to endorse the Chicago Principles or even the First Amendment. They want more “nuance” (always a word to raise red flags); they want a dialogue; but they don’t want Williams to endorse the Chicago Principles. They’d rather have endless discussion in which people flaunt their virtue in place of having a WRITTEN COLLEGE POLICY that codifies liberal rules for speech. Voici:
The Record values freedom of expression as the very core of the work we do. We do not intend to lay out our own comprehensive policy on speakers at the College nor to decisively settle this issue; rather, we hope to contribute several important points to this larger debate on campus and across the country. . . .
. . . The Chicago Statement is in many ways a part of a branding strategy that plays upon the attention such disinvitations get [JAC: they’re referring to disinvitations prompted by objections from the Left, particularly against people like Milo Yiannopoulos], despite their relative rarity. It in no way is, nor should be, the be all and end all of principles for free expression on campus.
Here come the “nuances”:
We reject the binary that this debate has created on campus, in which signatories feel pressure to attach their name to only one viewpoint or the other. The question of who and what is given a platform at the College is a nuanced one, and the current debate around whether or not to adopt the Chicago Statement has oversimplified the issue to the detriment of the complexities at stake. . .
. . . Rather than adopt the Chicago Statement, then, we believe that the College should work internally to think about its values on inviting and disinviting speakers, as well as broaden the conversation about freedom of expression on campus. Questions to be considered might not only include speakers on campus, but also what other barriers to freedom of expression exist. What people or perspectives are commonly denied opportunities to speak, write and otherwise express themselves on campus? What categories of people (such as students, untenured or non-voting faculty and staff) do not enjoy the same systemic protection for their speech as tenured faculty do? Freedom of expression is central to our work at the Record and at the College; valuing such freedom, however, is far more complex than endorsing an outside set of guidelines entrenched in inflammatory debate. We ought to take advantage of the College’s immense resources and talent to foster an intentional dialogue about the many facets of this issue within our community.
What evidence is there that some categories of Williams people “do not enjoy the same systemic protection for their speech as tenured faculty do”? After all, look at all the anti-free-speech stuff that the students have already published, both in the newspaper and on The Feminist Wire. Who has been denied opportunities to speak on campus? (Well, there was one right-winger mentioned in the first news report. . .).
It is shameful that a newspaper’s editors dissemble and dissimulate in this way, when what they should be doing is endorsing the First Amendment as construed by the courts. That after all, is what the Chicago Principles codify. The editors just can’t help hedging their bets by rambling on about “denial of free speech,” when in fact I strongly suspect that nobody at Williams has been denied free speech.
This craven waffling is not limited to the Williams Record. Our own student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, ignoring my letter urging them to do so, adamantly refused to endorse the free-speech principles of its own university! It doesn’t get much more risible (and depressing) than that.