Lisa Rathke, Associated Press
FILE— Middlebury College students turn their backs to Charles Murray, unseen, who they call a white nationalist, during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt., Thursday, March 2, 2017. Hundreds of college students on Thursday protested a lecture by a speaker they call a white nationalist, forcing the college to move his talk to an undisclosed campus location from which it was live-streamed to the original venue but couldn't be heard above protesters' chants, feet stamping and occasional smoke alarms. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)
College campuses should practice more civility and a bit less uncivil disobedience.
Earlier this month, Charles Murray, an author and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, visited the campus of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, at the invitation of a politically conservative student group.
Murray is a libertarian thinker who is perhaps best known for his controversial research in the 1990s suggesting that IQ is a better predictor of economic success than educational attainment or socioeconomic status of parents.
Murray was speaking, however, on another topic, class divisions in the United States, and protesters filled the auditorium to capacity to shout down Murray and prevent him from being heard.
Event organizers moved the discussion into another room to stream Murray’s presentation over the internet, but as soon as the activists discovered the new location, they began banging on windows and setting off fire alarms to stop Murray from proceeding.
They were successful.
Professor Allison Stanger, who served as the moderator of the event, was injured by the raucous crowd when she escorted Murray out of the building. “Someone pulled my hair, while others were shoving me,” Stanger wrote in an article for The New York Times. “I feared for my life.” As of this writing, she is still apparently wearing a neck brace as the result of a whiplash concussion she sustained during the scuffle.
The irony in this is that Stanger, a Democrat, described Murray in that same article as “someone with whom I disagree.” She also noted that she was able to “hear and understand the righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down.” Her piece seems to suggest that she had sympathy for the ideology of many of the protesters but was rightfully disgusted with some of the tactics being employed against a guest speaker.
“(F)or us to engage with one another as fellow human beings — even on issues where we passionately disagree — we need reason, not just emotions,” she said. “Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments. They could have challenged him in the Q. and A.
students also had the option of protesting outside, walking out of the talk or simply refusing to attend.”
Increasingly those are becoming some of the least preferred methods of dealing with disagreement on college campuses. The city of Berkeley, for example, is still reeling from the riots that preceded the canceled University of California, Berkeley, appearance of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Whether one agrees with these speakers, and we certainly do not endorse them here, it is essential that college students recognize appropriate boundaries to deal with opinions and ideas that may run contrary to their own.
Conservative professor Robert George recently joined forces with noted public intellectual and leftist social critic Cornel West to release the following joint statement which is having ripple effects through the internet, inspiring others to sign on.
The statement reads in part: “The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.” It continues, “These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs.
That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree — especially on college and university campuses.”
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There are, of course, instances in which demonstrations are justified as an expression of civil discontent. Yet, the mere presence of a speaker on a college campus with a controversial idea should never result in students potentially contravening the law by assaulting a faculty member.
For her part, Stanger argues that “constitutional democracy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another.” She is correct. Civility is not a virtue because of how well it serves people who share the same point of view. Rather, civility is a cherished value in a constitutional democracy because of how it strengthens public discourse when people disagree.