Uncomfortable Learning scheduled and later cancelled a talk by Suzanne Venker, founder of Women for Men, a news and opinion website that claims that the feminist movement results in female privilege and discrimination against men. While we at the Record believe Venker’s views are wrong, offensive and unacceptable, it is difficult to determine whether or not there would have been enough educational value in her lecture to justify an appearance, given that her presence on campus would have hurt students who face sexist and homophobic stereotypes.
Though Venker’s speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.
The purpose of Uncomfortable Learning, however, is to confront problems outside the purple bubble and introduce students to opinions that they would not otherwise hear on campus. These ideas might not be welcome in the intellectual, academic, liberal discourse that takes place in the classroom. It may be worthwhile to hear these opinions, including Venker’s, even if we find them harmful and fundamentally disagree with them.
A significant portion of people, both in the United States and in other countries, share Venker’s views. Her beliefs are harmful to women, gay men and society as a whole. Engaging with people who have damaging views and gradually educating them about privilege and discrimination is necessary to bring about societal change. Bringing Venker to campus would have offered interested students a chance to practice that skill. Williams students are not likely to encounter people with Venker’s beliefs on campus, and many may have come from backgrounds that did not expose them to her beliefs. It is difficult for an educated person who associates mostly with other liberal-minded people to understand how Venker justifies her beliefs or how she came to hold them. The potential value in her lecture was the opportunity for students to hear her explain herself and the chance for community members to ask her questions. In this format, students would be exposed to the reasons for her position rather than merely writing her off as irrational or unintelligent. Those reasons and justifications are the root of her wrongful opinions, so learning what they are is essential to removing those opinions from society.
It was not Uncomfortable Learning’s intention that students would consider Venker’s views to be correct or attempt to find some truth in them. The idea of her coming to campus was to provide students with the opportunity to understand and challenge the underpinnings of her beliefs. Uncomfortable Learning is a safe way to discuss otherwise unacceptable opinions on campus, as the audience members choose to attend and understand going in that the speaker may be offensive.
That being said, there are reasons to believe that the lecture would not have enough educational value to justify inviting Venker to campus. Her beliefs are not nuanced. Arguing with a speaker with whom one shares no common ground could amount to nothing more than each side validating its own views. Trying to persuade Venker might have been a hopeless endeavor and is not necessarily the most productive use of Uncomfortable Learning’s resources, especially in light of the strong reaction from students against her appearance.
The potential value and harm of inviting Venker to speak are difficult to quantify. Weighing the two against each other is an even more complicated calculus, and we at the Record could not come to a unified consensus on this calculation. It is important that Uncomfortable Learning pushes the envelope of campus discourse, but they must consider the potential damage of introducing harmful thoughts into the safe space that is so vital to the College’s ability to nurture and educate.