One of the most unfortunate results of the overheated political rhetoric that consumed the presidential election, transition, and early days of the Trump presidency has been the unwillingness of either side to see the opportunity for reasoned intellectual debate with those with whom they disagree and perhaps don’t even respect.
Protesters Force Speaker from Middlebury College Campus
The most recent example took place last week at Middlebury College where conservative author and activist, Charles Murray, faced a hostile crowd that forced his speech to be relocated to another site. According to the New York Times, “When Mr. Murray rose to speak, he was shouted down by most of the more than 400 students packed into the room…. Many turned their backs to him and chanted slogans like ‘racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!’”
Police were able to clear the crowd after considerable effort. A professor accompanying Mr. Murray was injured by protestors as she was escorting him from campus.
Bill Burger, Middlebury’s vice president for communications and marketing, reported that they were “physically and violently confronted by a group of protestors [who] violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and trying to prevent it from leaving campus.”
Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve in which he held that there are biological differences in intelligence between racial groups. Murray’s opponents argued effectively that this was bad science and widely discredited. They reasoned that Middlebury’s campus should not host a discussion on topics where one side’s opinion was intellectually unsound and rhetorically weak, only further reinforcing some of the worst biases in American social and cultural history.
A New Litmus Test for “Informed Discussion”?
In doing so, Middlebury’s protestors established a litmus test for informed discussion. Their actions played into the hands of their opponents – especially on a political level – who use their own litmus test to brand debate on college campuses as narrowly ideological, heavily biased, and part of a larger propaganda effort to indoctrinate American students in left-leaning policies and positions.
On one level, Americans can admire the passion that has brought us to the positions that Americans hold on either extreme.
On the other hand, there is a case to be made for more seasoning, maturity, and balance in how America’s colleges and universities foster and encourage political debate about science or any issue on their campuses.
Further, there is real danger in playing out the cards in the wrong sequence.
America’s colleges and universities must remain the place where we nurture the best ideas to protect, incubate and develop new ones.
Some fresh ideas will not stand competing research or the test of time. But it shouldn’t stop anyone from expressing them, providing that the expression is civil.
Colleges Must Practice What They Preach About Tolerance
American higher education must avoid being stamped by their detractors as the intolerant home of limited free speech whose campus communities fail to practice what they preach about tolerance. Why hand the opposite extreme a political weapon with which they will bludgeon you, whether you identify on the left or right politically? Either higher education advocates tolerance or it does not.
Tipping Point in Intellectual Debate
In these days of growing intolerance, we have reached a tipping point in intellectual debate. The U.S. college campus symbolizes what we cherish most about global ideals that transcend even American core values (to the extent that these exist).
American higher education cannot lose its lead as the home of creative inquiry, even when the ideas occasionally have little merit in the eyes of many.
The next months are likely to produce even more heated rhetoric and bigger street protests across college campuses and throughout the country on a variety of proposals that illuminate this growing spirit of intolerance. For those in higher education, demonstrations like the one at Middlebury weaken the moral higher ground that will be necessary to hold positions that will resonate with the American public. At the very least, the guiding spirit must be Dr. King’s non-violent approach to promote an activist agenda.
Upholding Tolerance Requires Leadership
Standing up for tolerance will also require courageous leadership. In this regard, there was a very hopeful moment that emerged from Middlebury’s uproar. Laurie L. Patton, Middlebury’s president, issued a strong moral statement, demonstrating the value of a president who has the courage and maturity to lead a campus.
“Last night we failed to live up to our core values. But I remain hopeful,” wrote Patton. “Last evening, several students, faculty, and staff representing a large spectrum of political perspectives remained in Wilson Hall to discuss the events and to talk about building bridges. Their ability to reach across differences in a rigorous but respectful way was a stark contrast to the events that preceded it. I firmly believe these are the Middlebury values that we have lived so long and that we must strive to embody in the future.”
Teachable moments about tolerance come to us in numerous ways. Let’s hope that the dialogue occurs, and a lesson, long since learned at Middlebury, is now remembered.