On intellectual discourse and free speech: Critiquing a cancellation and an invitation

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Well put. One of the most important roles of free speech is to challenge authority. Limiting it is nearly always the authority ‘s attempt to maintain order. That is the absolutism at work here.

    Williams can do better; read the Woodward Report.

  2. An excellent opinion through and through! Hats off to the Record on this one!! Couldn’t have said it better myself

  3. I really appreciate all of the insights the Record has offered here. Best editorial yet!

  4. Props to the Record for taking a stand.

  5. standing for both free speech and against the ludicrosity of U. Learning…good stuff here.

  6. 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. President Falk,
      Your decision to bar Derbyshire and the conclusory basis for it will likely sit prominently in the evidence pile in the debate over what line should be drawn on free speech on an enlightened campus. Importantly this debate comes at a time where presidential candidates are seen by many to share or sympathize with beliefs like those of John Derbyshire. Would today’s political climate not reinforce the benefit of airing out his views in the diverse Williams forum?
      On 10-28-15 in the Williams Record you expressed your views with specific facts and policy on the subject in your “How to argue” piece regarding a similar (Venker) controversy.
      This decision cries out for you to expound on the hard evidence that justifies barring this man. I don’t think “see for yourself” and “idiotic white lunacy” makes a fact-based case for this important decision.
      I respectfully believe that you owe it to the Williams community and to all who care about this subject to spell out in detail the “viewpoint(s)” that render Derbyshire unacceptable as a Williams speaker!
      Promulgating your factual bases will pave the way for an evidence based debate about your decision!

  7. “If you know the enemy and you know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and you know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

    You lost a chance to know your enemy. This Op Ed is cowardly, shortsighted and ignorant.

  8. A good analysis and I would suggest continuing phrasing “academic freedom” instead of Freedom of Speech, which pertains to Government constraints. At heart in these arguments is the issue brought up in “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.”

    In the spirit of academic freedom, endorsement of any speaker’s position is not on the table, but do institutions generally dispense their credibility to speakers without consideration for the speaker’s ambition or blowback on their own reputation? Falk’s decision to bar the speech resembles the National Review’s decision to summarily bar him from their presses. Both regard Derbyshire as freeloading on their brands and felt his message left their own worse for wear.

    Academic freedom aside, I think the notion that students can even propose inviting incendiary speakers to campus without first going through the administration should at least be discouraged.

  9. Race realism is an important part of our national debate. It creates useful hypotheses which provide more elegant explanations for persistent black crime, over the top violence, enduring school failure, and high levels of poverty, than the somewhat absurd hypothesis that all of these dysfunctions are caused by easy going white people living quiet lives in the suburbs.

    Race realism is a huge threat to the left because it undermines the justifications provided for affirmative action programs, white self-hate sessions, diversity officers, and other programs which assume that white behavior is the ultimate cause of problems in the black community.

    To provide real progress in the black community, we need to be realistic and focus on data and the facts — in the manner of Charles Murray.

    We need to treat people as individuals.

    At this point, Adam Falk’s decision to deny John Derbyshire an opportunity to speak at Williams College represents a decision to denigrate the role of genetics in public policy and to eliminate any thoughtful or productive exploration of such topics on the Williams College campus by professors or students.

    It is absolutely pathetic that the fragile, hyper-sensitive, easily offended student cry-babies at Williams College are unwilling to explore ideas that rock the foundation of their school and their lives. In a sense, they don’t deserve uncomfortable learning…

  10. I honestly must disagree with John Drew pee h dee. This editorial is on point!!

  11. John was denied tenure for a reason. Uncomfortable Learning is not a good thing.

    1. Doubtful you shall end up as our “most famous professor” when you spend your days trolling the website of the school newspaper and writing rejected grants

      1. You’re missing the point. The key to this is not me, it is the disturbing behavior of Williams College and its long-standing hostility to intellectual diversity.

        I’m just a small but significant point of reference that illustrates a dark and dangerous path that has placed Williams College on the wrong side of history.

        I’ve raised millions for my clients. Maybe I should start raising money to stop the hard left at places like Williams College?

  12. Overthinking it. The administration just didn’t want the heat for this. Time and energy — which we sometimes overlook are basically money — managing the consequences. Alumni, press, donors, press, etc. Explaining this would take many dozens, and maybe hundreds of man-hours. Increase in costs plus a hit in donations. A business decision.

  13. Pingback: Kids Do Dumb Things, Squared – Duane Davila

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