A new blacklist: How the disinvitation of John Derbyshire reveals a troubling pattern of censorship on campus

No one who really believes in free speech ever says, “Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard,” as our College’s president did last Thursday in a campus-wide email. If you believe in free speech, you simply practice it, which means going through your life listening to a good deal of cant, nonsense and occasional sheer vileness. One can always walk away; this is what it means to be an adult. But when someone sings a song of praise for free speech, you can reckon with mathematical certainty that there is a but circling in a holding pattern overhead, waiting to drop. It didn’t take long. President Falk’s paean to free speech ended with the inevitable: but John Derbyshire is not free to speak here.

The excuse is the familiar platitude that “there’s a line somewhere” that divides free speech from hate speech. And speech that crosses this line must be squelched, even at the point of covering the ears of the listeners. But the notion that there is a line between free speech and hate speech is a curious one. Free speech is a principle that you can define in absolute terms. Hate speech is an accusation – frequently a moving one – which doesn’t lend itself to the drawing of neat lines. The only stable definition for hate speech is speech that makes someone hate you.

You don’t have to agree with Derbyshire to believe that the College did something wrong in forbidding him from speaking here. Administrators can make blunders, but this isn’t a blunder; rather, it’s part of a larger and ominous pattern. Last October, the same students who invited Derbyshire were pressured into rescinding their invitation to Suzanne Venker. This itch to censor is not even limited to the present. Right now, a committee is tracking down “potentially problematic” historical art on campus. Its mission is encapsulated in a remarkable leading question (a question so artfully constructed as to yield but one answer): “What should be done about historical images that portray the College as less welcoming than we are or aspire to be?” Framed that way, it’s hardly a surprise that the mural in the Log depicting Chief Hendrick – the Mohawk ally of Ephraim Williams – has been found objectionable and whisked behind plywood.

All this takes place against the background of a college that proclaims, ceaselessly and fervently, its commitment to diversity. But, as defined at the College, diversity seems to mean embracing the full variety of individual human differences – except for ideas and opinions. Here is why the Derbyshire and Venker incidents are so alarming. The College is fast approaching a state where the genuine exchange of serious ideas – in open public debate, with good will and mutual respect – is made impossible because a growing number of opinions are considered out of bounds. As Mary Detloff, the College’s director of media relations told The Berkshire Eagle, Derbyshire’s views on race, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual harassment render him “unsuited to discussions at Williams College.” Of course, once everyone’s views are homogenous, it’s hard to imagine what would be left to discuss.

Homogenous intellectual environments are not good at responding to new factors or conditions, as I learned from my own college experience. I went to Haverford, a Quaker college known for its extraordinary moral probity (with the country’s most rigorous honor code). I was there during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, throughout which time, in all my courses in political science, history and economics, I never heard the slightest suggestion that mighty shifts in American public opinion were underway that would lead to the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980. My professors probably were unaware of their omission. But by being unable to give students a fair and well-informed summary of the basic tenets of the Reagan platform, other than a mocking caricature of it, Haverford failed in its duty to prepare its students for American life.

Something similar seems to be happening today with Donald Trump. We may write him off as a laughable neo-Napoleonic carbuncle, but if a sizable portion of the American population thinks otherwise, then our students need to hear the most articulate case for Trump – and hear it here, without having to drive to Renee’s Diner in North Adams. And if they cannot hear it from their professors, then they ought to be able to hear it regularly from outside speakers.

Here’s where Uncomfortable Learning comes in. Having recognized that there is a growing uniformity of thought here (and elsewhere), its leaders invested a great deal of effort in bringing to the College points of view that typically go unheard. Twice their events have been canceled events. Perhaps Hopkins Hall can save them the trouble by showing them the blacklist of speakers who are persona non grata. And, while they’re at it, they might explain why it was a dreadful thing to have a blacklist in 1952 but it is morally correct in 2016.

