Expect Resistance

In the last week or so, there’s been a story going on in Vermont that, I’m told, has stirred a bit of national debate. Vermont Public Radio even dedicated over an hour of virtually uninterrupted discussion to it yesterday (including a re-run of the show in the evening), which was when I was told that its become a national story.

Last week, Middlebury College’s American Enterprise club (which is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute) invited a political scientist named Dr. Charles Murray to speak at the college. They reasoned that, with all of the conversations about how President Trump was elected because of the grievances of the country’s white males, it would be interesting to bring to campus the author of a recently published book about class divisions within that white demographic. However, the author of said book has been accused of “using racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to the fight against racism and intolerance in all its forms and a recognized leader when it comes to keeping data on both local and national hate mongers. Due to the author’s designation (not to mention the published words that led to said designation), a sizable number of students and professors at Middlebury College challenged whether he should even be invited to campus, let alone given a stage and a microphone from which to disseminate his ideas.

It sounds as if reasonable efforts were made by the college to address the grievances of the protestors. The Political Science department that sponsored the invitation fully intended to prepare their students to understand the controversies surrounding Dr. Murray and to help them develop the skills to challenge the man’s ideas in public. It seems they even disseminated pamphlets on every chair in the auditorium to help the students speak their mind during the event, and when the President of the College introduced him, she stated that she “profoundly disagreed” with the man.

The Political Science department also prepared one of their colleagues to serve as a moderator during the talk, giving her specific instructions to challenge the speaker to his face.

Staff members throughout the college discussed the controversy in their classrooms in the week leading up the event and redesigned their syllabuses to give their students time before and after the visit to process their ideas and their feelings surrounding Dr. Murray’s talk.

On the day of the event, the protestors planned and staged an organize response. Just as Dr. Murray began to speak, students throughout the auditorium stood up in unison, turned their backs, and began to chant, and not in a “Hey hey, ho ho, Dr. Murray’s got to go”  kind of way (though some kind of similar chant did occur later), but rather, in a monotonous, considered, and dead-eyed kind of way, the product of what must have been at least half a dozen planning sessions in the days and hours leading up the event, including at least one or two full on rehearsals (please note that I’m making assumptions here).

Dr. Murray eventually left the stage. He and the moderator tried to continue the discussion in another room, sharing it with the audience via livestream, but the protestors began to act a little more chaotic at that point. It seems they may not have imagined that the event’s planners would develop a tactical response to their coordinated protest, and so, as will happen with a crowd, a lot of people had a lot of different ideas on what to do next .

The end result was that after the interview was finished, the college tried to escort Dr. Murray, the faculty moderator, and some others to an awaiting car, but the protestors wouldn’t let them pass, and push literally came to shove before Dr. Murray and the others could get into the car and drive away. In the scrum, the moderator was injured enough to go to the hospital and come out with a neck brace. And Dr. Murray, who is an elderly man, told the Boston Globe that he feared for his life.

It became a national story for the same reason Milo Yiannopoulos became a story when Berkley protesters prevented him from speaking on campus: the students of a highly reputable liberal college forcefully prevented a conservative voice from finding a safe space on their campus. It’s a story rife with irony, due to liberal stances regarding the sanctity of education and the sanctity of free speech.

If you believe that education is, first and foremost, about the development of a student’s critical thinking skills (as most liberals ultimately do), then why shield them from the real world’s marketplace of ideas, which includes millions of ideas that they will find offensive?

If you believe(as most liberals seem to) that words and ideas are the only things that should change the world (rather than, say, guns and money), then why respond violently when faced with words and ideas that offend you?

Both sides of the issue had strong points. I’m an absolutist when it comes to free speech, which means I completely believe Dr. Murray  had the right to speak, but it also means that I believe the protestors had the right to respond with whatever words they saw fit. In addition, Middlebury College has the right to invite whomever it wants to its campus, and the students of Middlebury College have the right to disagree with the college’s decisions.

With that being said, one of the guests made an interesting point. He is a sociology professor who was invited onto the radio show to defend the protestors. When the show’s moderator asked him some question that implied that every viewpoint deserves equal access, the professor remarked that the college already doesn’t provide equal access to all viewpoints because not everyone has the same amount of money to invite speakers to campus, and hence some voices are never heard simply because of differences in economic class.

