There are rules for a reason: Uncomfortable Learning needs to reinvent itself as a registered group

February 24, 2016 by Natalee Dawson

Here we are, folks, on the other side of a second Uncomfortable Learning (UL) time-suck. It took a lot of deep breaths to ride this one out, and now it’s time to rein it in. There’s a solution to all this mess: good old regulation.

I think by now it’s clear that the issues with UL go beyond John Derbyshire himself; its hamartia is the untempered ill judgment of its current leadership. These students operate without a faculty advisor and appear to be funded entirely by a squad of conservative alumni (What is the group noun for that demographic? An annoyance?). The funding from these alumni goes directly unchecked into the linty pockets of drones like Derbyshire. When this advisor-free leadership model worked in the past, it was merely a spell of good fortune. The previous incarnation of UL brought legitimate speakers like Michael Needham ’04 of Heritage Action for America, whose opinions are firmly right-of-center but whose relationship with reality is far less casual than Derbyshire’s. Now it seems that the tides of student leadership have turned in a frothier direction.

The College has the right to demand that a group affiliated, but not registered, with the institution shape up or be disbanded. They’ve done it before. Remember all the frat parties you never go to? In the decades after the dissolution of fraternities at the College, unofficial frats would surface, like blisters, and be broken. One of the College’s multiple declarations against fraternities (see the policies page of the school website) ended in the following clarifying statement: “To avoid misunderstanding, we wish to make clear our support for the rights of students to form or join any of the many formal or informal groups that are appropriate to this college community and consistent with the College’s educational program.” It is when these values are violated that the place of a group, formal or informal, within the College is called into question – as it should be now.

A fraternity it is not, but UL, as it exists today, has made a strong, nearly yearlong argument against its being “appropriate to this college community.” The opinions of Derbyshire, too, are inconsistent with the College’s educational program, which thankfully strives to avoid white supremacist screeds. It’s precisely this kind of ground-floor human decency that makes the College what it is, and gives the good people over at Forbes carpal tunnel singing its praises.

Which reminds me: The current UL is also a public relations nightmare. The College has been in the news twice in the past school year as a result of this merry band of agitators, whose affiliation with the College is that they happen to go there. All this media attention may be deserved, but I think reporters are burying the lede: The College is allowing a pseudo-intellectual group – more infatuated with its maverick status than the noble calling to which it lays claim – to run amok, beholden to none of the rules that govern student organizations. Look, an informal group is not always a bad thing. The concept itself is benign. If the Beekeeping Club were to unshackle itself from College Council (CC), the honey would still taste as sweet. But if the beekeepers then were to cultivate a colony of killer bees, we might regret allowing them to live outside the law.

I’m not saying that UL should be shut down, or even that its leaders should do penance. UL should be given the chance for reincarnation among CC’s registered student groups. This could only improve UL, not just because the bar is toe-stubbingly low, but also because the founding idea of UL is squarely within the lines of the educational and communal values of the College. It was Robert Gaudino, a former political science professor, not this group, that coined the term “uncomfortable learning” at the College. Registering with CC would open UL to CC funding, which could spare its members the indignity of serving as ventriloquist’s dummies for disaffected alumni. It would also make sure that UL is equipped with a faculty advisor whose oversight could lend consistency and mitigate future blunders. (Don’t jostle each other fighting to the front of that line, professors!)

UL’s leadership has mocked its professed ideals by turning them into a kind of base performance art, but I’m not buying it; they’ve been called on their bluff twice in the current academic year. The first time, they were cowed by the discomfort that resulted from classmates’ dissent. This time, with Derbyshire, they really overshot their mark. (Good job, team. Hate speech is “uncomfortable.” It’s observations like these that keep our diploma printers busy.) The College should make moves to bring UL under the umbrella of CC. At the very least, it should continue making decisions like the one it made on Thursday.

A private institution is within its rights to reify its values through policy. That’s how Deep Springs gets its students to herd cattle. There are all kinds of things you can do outside the purple bubble that are impermissible within. In the rest of America, for example, you can own a slingshot and fear no consequences beyond a misfired stone. Not so at the College – look it up. Likewise, in the rest of America, one can stand on a stack of milk crates shouting hateful inanities. Not so at the College.

And that makes me, at least, conservatively optimistic.

Natalee Dawson ’15 was an English major. She lives in Washington, D.C. 

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Mei Mei February 24, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Hilarious and refreshing! You helped make me feel a smidge more than conservatively optimistic! Love this piece!

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Simplicio February 24, 2016 at 2:54 pm

Wise words—and a perfect example of meeting speech with speech! Williams can do better; read the Woodward Report.

