Posted by Jay Livingston
What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)
Dear President Patton,
We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.
Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.
Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )
As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s Coming Apart on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.
For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules. After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil.
The campus left doesn’t toss around the word evil, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.
But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.
The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.
Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .” is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.” Here’s the full Gallup question:
|If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to |
College students went for free speech more than did the average American.
The General Social Survey gets similar results on its item about banning a racist from giving a speech in the community. The college educated are more liberal than others. The percent who would ban a racist speaker his risen somewhat in the past four decades from about 22% to about 27%, but the overwhelming majority favor letting the racist speak.
* Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.