On Friday evening, Uncomfortable Learning canceled a lecture by Suzanne Venker, author of Why Feminism Fails and The War on Men, amid backlash from students protesting Venker as misogynistic and homophobic.
Uncomfortable Learning had scheduled Venker’s talk, entitled “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails” for yesterday. On her website, Venker describes herself as “an author, a cultural critic and an occasional Fox News contributor.”
Various students and student groups took issue with Venker’s ideas, expressed in her books, on her website and on Fox News, including the notion that women should strive to be more financially dependent on their husbands. Students expressed concern and anger over both Venker’s invitation to campus and her views, which they argued are harmful to students at the College.
Uncomfortable Learning is a student-run, alumni-funded organization that aims to encourage students to understand and engage with often provocative and uncomfortable viewpoints that oppose perceived popular opinions at the College. It was run by Matthew Hennessy ’17, Didier Jean-Michel ’17 and Zach Wood ’18. Jean-Michel has since stepped down from his position in the group.
“The goal of uncomfortable learning,” said Wood, “is to understand how someone who is just as sure as you are in their beliefs can think something completely different,” but he added that the express purpose of the organization is not to convince people to change their beliefs.
The leaders of Uncomfortable Learning chose Venker as a speaker because they anticipated that she would challenge students and make them examine their own opinions in an intellectually stimulating manner. Hennessy said that the choice was representative of the group’s effort to promote an “intellectually and academically open environment” on campus.
“We chose [Venker] because millions of Americans think her viewpoints carry weight, or even agree with her,” said Hennessy. “We think it’s important to get an understanding of why so many Americans do think these really interesting and difficult thoughts, so we can challenge them and better understand our own behaviors and our own thoughts.”
Uncomfortable Learning invited students to a Facebook event for the talk on Thursday, to which several students expressed outrage. In response, Emily O’Brien ’18 created another Facebook event, “One Step Forward and We Keep Going,” on the same day in order to organize protests to the talk.
O’Brien emphasized that the goal of the protests was not to have the event shut down, but rather to express dissent from Venker’s ideas. According to her, many protestors had planned to attend the event and to engage with Venker during the question-and-answer session.
“The point of the event was not to censor her beliefs,” said O’Brien. “It was our rightful emotional and political reaction to something that has been harmful to many groups of people.”
Sam Alterman ’18 helped organize the protest and participated in discussions on both Facebook event pages. He said that the protestors were not seeking to censor Venker but rather disagreeing with the decision to provide her with a platform.
“No one has asked for her writing to be blocked on Purple Air [campus internet],” he said. “We were dissenting from the idea that she is someone we should elevate to a level where we feel that her point of view is relevant enough and intellectually rigorous enough to bring to campus, associate [the College’s] name with her, and give her money.”
The members of Uncomfortable Learning canceled the event on Friday evening because the nature of the backlash made them believe that the lecture would not achieve Uncomfortable Learning’s goals of generating productive conversation. Hennessy said that he and Jean-Michel also felt they had been personally harassed over Facebook private messages and “heckled” on campus.
“I think it’s the campus’ loss that we can’t challenge [Venker] on these thoughts,” Hennessy said, “but given the reaction to it, based on how personal the attacks were, and our position as [Junior Advisors], we felt it best not to continue with [the lecture].”
Wood wrote an article for The Williams Alternative, stating that a “vehement response” from students opposed to bringing Venker to campus had led to the event cancellation and suggesting that students had chosen “demonization” of Venker over productive discussion.
“Those who protested viewed this event through a lens of motivated ignorance,” he wrote.
Ava Anderson ’18, a member of the Feminist Collective board, said that she is troubled by some of the language used to refer to the students protesting Venker, particularly the title of Wood’s op-ed, “Breaking through a ring of motivated ignorance.”
“Many of these students care deeply about issues of gender equality and are seriously considering the impact of hosting Venker and funneling money towards her,” Anderson said. “When someone says these students are hypersensitive, it is writing off their perspective as not being legitimate, which is exactly the opposite of what Uncomfortable Learning claims to strive for.”
Gerardo Garcia ’16, another student who was vocal in protests against Venker, said “While I do not agree with the decision for Suzanne Venker’s visit to Williams, I also acknowledge that people are within their right to request for such a speaker. But I also believe we should be able to freely criticize the reasoning for this decision when we invite someone who only spews hate in her talks and in her writing, while providing no concrete evidence to defend her claims. Venker tells women to become subservient to men, while completely ignoring the issues of domestic violence, equality, and much, much more … Personally, I have no patience to learn about a perspective that has no evidence, attacks women and demonizes the queer community.”
Venker published an op-ed on FoxNews.com on Tuesday entitled “Williams College’s ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ speaker series dropped me. Why?” in response to the lecture cancellation. In the piece, she expressed disappointment with the cancellation and shared an excerpt from her planned speech. “Do not be afraid to ask yourself questions that may make you uncomfortable. And do not be afraid of the answers,” she said in the excerpt.
Venker also addressed those who criticized the event. “… the students who took issue with my appearance are as sensitive as their feminist leaders, who are notorious for cowering in the face of opposition. And I understand why: their arguments are weak. And weak arguments can’t hold up to scrutiny.”
Wood said Uncomfortable Learning will consider the response to Venker when choosing future guests, but will still bring “provocative” speakers.
Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, said in an email that the administration received no concerns about Venker’s talk and is committed to encouraging free speech and expression of differing perspectives and opinions.