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senior eph February 24, 2016 at 3:57 pm

Something about UL has felt off to me, and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I knew it had something to do with their shady, undefined affiliation to the college. Thank you for helping me understand exactly what makes me uncomfortable about UL.

This is what we should be focusing on. If we don’t, this is going to keep happening and there will be NO productive conversations; no real learning. Totally reasonable for the college to step in.

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Ben Eastburn '15 February 24, 2016 at 4:40 pm

KONY 2012

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'09 Eph February 24, 2016 at 11:49 pm

This was spot on and extremely well written. Thank you!

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afalk February 25, 2016 at 11:39 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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Natalee Dawson February 25, 2016 at 1:44 pm

You and I have very different ideas of what constitutes “interesting” and “thoughtful.” Derbyshire’s writing–not unlike yours, Internet Ghost–is worryingly disjointed and nonsensical. He places alongside one another documents whose only connection is that they are all written in English; the only intellectual discomfort this talk inspires is boredom.

And since I’m already here, I might as well offer a correction to your statement: He did not write that hodgepodge in advance of the cancellation. See the Berkshire Eagle one week ago, on 2/18 (three days before the talk you link to was posted):

“Wood said the fireworks are partially a misunderstanding, that Derbyshire was supposed to speak about his support for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy and his views on immigration. The title of the event, Wood noted, was “National Identity: Race, ethnicity and identity in the 21st Century.”

Derbyshire said he wasn’t aware that they had settled on a topic, “but I’m sure I could have spoken eloquently about that.”

To my mind, it seems pretty obvious that this was written after the cancellation occurred.

By the way, the Williams library contains many books by “lunatics.” It contains offensive books, moronic books, and tedious books. They are free to remain, collecting dust. Just like your dictionary, which would certainly contest your definition of “interesting.”

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Howard February 25, 2016 at 4:56 pm

“UL’s leadership has mocked its professed ideals by turning them into a kind of base performance art, but I’m not buying it; they’ve been called on their bluff twice in the current academic year. The first time, they were cowed by the discomfort that resulted from classmates’ dissent. This time, with Derbyshire, they really overshot their mark. (Good job, team. Hate speech is “uncomfortable.” It’s observations like these that keep our diploma printers busy.) The College should make moves to bring UL under the umbrella of CC. At the very least, it should continue making decisions like the one it made on Thursday.”

Isn’t this construction by UL in part a challenge to the college as a form of protest against censorship? As a way of forcing the Williams Administration to admit they will censor certain speakers- even thought in the past they have not? Does that change the narrative- if viewed as a right to protest the omnipotence censorship?

How does this relate to the new committee that is designed to consider the censorship of historic monuments on campus?

Also- it is worth considering how this narrative of censorship at elite schools is being coopted by the far right to label organizations like BLM. In some ways, Williams and other schools are playing into the hands of the those who want to take the topic off of race, class, and enforcement of law.

Things to consider.

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Charles Kronick February 27, 2016 at 12:28 am

“In the rest of America, for example, you can own a slingshot and fear no consequences beyond a misfired stone”

For an argument built out of pure example, you chose a bad one there. I recall far more freedom to wantonly destroy things during my days at Williams than I could ever dream of doing now.

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Natalee Dawson February 27, 2016 at 10:48 am

Fair enough, regarding that last point.

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Charles kronick February 27, 2016 at 7:53 pm

All in jest of course, except for busted lips, windows, cupboards, lamps, and more things than I can count. Try slinging a rock on my street today Anthe gendarmes will present protly. Thanks for your amusing and fun commentary.

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Howard February 27, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Ha!

Williams college, where breaking furniture in dorms and then haaving custodial workers clean the mess is more accepted than speech we disagree with.

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Charles kronick February 27, 2016 at 8:03 pm

Not even yet old enough to feel a smidgen of shame. I learnt so much about the relationship of matter and antimatter during my freshman year which still serves me well and serves as a solid foundation for building.

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Charles kronick February 27, 2016 at 8:00 pm

Pardon my spelling there. A drop too much? I also misread your reference to small arms. That’s a chip off on me.

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John C. Drew, Ph.D. February 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I can’t imagine anything worse than “regulating” the Uncomfortable Learning group. Instead, the folks at Williams College need to grow up, understand the implications of liberal totalitarianism, and courageously open up intellectual boundaries so students can safely explore race realism or alt-right philosophy without fear of being kicked out of the school. When so many are fascinated with the implications and evidence behind race realism, it seems silly to suddenly announce that no one is allowed to talk about it except through an anonymous Yik Yak chat application.

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