Eric L. Davis: Counter poor thinking with reason

Last week, protesters at Middlebury College shouted down Charles Murray and prevented him from speaking on his book “Coming Apart,” the plight of the white working class, and the election of Donald Trump. After Murray presented his comments in a video forum with Professor Allison Stanger, a mob, some of whose members were wearing masks to conceal their faces, assaulted Murray and Stanger as they were entering a car. Most of those who shouted down Murray, and perhaps a few of those who attacked Murray and Stanger, were Middlebury College students.
One day later, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was heckled by pro-Russia MPs as she addressed the Serbian parliament in Belgrade. Holding signs reading “Serbia Doesn’t Trust Brussels,” and shouting “Russia! We don’t need the EU!” these members tried to prevent Mogherini from speaking. She was able to complete her remarks.
I am dismayed that members of the Middlebury College community treated a visiting speaker in ways comparable to parliamentarians in a fragile democracy backsliding to authoritarianism, rather than as members of a liberal arts college community committed to robust discussion of the widest range of ideas. Anger against Donald Trump and his misguided policies, or Murray’s views on racial issues, does not excuse what happened last week.
Preventing Murray from speaking also parallels some disturbing trends in American politics over the past year. The enraged crowd chanting slogans against Murray seemed to me not unlike the enraged crowds at Trump’s rallies shouting “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, or directing racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or other hateful comments to members of the media. At least the Middlebury administrators on the platform last Thursday tried to defend freedom of speech for unpopular views.
There will need to be a thoughtful response to, and reflection about, the events of last Thursday, both on the Middlebury campus and in the academic community nationwide. At one level, in instances where those students who were most responsible for the shouting and intimidation in the hall can be identified, the filing of college disciplinary charges would be appropriate.
Even more important would be filing charges against any students who can be identified as being among those responsible for setting off fire alarms in the building in which the event was held, assaulting Murray and Stanger, and preventing the departure of the car in which they were riding. In these latter instances, if any students are found guilty after a hearing in which they will be entitled to procedural protections, the student-faculty judicial panel should consider imposing the full range of available sanctions, up to and including expulsion. A Middlebury police investigation might also result in criminal charges being filed against some individuals.
Beyond disciplinary charges, however, there needs to be a full discussion, on the Middlebury campus and in the academy at large, about the importance of maintaining colleges and universities as places where civil and reasoned discourse on controversial matters of public interest can flourish. We obviously live in a society that is very polarized around many politically related topics, and last year’s election and its aftermath have only intensified this polarization.
In March of 1801, Thomas Jefferson delivered his first inaugural address following an election that was even more fraught than the one just past. Speaking to the assembled members of Congress and others, Jefferson said, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” In a highly-polarized environment, reason combatting error of opinion continues to be a principle of the highest importance.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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