Of course it isn’t called a blacklist. It is a symptom of the fundamental dishonesty of this day that we hesitate to call things by their right names. Back in the 1930s, that age of international fascism, the Louisiana populist Huey Long was asked if he thought fascism could ever succeed in the United States. “Sure,” he replied, “just so long as they call it anti-fascism.”

Michael Lewis is the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard professor of art history.

Comments (23)

  1. When news of the Derbyshire cancellation broke, my work colleagues asked me to “explain what was going on at Williams College,” and they expressed complete shock that the President would nix a student group’s invitation to a potential speaker. I of course could offer no defense for that action and was embarrassed by my affiliation with the College.

    But I’m glad to see that at least one Williams professor has the courage to embrace free speech principles, though I worry that Mr. Lewis’s voice is a lonely one in the faculty lounge. The campus community should nonetheless consider whether the College has “failed in its duty to prepare its students for American life,” even if that inquiry will be deemed too uncomfortable for many.

    1. Actually, I think the Uncomfortable Committee’s disinviting Venker was worse, but I force myself to believe doing so made them feel discomfort.

  2. Amen.

  3. “The College is fast approaching a state where the genuine exchange of serious ideas – in open public debate, with good will and mutual respect – is made impossible because a growing number of opinions are considered out of bounds.”

    So you are saying that it is a serious idea – worthy of debate as though one could be swayed to support that side – that white people are superior to people of color? These are the ideas this man would have brought to campus. There was no other intellectual, maybe someone who isn’t an inflammatory racist, who could represent conservative points of view?

    I’m a woman of color and a Williams graduate. I’m proud of President Falk for recognizing that this man is not the bearer of unpopular ideas because of his conservatism, but because of his racism. I’ve learned the most about my own points of view from debate and conversation with people who do not agree with me. But any person who does not see me as the equal of my white counterparts can find their sparring partners elsewhere. The intellectual exercise should not focus on people of color proving their worth.

  4. @ Andy Grewal ’02.
    There is another hypothesis you might wish to consider. Strong supporters of free speech—which one might call “free-speech liberals”—are often wise enough not to push their opinions into every discussion. Those who wish to limit the scope of free speech—the free-speech conservatives—seem to behave oppositely. “Free-speech absolutists” are straw persons used by narrow minds. I believe Williams can do better. A good step would be for everyone on campus to read the Woodward Report.

  5. Kudos to Prof. Lewis for speaking out so eloquently about this moral embarrassment.

    Left unsaid in all of this is a convenient and curious double standard on exactly what constitutes hate speech. Given the uncontroversial invitations (and completed speaking events) of communist terrorist Angela Davis (in 2001 and 2014) and Amiri Baraka in 2008 (who infamously and baselessly blamed 9/11 on Israelis and Ariel Sharon, in a modern day Bowdlerization of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion) — both of whom were invited by official arms of the college itself — drawing the line at Derbyshire seems wildly inconsistent with past practices.

    It’s clear that this moving target of what constitutes “hate speech” depends only on whose ox is being gored.

  6. The questions around academic freedom are complex and challenging, and are ill-served by the debate over Mr. Derbyshire.

    It is entirely possible that someone may hold views that some find odious and still merit honest engagement. Angela Davis may be, in the words of some, a “communist terrorist,” but she likely also has an informed perspective on the relationships between contemporary African American political activism and the Black Power movements of the 60s and 70s.

    Similarly, Amiri Baraka may be an anti-semite, but he’s also a poet of no small regard. Is it right for him to come to campus? Maybe, maybe not. Would we have said the same about Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot? Who knows?

    But as to the stated reason for Derbyshire’s invitation, are we really to believe that a 70-year old, British-born, white supremacist is likely to make “the most articulate case for [Donald] Trump?” I wonder what the people at Renee’s Diner would say about that.

    In the grand tradition of colleges everywhere, far too much of this debate is being waged in the abstract. Derbyshire’s views are quite specific, and they shouldn’t be waved away as part of “a growing number of opinions…considered out of bounds.”

