In defense of open dialogue

October 28, 2015 by Jack Noelke

It’s time to focus on solutions. After a week in which the Washington Post, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lambasted my alma mater, there is no reason to criticize the bright, well-meaning students who attend the College without offering a way forward.

For those who were unplugged: The leaders of Uncomfortable Learning, a group that brings underrepresented voices to campus, revoked an invitation to anti-feminist speaker Suzanne Venker. Ironically, campus dissent made Uncomfortable Learning members uncomfortable. When co-leader Zach Wood ’18 wrote an article in the Williams Alternative, however, he highlighted a chorus of character assassination attempts that occurred on social media. One claimed that Wood was “dipping [his] hands in the blood” of marginalized groups. Predictably, multiple media outlets cited this episode as yet another example of undergraduates shouting down views they don’t want to hear.

Here is an invitation to both sides of the Venker debate: At an institution like the College, students are responsible for openly engaging with their opponents. In his 2007 University of Southern California commencement address, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger offered students his own “iron prescription” to avoid self-serving bias: I am not entitled to have an opinion on any subject until I can state the arguments against my position better than my opponents can do it themselves.

Imagine how intelligent public discourse would be in America if everyone tried to follow the Munger Rule. Political participants would actively seek out opposing ideas and consider them carefully. Students can determine how to do this at the College, but I will open the conversation with a few suggestions.

According to critics of the Venker event, some students at the College would relish an opportunity to see modern feminism debated out of spite rather than to forward intellectual discourse. Whether or not these students ever decide to publicly bear witness against themselves as Enemies of the People, they would benefit from taking at least one Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) course. I think they might be pleasantly surprised. A friend once asked me to list the five best courses I took at the College, and two of them had the WGSS label.

Provocative groups like Uncomfortable Learning are important for pushing intellectual boundaries at the College. If Uncomfortable Learning predicts that a topic will generate inappropriate backlash, sometimes a measure of diplomacy might help both sides follow the Munger Rule. To establish trust, what if Uncomfortable Learning engaged feminists with a critic who began his or her career from a pro-feminist perspective? Two scholars immediately come to mind. Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor at the American Enterprise Institute, used to teach WGSS. She still self-identifies as a feminist, but she makes heretical claims that ignite plenty of debate. For discussing men’s rights, former feminist Warren Farrell sat on the New York City Board of the National Organization of Women. His ice-breaking questions usually include the benign, “Why do more men die in war?”

Given that Uncomfortable Learning voluntarily canceled its event, its opponents are right that the media unfairly focused on them. However, these activists should still be above using character defamation tactics, especially on social media. It is immature to assume that the leaders of Uncomfortable Learning have malicious intentions. Uncomfortable Learning offered a viewpoint that caused hurt feelings, but deliberately bullying specific individuals is a different level of verbal violence.

If certain activists really think Wood was dispensing “violent ideologies,” they might want to consult their intellectual opposition. In his 1963 book, The Liberal Mind, Kenneth Minogue compared the story of social activism to that of “St. George and the Dragon.” Minogue feared that after turning his lance on classism, racism, sexism and homophobia, someone who “could only live by fighting for causes” might grow “breathless in the pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons.” When society’s dragons become smaller, hopefully activists will not become more accusatory just to make every dragon seem equally ferocious.

The College is capable of leading the way in re-establishing freedom of expression on campus. President Obama has challenged modern college students to do as much. We should be thankful that the great activists of history – whether Mary Wollstonecraft or Martin Luther King – didn’t flee into a safe space every time they heard hurtful words.

It is tempting to conflate dissent with danger. Last week, the Washington Post blasted the Record for considering whether students should be barred from “introducing harmful thoughts” at the College. Assuming that the Record’s apology was genuine, I see no reason to pile criticism on a student newspaper. Prominent intellectuals have often made the same mistake. Those who advocate for limits on free speech usually cite Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wanted to restrict “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.” Seldom does anyone recall what Holmes was actually doing in Schenk v. United States – namely, jailing a marginalized group of Yiddish-speaking pacifists during World War I. Indeed, the listener is not always the best judge of which thoughts are “harmful,” and our perception of certain views can change upon further reflection. The First Amendment was written specifically to protect unpopular minorities against their majoritarian censors. We should never forget that.

Civil discourse requires discipline, humility and freedom for ideas we detest. There is a way for the campus to heal. As a student at the College, before you condemn a political rival, ask yourself this question: Am I sure that I can argue my opponent’s view as eloquently as they would argue it themselves?

Jack Noelke ’13 majored in history. He lives in Baltimore, Md.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Man with the Axe October 29, 2015 at 10:20 am

I thought your comment was very thoughtful and perceptive.

I would just respond that the idea of “marginalized groups” seems to me to be empty of substance. I’ll bet that at Williams it is conservatives and anti-feminists that are actually marginalized, to the extent that the term means anything.

When is someone going to point out how cowardly it is to refuse to even hear contrary opinions? That these “feminist warriors” should be anxious to hear their adversaries? That their life experiences, with the ordinary traumas that are common to us all, do not rise to the level of post-traumatic stress disorder such that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are necessary for them to cope with daily life?

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