President of the College Adam Falk stated that writer John Derbyshire would not be permitted to speak at the College in a campus-wide email on Thursday. Uncomfortable Learning (UL), an unofficial student organization, had scheduled Derbyshire to speak on Feb. 22 in Paresky Auditorium. The organization had announced his talk, “The National Question: Race, Ethnicity and Identity in the 21st Century,” in a Facebook event last Wednesday.
“Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night,” Falk said in the email. “The College didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the College will not provide a platform for him.”
Derbyshire was a writer for the National Review until 2012, when he was let go after publishing an article online entitled “The Talk: Nonblack Version” on a website unaffiliated with the National Review [Taki’s Magazine, April 5, 2012]. In the piece, he made comments about African Americans that National Review Editor Rich Lowry called “nasty and indefensible” in a statement on the incident [“Parting Ways,” April 7, 2012]. VDARE, a website which publishes articles that relate to immigration, race and American Politics, now publishes Derbyshire’s writing and shares his podcast, Radio Derb. Derbyshire also wrote the 2009 book We are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism.
Falk heard about the event on Tuesday Feb. 16, noticed the Facebook event on Wednesday and then sent the email canceling the event last Thursday morning. Shortly after the speaker was announced, students protested using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Yik Yak, labeling Derbyshire, who calls himself a “novelist, pop-math author, reviewer and opinion journalist” on his website, a white supremacist and racist. “The truth is that I made this decision before I heard from practically any students, faculty, staff or alumni. I might have had no more than two or three messages of concern,” Falk said. “It was really made independently of any expression of concern by anyone else – it was my concern, and the concern of others on the senior staff, that entirely drove the decision.”
“It was really his decision,” Dean of the College Sarah Bolton said. “I support it. I think that free speech is incredibly important and is also not the only important thing in looking out for the well-being of a community.”
In the fall, UL invited Suzanne Venker, a controversial writer who speaks against feminism, to campus and later uninvited her due to student opposition. After this series of events, Falk wrote an op-ed piece in the Record stating, “Whatever our own views may be, we should be active in bringing to campus speakers whose opinions are different from our own” [“How to disagree,” Oct. 28, 2015].
Bolton said, “It’s my sense that President Falk would not have cancelled Suzanne Venker, and that reaffirms my point that John Derbyshire is in a category of his own relative to these other speakers.”
“In the fall, I said I would never cancel a speaker. I meant that. I never thought we would see someone as overtly racist and white supremacist asked to come speak at the College,” Falk said. “Suzanne Venker expresses ideas that I happen to profoundly disagree with, but they’re ideas that in a college one ought to be able to discuss. John Derbyshire doesn’t bring ideas, John Derbyshire brings racist rantings.”
Falk stated his belief in the importance of having a community where everyone can discuss challenging ideas, and “we don’t put an ideological filter on who comes.” He clarified that he does not believe that giving a speaker a place to speak on campus is an endorsement of their views. That being said, he does not believe the College is required to give everyone with views such as Derbyshire’s a platform.
“Somewhere there’s a line, and he’s on the other side of it. [It would be] very destructive to our community for someone who expresses himself in that vituperative way to come,” Falk said.
Derbyshire does not “take seriously the humanity of whom he is speaking, certainly not people of color,” Falk said, which the president believes made productive discussion impossible.
“There is a media narrative that college students don’t want to hear anything they disagree with and they react to challenging ideas by shutting their ears,” Falk said. “I don’t think Williams students at all are trying to hide from challenging, difficult ideas, but I think it’s an easy story for the media to tell. When people say ‘I don’t like political correctness,’ it’s often a code for ‘I want to say something that’s offensive, and it turns out that I can’t say that now without people objecting.’”
UL is an unofficial student organization funded by anonymous donors. It was created three years ago.
“What Uncomfortable Learning tries to do is bring speakers to the College who the College might not bring themselves,” Zach Wood ’18, president of the club, said. “The first thing that I really want to say is that I am very sympathetic to the concerns that students had who didn’t want Derbyshire to come. I think that the emotional responses are very real and very important.”
UL decides on speakers by first determining what subjects they would like to cover. It then searches for speakers who would be able to cover the topics. Wood asserted that UL is open to suggestions from the entire student body.
