Columns, Opinions

Johnson ’19: Empathy for Middlebury

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Headlines about the visit of controversial libertarian and political scientist Charles Murray to Middlebury College March 2 were sensational and full of click-bait. The swirling media storm, which included titles such as “‘Bell Curve’ Author Attacked by Protesters at Middlebury College” and “How Middlebury College Enabled the Riot,” leaned toward harsh critiques of the student protesters. Many of those critiques are fair and can help create productive discourse between people with differing ideologies. But to progress toward that open and inclusive discourse, we need to develop a more nuanced view of the protests that does more than simply vilify the student protesters. We need to look at the incident with more empathy and respect toward the protesters’ deep-rooted and valid concerns. The prominent narratives in the media, however, fall short.

Critics of the Middlebury protesters depict the protest as uninformed because many of the protesters had not read Murray’s work. While that criticism is completely valid ­— we should never embrace anti-intellectualism — it was also a generalization: There were, in fact, students in the room who had read Murray’s material. Inspired by Middlebury Professor Matt Dickinson’s preliminary presentations on Murray’s most controversial book, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” students placed critical pamphlets on every chair in the hall.  That Middlebury lecture room should not be portrayed as an uninformed and disengaging crowd, even though there were some who refused to directly read Murray’s writing. And can protesters really be blamed from wanting to avoid reading Murray’s controversial and offensive material? It might have been a flawed way to engage in protest, but it is also understandable. The protesters were not just stereotypical coddled liberals promoting safe spaces and denying free speech; they were protesting the presentation of pseudoscientific white nationalism, which does not merit critical reading or analysis. As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, “Bell Curve” proposes that differences in IQ are linked to race and genetics. This is an egregious theory. Instead of condemning the crowd as intellectual cowards, we should try to empathize with the justifiable anger of the protesters.

Another common narrative among critics is that physical resistance is a flawed means of protest. While students did not have the chance to personally debate with Murray in an open discussion, protesters had every right to assertively demonstrate and voice their opinion. Taking up space and making noise toward a speaker whose research has been used to support arguments that some humans are genetically inferior is warranted. The protest was an important means of questioning the decisions of the Middlebury administration. The event, while proposed by a student organization, expanded to include president and professor introductions — it occurred with the blessing of the college president. That deserves questioning, and not just through the “rhetorical resilience” that Middlebury administration promotes. Certainly the protest should not have devolved into violence and left Professor Allison Stanger with a serious injury, but the students weren’t in the wrong by choosing to protest.

Moreover, the mainstream media and social media posts painted a grisly picture of malicious Middlebury students. In reflecting on the event, Murray himself described the protest with hyperbolic and unnecessary language. He referred to the protesting audience as “intellectual thugs” and described “their eyes as crazed and their expressions as snarls.”   Stanger’s Facebook post, while completely understandable, also used language that inflated the narrative of violence. She claimed that the scene resembled a “Baghdad scene from Homeland” and students “had effectively dehumanized” her, yet did not mention that Murray’s work left many students feeling dehumanized as well. The violence was inexcusable, but depictions like these are counterproductive.

Finally, commentators claim that Middlebury students rejected an opportunity to expand their views, but the talk would hardly have done so. When reading the inflated defenses and criticisms of the Middlebury protests, I stumbled across the online quiz “Do you live in a bubble?” and took it. The quiz  was supposed to replicate an exercise from Murray’s book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” by evaluating superficial questions, such as beer preference and varsity letter awards, to predict your exposure to average “American mainstream culture.” The culture in the quiz of course excludes diverse experiences. By taking this quiz, I confronted Murray’s discourse, but do I believe that it was a productive or enlightening experience? Not at all. Murray’s ideas are based on such insular assumptions and poor reasoning that they don’t broaden perspectives — they simply propagate misinformation.

We should absolutely continue the dialogue on Middlebury and its implications for free speech in other colleges. We can learn from those events and make sure that our advocacy is more understanding and effective. Yet we also need to ensure that our discussion tackles the issue with more compassion and less judgment. The political atmosphere across the country is more contentious than ever before, and we can’t afford more sensational and inflammatory media projections than we already have.

Grace Johnson ’19 can be reached at grace_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.