Addressing controversy: Are we actually learning from Uncomfortable Learning?

February 24, 2016 by Jad Hamdan

It is time Uncomfortable Learning (UL) starts living up to its name.

Up until now, all we have been is uncomfortable. The presence of such a radical conservative voice has not only served to ignite countless campus controversies, underlying UL’s attempts to diversify the ideological climate of campus, but also underscores a serious misconception about what should and should not be permitted on a college campus. Not just a liberal campus like the College. Every college campus.

Let me start off by saying that I believe UL is a great idea. Tearing deeply into different perspectives and defending our own has been the foundation of the College’s educational mission since its inception. Arguably the most unique part of the College’s academics, the tutorial system, is entirely based on the free exchange and defense of ideas. And, as students, we have every right to extend that exchange beyond the classroom.

But I also believe that UL as an organization, as an institution, is misguided. UL has continued to suggest that it is its responsibility to spark discussion and discomfort on campus, to engage in debates about controversial and difficult topics for the sake of our intellectual growth as students. But out of its self-proclaimed responsibility, UL has fatally misunderstood its role at the College. UL should not be a single ideological arm used to temper the liberalism present on our campus. UL should be a platform for students, teachers and administrators to come together in the pursuit of discussion and free thinking – without the support of dark, conservative funding.

Back in October, co-president of UL, Zach Wood ’18, wrote an article in the Washington Post entitled: “I ran a speaker series to expose Williams students to unpopular ideas. It was deemed ‘too offensive.’” He wrote that, “Instead of engaging in uncomfortable learning, we have demonized those who support it.” To Wood, it seems that our intolerance of certain ideas has denied this campus an opportunity to discuss and debate controversial ideas.

Now, Wood does have a point. We have continued to castigate UL for its desire to conservatize campus conversations, which isn’t entirely fair. UL is grounded in a desire to promote conversation, and to its conservative backers, inviting people like Suzanne Venker to speak seems like a good way for students to engage with potentially controversial ideologies.

But I find that there are bigger questions, more thought-provoking criticisms, that students, faculty and administrators have not addressed. Specifically, is a single student organization the best means to achieve controversial dialogue? No.

When we have a student organization that is attempting to promote all-campus discussion, and seeks to address controversies that affect the entire campus, why are the decisions for who is invited to speak being made by a single organization? The reality is that the students in UL cannot possibly encompass the full range of personal identities and experiences of every student here at the College. So when UL takes steps to start campus conversations that have such broad and sweeping impacts on campus culture and social identity, it needs to be held accountable.

The most recent attempt to bring John Derbyshire to campus is symptomatic of the structural problems of UL. Opposition to Derbyshire’s ideas isn’t drawn along party lines. He is clearly a racist, promoting white supremacy and bigotry. And while it is important to have conversations about race and equality on campus, speakers with ideas as radical Derbyshire should not be invited without consulting the larger student body. If students outside of UL had more of a say in who these speakers were, we could have avoided the upheaval around Derbyshire’s invitation and subsequent cancellation. It seems that now, more than ever, UL needs a serious structural change, one that includes more diverse voices and perspectives.

Students should never be barred from engaging in important discussions about race, gender, equality and ideology. We didn’t come to the College to be coddled. But every student has the right to participate at the level at which he or she feels most comfortable, the level where he or she feels safest.

And so, for the sake of being able to engage in powerful, controversial dialogue, I urge those behind the fiasco that is UL to more openly consider the broader identities and experiences beyond its institutional bubble. Because the only way students are going to be able to learn from the organization is if they actually want to.

Make us want to.

Jad Hamdan ’19 lives in Williams Hall. He is from Canton, Ohio. 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

afalk February 25, 2016 at 11:54 am

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

http://www.unz.com/jderbyshire/derbs-canceled-williams-college-hate-address/

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.

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jhamdan February 25, 2016 at 8:23 pm

While there is definitely an argument to be made in defense of the value in debating Derbyshire’s viewpoints, a close examination of much of his work examining differences in race or ethnicity clearly displays his discriminatory view against non-whites.

With regards to the point about the college having several of Derbyshire’s books in its possession, given that the college also has a number of equally questionable books, including Mein Kampf, in its possession, it’s hard to use the fact that a college library has a book in its possession as a litmus test for the books/ideas legitimacy.

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