Another Dumb Open Letter

A while back, Charles Murray went to speak at Middlebury College. Students protested the event on the grounds that Murray is a purveyor of racism (he’s not, no matter what the Southern Poverty Law Center says), and some even got violent. The professor who was helping to host the even with Murray even suffered a concussion. Middlebury is disciplining some of the students who were involved in the protest. Now, a bunch of professors are complaining about students being disciplined for violently disrupting an event in order to silence Charles Murray.

Below are some thoughts on the letter.

Universities are not Democracies

The letter states that colleges are supposed to be “spaces that encourage critical thinking and that serve as welcoming and democratic spaces for all.” Funny. They think colleges should be “welcoming… spaces for all.” Except Charles Murray, of course. He’s dangerous and shouldn’t be given a platform. Hypocrisy at its finest.

Two thoughts on the “democratic spaces” claim. First, they’re being extremely disingenuous. A space in which a minority of students who do not want an event to take place can successfully stop the event, violently and with impunity, is not a democratic space by any stretch of the imagination. Second, universities aren’t democracies, and they aren’t meant to be. Think of it this way: Suppose the Middlebury student body holds a vote on whether Charles Murray should be allowed to speak there. Suppose further that a majority votes “no.” Is that really good grounds for revoking a speaking invitation? Of course not. First, the minority that wants to hear Murray matters, too. Second, the student body does not have the authority to overrule the faculty and administrators of the college.

Education requires submission. You have to let people who are smarter than you teach you what they know. Part of how this teaching is done is through the creation of an environment of academic rigor, and the university faculty and administration get to decide how to create this environment, as well as what such an environment looks like. If you’re a student and you are unwilling to conform to the rules that protect the academic environment, you can ask politely for the rules to be changed, or you can leave. But you can’t remake the university in your own image. That would defeat the purpose of education.

These People Don’t Read

The professors who signed this letter claim that Charles Murray is “a widely discredited scholar who masks racist ideas under a veneer of respectability.” The New York Times ran an op-ed in the wake of the Middlebury controversy explaining some research that indicates otherwise. The researchers sent transcripts of Charles Murray’s Middlebury talk (he was moved to another location and the event was live-streamed after initially being shut down) to university professors (a left-leaning crowd), who were then asked to rate the political leaning of the speaker. Those who did not know the speech was by Murray gave it a mean rating of 5.05 on a scale of 1 (very liberal) to 9 (very conservative). Those who knew it was by Murray gave it a mean rating of 5.77, which is still pretty close to the center.

The researchers write in their op-ed:

Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative. It is not obvious, to put it mildly, that Middlebury students and faculty had a moral obligation to prevent Mr. Murray from airing these views in public.

And yet this letter claims that Charles Murray is “[a] well-known provocateur, [who] has a long history of coming to college campuses to create turmoil and foment hatred.” It’s almost like they don’t care about the truth. (Oh right, they don’t, because truth is just an oppressive tool of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. Silly me.)

Define “Reasonable”

The letter says that “students have a right to reasonable protest; and protest by its very nature is a challenge to an authority that refuses to listen.” Duh. No one disagrees with that. But “reasonable protest,” generally speaking, can be done without breaking the rules, which the Middlebury students in question certainly did. Making incoherent noise at an event so that no one can hear the speaker is not “reasonable protest.” It is a temper tantrum.

*  *  *

There’s a list of signatories at the bottom of the letter. Many of them, I believe, are professors. Most (?) are students. Any professor willing to put his name on this illiberal trash is a disgrace. Hopefully the students who signed are just in their young, idealistic, and stupid phase. Maybe they’ll come out of it. With professors who actually think like this in universities around the country, I’d say that things don’t look so good.


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