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Editorial: College incident a metaphor for what's ailing our country

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Posted on March 6, 2017 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



There is much to regret at the Middlebury College event last Thursday in which controversial author Charles Murray was shouted down by student protesters, and which further interrupted a taped interview with Murray by Professor Allison Stanger. It is the hallmark of liberal academic institutions that controversial viewpoints are engaged, debated and challenged. To deny such engagement, even when the speaker’s views are soundly rejected by most in attendance, undermines the very essence of academic learning and of free speech.

As President Laurie Patton said in addressing the students before Murray was to give his talk: “If ever there was a time for Americans to take on arguments that offend us, it is now. If there ever was a time for us to challenge influential public views with better reasons, better research, better logic and better data, it is now. If ever there was a time we need to argue back, to declare ourselves committed to arguing for a better society, it is now… The very premise of free speech on this campus is that the speaker has a right to be heard.”

But the protesters were not to be denied their planned opposition. They read en masse from a written script, then proceeded to repeat chants over and over for the next 20 minutes until college officials announced their alternative plan to move to another location and broadcast a live interview with Prof. Stanger, but even then the protesters made it difficult to conduct the interview. That the environment became so unruly that Stanger was injured by a masked protester, who grabbed her hair and by another who twisted her neck, demonstrates how quickly highly charged demonstrations can get out of hand.

No doubt, many students who were part of shutting down Murray’s speech, regret the mob violence that rocked the car Murray and Stanger were ushered into, and regret that Stanger was grabbed and injured. And in the light of the next morning, no doubt they regret the dishonor their actions have cast upon the college. Perhaps many are also wishing they had thought of a better way to make their legitimate point, but without discrediting themselves in the process.

It can be a fine line between civil disobedience and anarchy.

As the college community finds a way to move forward, and tries to determine who the masked protesters were that seemed to be at the root of the violence, Prof. Stanger offered an important insight from her personal perspective that she shared on a Facebook post on Sunday, from which we extract two paragraphs below:

“I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community,” Stanger wrote. “There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange, but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair-pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen, and they were stranded outside the doors. I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters….

“To people who wish to spin this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, you are mistaken. Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what is wrong with our country, and on that, Charles Murray and I would agree. This was the saddest day of my life. We have got to do better by those who feel and are marginalized. Our 230-year constitutional democracy depends on it, especially when our current President is blind to the evils he has unleashed. We must all realize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic. That is why I do not regret my involvement in the event with Dr. Murray. But as we find a way to move forward, we should also hold fast to the wisdom of James Baldwin, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”

Well said. 

Angelo Lynn

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