There are legitimate reasons to question to the project of "Uncomfortable Learning," a movement to bring speakers with controversial views to the Williams College campus to challenge students to question their beliefs and assumptions. The most serious problem is one of framing. Our culture already has a very strong appetite for shouting matches, horse races, and ginned-up controversy. We have a weakness for people throwing chairs at each other on Jerry Springer's stage and a disinclination towards complex ideas explained at length. Rhetorically speaking, we don't like to eat our vegetables unless someone pours nacho cheese over them for us. A movement like "Uncomfortably Speaking" risks turning that weakness into a purported virtue. Ideas don't have more value the more controversial they are; they have value despite their controversial nature. The proposition that kittens should be strangled in the public square is more provocative and controversial than the proposition that all kittens should be spayed, but that does not mean that kitten-strangling is more worthy of debate or more productive of serious thought. Picking speakers because they are controversial — rather than whether or not they are controversial — risks mistaking trolling for intellectual courage, polemicists for philosophers, entertainers for thinkers.
But there are also wholly illegitimate reasons to question Uncomfortable Learning. Williams College, predictably, has seized upon such a reason to cancel a speech by John Derbyshire, who had been invited by students to speak as part of Uncomfortable Learning. Williams College President Adam Falk explained that Williams wasn't merely disinviting Derbyshire (for the college itself didn't invite him in the first place), it was refusing to allow students to invite him on the premises:
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.
Academic officialdom has rhetorical frameworks as rigid as a haiku. Just as one must always preface an attempted polite breakup by explaining how great the other person is and how wonderful your time together has been, a discussion of some speech being acceptable must always begin with an unconvincing gesture towards free speech, the awkward and self-conscious genuflection of the nominal Catholic who goes to mass every third or fourth Easter:
Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions.
Next comes the pretense to principle — the claim that the decision is based on something other than subjective and arbitrary:
There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it. 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.
That's not a line, except in the sense of "the line is wherever I choose to draw it." "Hate speech" is whatever you want it to be; it is not a legally defined category in America. The line between hate speech and not-hate-speech is drawn by power, not analytical rigor. Could John Derbyshire be regarded as someone who indulges in hate speech under many popular subjective definitions of the term? Sure he could. But that's not what President Falk was saying. He was claiming there is a neutral and principled test. There isn't.
President Falk went on to explain that he stands in loco parentis to the nominal adults at one of America's most elite liberal arts colleges:
But at 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. This is one of those times.
President Falk's position seems to be that Williams College students can't be counted upon to deal with John Derbyshire's views themselves — whether by ignoring him as a puerile race-grumbler unworthy of their time, or by refuting him and his fans. Maybe he's right.
I probably wouldn't bother to attend Derbyshire's speech, myself. If I wanted to read warmed-over turn-of-the-twentieth-century junk-science self-satisfied "race realism" smugly presented as something new and daring, I'd go on Twitter and bait Trump supporters. Derbyshire strikes me as an excellent illustration of my opening point: being contrarian and controversial is not the same as having something worthwhile to say. Derb is the just the reactionary-curmudgeon version of the performance artist who strips down and smears chocolate and bean sprouts over her body: lots of belabored attention-seeking transgression and not much substance, and swiftly tedious. I question the seriousness of the people who thought he would provoke worthwhile academic debate. Williams College and its President Adam Falk had an excellent opportunity to make that point. They could have challenged the Uncomfortable Learning people to articulate what exactly separates Derbyshire from your idiot cousin you sends you the Obama-is-a-Kenyan emails or from cranks on Reddit, other than an English accent and a thin veneer of literary tradition. Instead, they chose to proclaim that Williams College students are weak children who require protection.
That's pretty insulting, if you ask me. But I didn't go to Williams.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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