The college, the speech and the angry mob
Two weeks ago a student protest against a conservative sociologist turned violent. It was the latest in a long line of free speech rows at universities. Should such protests be tolerated?
Dr. Charles Murray, a conservative author and sociologist, arrived at Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont. Two students had asked him to speak about his new book on the gulf between the white elite and the white working class. They felt their college would benefit from hearing his point of view.
But many of their fellow students disagreed. A mob of protesters greeted Murray in the lecture hall. Their objections centred around a book he had written in 1994 called The Bell Curve, and its most controversial argument: that the persistence of poverty and high crime rates in parts of America’s black community may be partly due to differences in IQ.
Students held up banners exclaiming: “Resist white supremacist here,” and chanted: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay: Charles Murray, go away!” In the end his talk had to move to a secure room where a livestream was set up. But even here, protesters tried to disrupt the event by banging on windows and setting off fire alarms.
Interviewing him was Allison Stanger, a left-wing professor at the university. In an article for The New York Times, she explained how, despite disagreeing with Murray, she felt “a commitment to a free and fair exchange of views”.
When they left the building, she writes: “Someone pulled my hair, while others were shoving me. Once we got into the car, protesters climbed on it, hitting the windows and rocking it. I am still wearing a neck brace, and spent a week in a dark room to recover from concussion caused by the whiplash.”
According to Stanger, “Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point,” and nowhere is this more clear than at universities. When right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at UC Berkeley in February, protesters threw Molotov cocktails and clashed with riot police.
The right to protest is one of the foundations of any free and democratic society. But do these fervent — and sometimes violent — protests amount to a “celebration of ignorance”, as Stanger believes?
Agree to disagree
Of course, say some. The vast majority of the demonstrators had probably never read anything by Charles Murray, but were whipped up into a frenzy of rage by a modern campus culture that laughs at the idea of universal free speech. These protesters are rejecting reasoned opinion and civilised debate in favour of blind ideology.
Not true, reply others. These people were well aware of Murray’s beliefs, and their actions were born out of a reasonable desire to prevent a bigot from having a platform. The majority did not engage in violent intimidation, but simply wanted to keep their campus a welcoming place for the people Murray has disparaged.
- Are violent protests ever justified?
- What is more important to you: freedom or inclusion?
- Class debate: “The best way to combat extreme views is to give them as much publicity as possible.”
- Read an article by someone with profoundly different opinions from your own, and write a 200 page summary of the arguments made in the article.
Some People Say...
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”George Orwell
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Charles Murray was invited to give a talk at Middlebury College on Friday March 2nd. But his talk was prevented by a large group of protesters in the lecture hall who objected to his views on race. When Murray left the college, he was charged by an angry mob.
- What don’t we know?
- Whether Murray really is prejudiced. He rejects the label, but he has explicitly said: “A lot of poor people are born lazy,” and believes that genetics and intelligence are the best predictors of factors like wealth and crime.
- What is believed?
- That many young Americans are unwilling, and possibly incapable, of confronting views with which they disagree. But the protesters believe that they are simply doing their bit in order to rid the world of unpleasant views.
- Liberal arts
- Subjects or skills which, since classical antiquity, have been considered essential for a free person to be able to take part in society.
- A small, relatively affluent state in the northeastern United States.
- An intelligence quotient is a total score derived from several tests designed to assess human intelligence. The term was coined by the German psychologist William Stern.
- Milo Yiannopoulos
- A British media personality, who has been resident in America as an editor for Breitbart News from which he resigned in February. Known for his highly provocative views, especially on Islam and feminism, he has become a target for the No Platform movement which bans controversial speakers from universities. In July last year, he was permanently banned from Twitter after inciting abuse of African-American actress Leslie Jones.
- The protesters included members of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), an American militant left-wing civil rights group that organises demonstrations and frequently clashes with police.