This is the same as the argument behind campaign finance reform. If money = speech, then those who have more money have more speech; and if in a democracy, speech = the right to vote, then more money means more votes.

I don’t know a ton about the inner budgeting processes of private Vermont colleges, but what I’ve seen makes me think that the Political Science department at Middlebury College probably receives better funding than its Sociology department, if only because political science majors probably make more money than their sociology counterparts (which goes for those of both types who later go on to teach at a college). [But again, I’m making a lot of assumptions here].

According to the representatives on the radio, one of the things the protestors would have preferred about the event was for someone else to be standing on the stage who had equal footing with Dr. Murray, someone who was there with every endorsement of the college to challenge Dr. Murray’s ideas and teach the students some of his or her own — to stage the evening not as a moderated lecture, followed by questions (challenging or not), but as a debate between equals, and challenging all the way.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way, and what went down went down.

But what intrigues me about it is that — at least in the way its become a national story — it’s all about the concept of a safe space.

Conservatives claim that liberal colleges no longer provide a safe space for the expression of conservative ideas; liberals, meanwhile, claim that conservative speech offends them, and they ought to have the right to protect and defend themselves from any more violence (spoken or otherwise) coming at them from conservative quarters.

In other words: Conservatives want colleges to be a safe space, while liberals want the individual mind to be a safe space.

I agree with both of them. The trouble is that, for many liberals, college is where the mind first meets the road. They’re no longer protected by their parents or guardians, and they have to negotiate whatever comes at them on their own. That’s the whole point of thing.

But they’re also kids, and they’re gonna screw up once in a while, and sometimes when they do, someone’s going to get hurt and come out of the hospital wearing a neck brace. That’s what happens when kids screw up.

What’s important is what happens next. How do the adults around them model  what they could have done instead?

It sounds to me like both the protestors (staff and students) and the event planners (staff and students) handled the pre-game perfectly. They discussed the controversy with each other in a rational manner, and when they saw they would never persuade the other to do exactly what they wanted, they made plans for a potential conflict. The protestors considered the situation and decided a combination of “simultaneous dialogue” (i.e., using their numbers to speak over Dr. Murray) and general protests would be best. The event planners anticipated the protestors’ moves (to some extent) and reacted accordingly, hiring outside security and preparing alternative ways for Dr. Murray’s speech to continue (retiring to a quieter room and broadcasting his words to the audience via livestream).

This is where character and leadership comes in. The Middlebury protestors, like the Berkley protestors before them, are trying to convince the media that “outside agitators” started the violence. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I suspect in some ways it is, and in some ways it isn’t. I’m sure at least one Middlebury student partook in the violence, as I’m sure at least one person who is not a student at Middlebury partook in the violence.

Regardless, the protestors claim this because they want to believe that they have character, that Middlebury students wouldn’t resort to violence when they find themselves as part of mob. Again, this may or may not be true.

But it provides the college with an opportunity to have the students practice the art of remaining an individual when standing in the middle of a mob, and then the art of leading that mob to achieve positive ends in a positive way. What should a Middlebury student have done when the protest grew beyond its planning committee’s control?

With the Internet and social media, mobs move too fast for anyone to control them. That’s how you get the Arab Spring. That’s how you get Ferguson.

I think liberals everywhere would agree that the Arab Spring and Ferguson definitely needed to happen. And that more of them need to and will happen in the future.

But how can tomorrow’s liberal leaders thrive in such an incredibly dynamic environment, where for every organized march on Washington, there’s three dozen half-organized, mob-overrun affairs?

The next generation must be able to navigate the grassroots world they’re moving into, a world where even the President of the United States bypasses traditional channels of communication in favor of Twitter. It may be true that, unless you’ve got millions of dollars (not necessarily your own), you can’t stand at a podium and have a microphone all to yourself; but its also true that for a few dozen bucks a month, you can stand with your smart phone and have a microphone the size of the Internet.

But in that world, how does someone lead when everyone is talking at once?

That’s what our youth activists need to learn, and that’s what our colleges need to teach them (interestingly, the sociology professor who was invited to defend the protestors on the radio dedicates at least part of his research to “exploring how anarchists organize online”).

Should Dr. Murray have been invited to speak on Middlebury’s campus? Should the protestors have been able to outshout him? Those questions are beside the point.

The question is: what should they have done next? The event planners planned to face resistance. In the future, youth activists should plan to face it too.