“I believe that at Williams College, an institution of higher education, intellectual freedom and freedom of speech is very important, and I think that those are principles of which our education is grounded in,” Wood said. “It is important in our world to engage with, and try to understand, opinions that not just differ from yours, but radically differ from yours. Even if something is offensive, I personally think that there is something that can be learned from it.”
Em Nuckols ’16 created a Facebook event for a workshop entitled “Challenging Conversations” in response to the UL event. Nuckols sought to provide a space for students to discuss and practice rhetorical strategies for dealing with oppression and controversy. Despite the fact that the lecture was cancelled, the event occurred on Sunday afternoon with the same goals in mind.
Students first divided into small groups, introduced themselves and stated why they had come. They then discussed various situations where it might be necessary, or the opportunity may arise, to challenge someone’s views, from classroom situations to larger events such as forums with the Board of Trustees. The event concluded with a role-play in which students formulated and voiced their opinions about certain issues that could arise at a Board of Trustees event.
“I wanted to help prepare people if they wanted to go to the Derbyshire event or if they wanted to engage with other manifestations of white supremacy on campus. I wanted to hopefully give them some skills for communicating their points effectively. I’m not an expert. I just wanted to see what I could do,” Nuckols said.
In response to the Falk’s cancellation of the event, Nuckols said, “I think it was very positive that it was canceled. I think that it is extremely harmful to have someone who has extraordinarily uneducated views on people’s humanity … There’s no place for that here.”
Derbyshire would not disclose how much he was going to be paid to speak at the College or where he has delivered lectures in the past year.
“I think it’s a shame. I was looking forward to a lively discussion afterwards. I like lively discussions,” Derbyshire said.
VDARE published the speech he purportedly planned to deliver at the College (“Derb’s canceled Williams College Hate Address – “ The National Question: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the 21st Century,” Feb. 21, 2016). The speech published on VDARE discusses the relationship of race, ethnicity and identity to immigration patterns globally, concluding with commentary on race relations in United States specifically. After commenting on immigration between “Third World” and “First World” countries, Derbyshire questions the narrative that poverty and crime within African-American communities “at both the national and subnational level… is the fault of whites,” asserting instead that is a failure of the black population. “[Ta-Nehisi Coates and Al Sharpton] are, in the plain ecological sense, are parasites on their non-black fellow citizens,” he wrote. “The revealed preference of blacks everywhere today is to live in white societies, an implicit admission that they can’t create pleasant societies of their own and are dependent on other races for a decent living standard.”
Derbyshire also references Charles Murray, the next speaker UL has invited, after claiming that “genetic variation that characterizes different races might tend to result in different societies.”
Murray, author of The Bell Curve, is scheduled to come to the College this spring. He believes that race and class are linked to intelligence. Falk has no plans to cancel Murray’s visit.
“It’s actually instructive to compare [him] directly with Derbyshire. Charles Murray has never written anything, to my knowledge, like Derbyshre’s ‘The Talk.’ I don’t agree with what he says, I haven’t agreed with much of what he has said for 20 years, but he’s a scholar,” Falk said. He hopes that people start a civil and constructive argument with Murray when he comes.
Falk said, “If I were an agent of the government, I would take a more absolutist view about what speech is protected. If I were a governor of a state, I would protect that speech. But this isn’t that. Williams is a college and the value that we have is creating and preserving a community in which difficult and serious discussion of controversial issues can take place. Almost always that is best fostered by simply bringing the widest range of views into the public sphere. In this case, my strongly held opinion is that John Derbyshire’s appearance would have had the opposite effect, with respect to talking about difficult issues of race that we need to talk about.”
Correction: Feb. 24, 2016, 3:57 p.m.
John Derbyshire’s quote regarding Al Sharpton and Ta-Nehisi Coates was originally edited in a way that misrepresented its intended meaning. The article has been amended to include the full quote.
Correction: Feb. 25, 2016, 1:14 p.m.
A part of Em Nuckols’ quote supporting the cancellation that said Derbyshire calls himself a white supremacist has been removed. Derbyshire wrote that white supremacy is “not bad semantically” and “one of the better arrangements History has come up with,” (“Who Are We?–The Dissident Right?” VDARE, May 10, 2012) but we could find no instance of Derbyshire referring to himself as a white supremacist.