    I may find Suzanne Venker’s opinions problematic, but comparing her to John Derbyshire does her a grave disservice. I suspect she would be grossly offended at the casual assertion that a contrary view on the role of feminism is intellectually on par to the belief that black people are inherently inferior to white people.

    I urge people to put down the banner of “free speech” and “academic freedom” in this case. Derbyshire has a right to his opinion, but the college has no parallel obligation to provide him a platform for it. To go further and suggest that the academy has a responsibility to engage with his ideas is to suggest that his ideas merit such engagement.

    Which raises the question of why so many are rising in defense of Derbyshire. After all, to borrow someone else’s metaphor, nobody seems to mind how few campus speaking slots are offered to astronomers who reject Copernicus.

  7. @ ’13.
    “The questions around academic freedom are complex and challenging, and are ill-served by the debate over Mr. Derbyshire.”

    A steadfast protection of free speech is precisely what is needed to prevent such useless debate. If you want to understand one nuanced approach to these questions regarding academic freedom, read the Woodward Report.

  8. @Simplicio

    With respect, I have read the Woodward report. Whatever its many qualities, nuance is not among them.

  9. The college acted in the interest of protecting minority students from Derbyshire’s offensive views. What seems to be lost in the shuffle is that white students had every right to be offended by his views as well.

    Being offended is not always a bad thing. A strong negative emotional reaction can crystallize a young person’s beliefs in a way that theory can’t do as effectively. The longer the college coddles its student body, the more divided it will always be between minority students who know racism exists because they’ve lived it, and privileged students who have never experienced it directly and thinks it maybe only still exists in the South.

  10. It is part of the privilege of whiteness that “being offended” is the worst of what you can expect out of this situation. For people of color, being offended is the LEAST of our worries. People of color are killed by people who hold these views. These views have very real violent repercussions, and the act of repeating them perpetuates their legitimacy. You don’t need to bring a white supremacist to campus to teach students the reality of racism today. This group can make people learn uncomfortably on a variety of issues without making the population feel unsafe.

  11. Here is Derbyshire’s talk. You can judge for yourself whether it contains thoughtful and interesting ideas, or is simply idiotic white supremacy:


    The Williams library has several of Derbyshire’s books in its collection, so it is hard to argue that he is a complete lunatic. Unless you’ve looked at the talk you should not comment as if you understand Derbyshire’s viewpoints.

    1. Thank you for sharing this – knowing what was to be presented to the student body takes this conversation out of the abstract.

      After a read through, it seems to me that what may initially successfully masquerade as thoughtful and interesting ideas devolve quite quickly into idiotic white supremacy.

  12. Reading this article and these comments, I can see that there are a number of people who really do not grasp the subtitles of the race realist perspective. You can be a race realist without being a white supremacist, without being a racist — which I define as hating people simply because of their race.

    Students at Williams College should be pouring over the work of Charles Murray, understanding the insight of John Derbyshire, and studying up on how low IQ is associated with school failure, crime and poverty.

    It is not simple or easy to fix problems associated with lower than average IQ. The sooner we start studying this issue with serious intent, then the quicker we will provide relief to those who are most harmed by existing public policies.

    I certainly admire Michael Lewis for his efforts to suggest that Adam Falk’s decision is basically the creation of a blacklist. If the hard left and its whiny conformist adherents gain greater power, we will soon find that most of us are on that blacklist and that worse things than that are also on their way.

  13. I am guessing that Prof Lewis is not a member of the committee that is considering historical representation of on campus monuments…

    Are members of the art history faculty- Williams’ only traditional graduate level program- being included in the consideration of censorship of more (beyond the mural at the log) art and historical campus monuments?

    If not, why not?

  14. Pingback: Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire I : EphBlog

  15. Pingback: Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire II : EphBlog

  16. Pingback: Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire III : EphBlog

  17. Pingback: Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire IV : EphBlog

  18. Pingback: Lewis Slams Falk Over Derbyshire V : EphBlog

  19. Pingback: First Impressions of Record Coverage of Safety Dance : EphBlog

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *