Two wrongful actions do not cancel each other out. Yes, the decision of Uncomfortable Learning (UL) to invite John Derbyshire to speak, establishing a pattern of selecting speakers who target minority groups, was belligerent and insulting. But no, President Adam Falk should not have cancelled the event. In doing so, he infringed upon every student’s freedoms, failed to address the problem in any meaningful way and set a dangerous precedent for treating different forms of bias inconsistently.
Derbyshire’s speech is hostile to the College’s ethos and to many members of its community. He has defended white supremacy and challenged women’s right to vote, among other racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments.
If UL is intent on continuing to evaluate speakers purely based on shock value, it should drop “Learning” from its name. Bigots, by nature, cannot be reasoned with or debated; it is unlikely that their speech could be of educational value. Students do not need UL to teach them that there is hate and bias in the world – many have experienced it firsthand at the College, at home or elsewhere. Venker’s and Derbyshire’s ideas have no academic legitimacy, and this community cannot gain anything from hearing them speak. They represent an unfortunate departure from previous UL speakers, such as Richard Vedder, who gave an economic critique of the minimum wage, and Mike Needham ’04, whose policy advocacy organization opposes the Affordable Care Act. These speakers have conservative views, not hateful ones. Unfortunately, UL’s poor student leadership thinks a sexist or a racist could add value to campus dialogues.
The students and alumni behind UL do not seem to have the College community’s best interests in mind. They aim to attract attention to themselves and cause controversy for its own sake, even if that means offending the very humanity of most people at Williams and casting the College in an undeservedly bad light. Bringing these speakers is their privilege, but it is a privilege made possible only by wealthy alumni, and a privilege that is offensive and harmful to many members of the community, particularly minority students, who were the targets of UL’s most recent speakers. It would take only the smallest amount of compassion for UL to give up this privilege; yet, the group has offered no evidence that it plans to do so.
It is easy to recognize that UL’s decision to invite Derbyshire was antagonistic and counterproductive, and it is natural to feel relieved that Falk prevented him from speaking here. In truth, however, the cancellation is also a disservice to the College.
Those in the College community should want it to be a space where people respect each other’s identities, especially those of groups who are already victims of discrimination and prejudice. The College will not be such a space until UL willingly stops paying bigots like Derbyshire to come here. But Falk’s cancellation does nothing to foster such a community either. True progress can only be achieved with more speech, not less. Offensive speech is a symptom of intolerance and ignorance, not the problem itself. It is better to have bias out in the open where the College’s intelligent and tireless student activists can challenge it. If hateful speech is to be brought to our campus, the administration should use its resources, like those offered through the Davis Center, for example, to support victims of hateful speech and engage in other efforts to address bias on campus. In this way, the community could use incidents like the Derbyshire invitation as a jumping-off point to address institutional and social problems, including increasing diversity in admissions and faculty hiring, combatting sexual assault and increasing sensitivity in the classroom.
When Falk cancelled the Derbyshire event, he breached UL’s freedom of speech. In a vacuum that could be defensible, as Derbyshire’s speech is hurtful and unproductive, but freedom of speech is indivisible. Falk’s infringement on UL’s freedom of speech is an infringement on every student’s freedom of speech. Falk has made it so that the administration has the power to decide what speech is acceptable, and it would be naïve to think that speech codes used to protect students from offensive speech will never be used against them. Without a doubt, the nation’s college administrators have been and continue to be intolerant and misguided at times.
There is already reason to be concerned about Falk making himself the arbiter of acceptable speech. In this role, he has begun to decide the comparative importance of sexism, racism and other prejudices. Falk’s opinions on Venker and Derbyshire are polar opposites, even though their views are both damaging and largely worthless. In the op-ed he wrote after UL uninvited Venker (“How to disagree,” Oct. 28, 2015), Falk expressed his dissatisfaction with student protest.
“Williams has a long history of inviting controversial speakers to campus and no history of uninviting them, and this is a point of absolute principle,” Falk wrote. “Ours is an institution of higher learning; such learning cannot occur without broad and enthusiastic exposure to a wide range of ideas and perspectives. And certainly the invitation of a speaker to campus isn’t in and of itself an endorsement.”
Falk’s all-campus email said the opposite.
“We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community,” Falk said. “… [A]t times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community.”
Falk has drawn “the line” for us. Apparently, it is somewhere between Venker and Derbyshire. Inviting a speaker to campus “isn’t in and of itself an endorsement” in Venker’s case, but if Derbyshire is the speaker, Falk’s action seems to indicate that this would constitute a promotion of his speech. Neither one’s views are legally hate speech – only speech that is intended to and likely to incite immediate violence is – but now the definition of hate speech at the College includes Derbyshire’s views and excludes Venker’s. Falk’s responses to sexism and racism have been inconsistent. At best, the administration has no “absolute principles” and is merely trying to minimize the understandable criticism it gets from students, alumni and the media. At worst, Falk does not take sexism as seriously as other forms of bias.
The true loser in all this is the student body. In addition to the loss of academic freedom, students at the College will once again be subject to accusations of being coddled, levied by conservative bloggers who perpetuate the stereotype of the “whiny minority student.” Some alumni and students agree with that assessment. But the students who spoke out against the Derbyshire event do not deserve this unfair representation. Derbyshire is a despicable figure. It is perfectly reasonable to be upset and angered by your classmate inviting him to speak, and to want him to never set foot on campus. In fact, voicing this dissent is every much a right of free speech as the act of inviting him in the first place. Where the administration failed, student activists did the difficult and important work of organizing a forum to discuss UL and Derbyshire in a productive way and, for this, they deserve a great deal of credit.
Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Legally, UL can invite a bigot to speak, and Falk can forbid it. Both did, neither should have and the College is worse off for it.