The Conspiracy

Shutting Down Charles Murray Wasn’t a Free Speech Issue

We’ve made a lot of headlines recently at Middlebury College. Most news coverage of the student protest resisting controversial speaker Charles Murray has been discouraging and demeaning – “Violent Student Mob in Vermont Shuts Down Charles Murray” and “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury that Gave Me a Concussion” and “The Middlebury Protest and Our World of Bubbles.”

“I believe there is great value in talking to people I disagree with.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

But these flashy clickbait titles somehow fail to convey the nuances of what really happened, and the articles themselves often ignore what the student protestors actually wanted. Personally, I am all for popping the “liberal bubble.” I believe there is great value in talking to people I disagree with. If Middlebury had invited Paul Ryan or John Kasich, I would have sat and listened. But they invited Charles Murray, a pseudoscientist whom the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a “white nationalist.” A widely discredited eugenicist who claimed in his 1994 book The Bell Curve that people of color, women, and the poor are genetically inferior to white men. Murray does not deserve my respect. He spreads hateful lies and uses academia to perpetuate racist and sexist notions that deny the humanity of people I love.

For those of you who missed the story as it unfolded, here’s what happened: The American Enterprise Institute invited Charles Murray to speak and many students planned to protest. Petitions circulated asking the political science department to withdraw their co-sponsorship and asking College President Laurie Patton to cancel her introductory remarks.

On Thursday, hundreds of students lined up. Most were not able to get into the talk but watched the live video coverage like I did. When Murray got up on stage, the majority of the students in the auditorium stood, turned their backs to him and collectively read a letter explaining why he did not deserve to speak. Afterward, they chanted until administrators moved Murray to an undisclosed location, inviting people to watch him online and tweet questions.

“A racist with degrees from Harvard and MIT is still a racist.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

After the talk moved, the details are more difficult to confirm. Here’s what we know: Some protestors found the location and began to chant and bang on the window. The fire alarm was pulled three times. Campus Public Safety closed the student center to all students. After the talk, when Murray and the moderator, Professor Allison Stanger, exited the building, a group of people confronted them. During the altercation, someone grabbed Stanger by the hair. Later that night, Stanger visited the hospital for a neck injury. The majority of the violent instigators were not students, but some students may have been involved. There are also reports that Public Safety, private security, and administrators used physical force on students during the altercation.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I am a white, upper-middle-class, straight, cis-gendered woman – all factors that shape how I view of the situation. I do not condone violence, but I do not want the actions of some to distract from the peaceful protesters’ message: This is not a matter of free speech. This is a matter of inclusivity, diversity, and whose voices get a platform at my school. By allowing Charles Murray to speak, Middlebury effectively told students that eugenics and white nationalism have a place in intellectual discourse, and I do no believe that they do. The administration used his academic credentials to defend his invitation and excuse his bigotry, but that is not good enough. A racist with degrees from Harvard and MIT is still a racist.

By protesting Murray, students protested both his ideas and the historical power imbalance that plagues American higher education – one that privileges white men over women and people of color. Of the students who wanted to hear Murray speak, many expressed their desire to debate him and challenge his views. I was told not to shut someone down just because they make me uncomfortable. But the discomfort that some students welcomed in the face of Murray’s ideas is a discomfort many already feel every day because of our gender, race, sexual orientation, or class. It is a discomfort often exacerbated by the lack of diversity on this campus. The incident begs the question: At what point are we asking the same people to be uncomfortable over and over again for the sake of rhetorical resilience? How many times will racist ideologies be given a platform denied to those on the margins whose voices are most often silenced?

I resent President Patton’s emailed statement that we “failed to live up to our core values” when students disrupted Murray’s speech, because I saw students doing just that, exemplifying the values we want to see on our campus. I am proud to be a Middlebury student right now and to be able to say that at least part of my community does not stand for racist bigotry.

However, I am also deeply saddened by what happened. Murray’s presence revealed deep divides within my community – divides that already existed and won’t ever fully go away. Murray was a polarizing force, and I saw this controversy damage both friendships and professional relationships. Some have blamed protestors for this rift. I blame the administration for inviting someone whose ideas further marginalize minority groups on campus. I blame them because, instead of hosting a speaker to facilitate discussion about our differences, they brought a speaker who has made future dialogues about difference that much more difficult.

But I hope students and faculty will work to pick up the pieces and delve into those challenging conversations. Because I sincerely believe you should engage the people you disagree with. I just draw the line at white supremacists.

Sarah Asch is a Middlebury College student graduating in 2019 with a major in English and creative writing and a minor in Spanish.

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  1. Before Shutting Down Speakers, Do Your Research | New Voices: The National Jewish Student Magazine - March 21, 2017

    […] New Voices last week, a great friend and classmate of mine, Sarah Asch, wrote a response to the protest of Charles Murray at Middlebury College, in which she blames the college administration for allowing Murray to […]

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