During the coverage of the protests against Charles Murray’s recent visit to Middlebury College, something got lost in the scuffle: the actual students.
Commenters lumped all college students into a homogeneous group as an object to condemn. But not all college students, even at an elite place like Middlebury College, are monolithic. Before criticizing them on the grounds of privilege, perhaps we should do what no one has done and try to understand why those who protested were so angry.
It was about Murray, true, but what other factors were involved? Allison Stanger, the Middlebury professor who moderated his remarks and was injured in the ensuing fracas, suggests protesters are reacting to their anxieties of life under Trump. However, it goes even deeper, to the contradictions of being a student of color at a predominantly white college and being asked to respond civilly while having one's humanity attacked.
This situation is more complex than just being an issue of free speech or diversity of ideas. Any effective response requires taking the students seriously -- which is, after all, the primary job of educators.
Many people deride students as coddled snowflakes who use safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect themselves against the big, bad outside world teeming with microaggressions. This image, always a caricature, could not be farther from the truth at Middlebury. The protesters, primarily students of color and working-class students, are hardly coddled. Life on the campus for them is and has historically been anything but easy. Students and former students frequently confront blatant and subtle forms of racism and classism. Students of color are often assumed to be on financial aid or are told they are only here because of affirmative action. Some professors make assumptions about their intellectual abilities or single them out in class to play the spokesperson on race issues. The overwhelming culture of whiteness and wealth leaves many working-class students or students of color feeling depressed and alienated.
To suggest that they needed a visit from Murray to expose them to “controversial” ideas is laughable and offensive. They confront racism and classism every day on campus. Moreover, they talk about race and class all the time, whether they want to or not -- in personal conversations, in the many courses exploring these subjects, at town hall forums recently held on the campus to address incidents of racial insensitivity, as well as at the numerous meetings organized in the days leading up to Murray’s visit. Those discussions all took place with the high level of civility many commenters assume cannot happen.
Civil discourse on hard issues does happen here, primarily through the labor of students of color and working-class students. It is an insult to call these students sheltered. They aspire to turn the campus not into a safe space, but simply a safer one. In this context, Murray’s divisive ideas offered a sharp rebuke to all their hard-won achievements to create a campus where they, too, feel they belong.
We must not confuse divisiveness for diversity. Conservatives seek to push debates on settled topics, using free speech as a club to reopen discussions long ago resolved. The primarily white faculty members and students at Middlebury feel comfortable welcoming “all debates” because they never worry about their own humanity being called into question.
If free speech can justify a platform for Murray, it also justifies students talking back. We don’t have to agree with the protesting students’ tactics to still recognize that the nonviolent demonstrators were defending speech just as much as the people now rushing to condemn them.
Actions have consequences. People use this claim to demand punishment, but it provides an even more compelling reason for considering the type of community we want. Middlebury will not punish abstract “college students,” but actual people, many of them students of color and/or from working-class backgrounds. Currently, many find themselves the targets of widespread harassment, bullying and attacks on social media and in the national press. Punishing them for making the moral choice to protest a racist provocateur would add another injury to the initial insult.
This current fight focuses on speech, but the true war is over diversity at colleges and universities. Controversial speakers are not the key to expanding the marketplace of ideas, contrary to what many have argued. In fact, the single most robust source of a broad and varied range of ideas on a campus is a student body and faculty composed of people from many diverse backgrounds. They will do the most to upend orthodoxy and challenge comfort levels. Treating divisiveness as a proxy for diversity is, at best, naïve. At worst, it is an active step to roll back progress.
Institutions like Middlebury need to change, but not in the way many people currently demand. Such colleges and universities cannot accept students, take their tuition and use them to market their diverse campus, and then refuse to recognize their individual needs. Doing so gives the impression that institutions do not want actual diversity to enhance learning but rather just want to look good publicly and improve their bottom line.
Colleges and universities have always needed to balance the goals of speech and inclusion. In the “good old days,” when faculty members looked like the students, who all looked like one another, this largely went unnoticed. Today, however, using old standards for a more diverse community does not work. The biggest danger now is a response from Middlebury that leads to a less diverse student body, one that is whiter and richer. Let’s not let that happen.
Linus Owens is an associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College. Rebecca Flores Harper is a 2011 graduate of the college and served as chair of diversity for the student government there from 2008-11. Maya Goldberg-Safir is a 2012 graduate.
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