Discord at Middlebury: Students on the Anti-Murray Protests

Discord at Middlebury: Students on the Anti-Murray Protests
New York Times On Campus, 2017-03-07

Last week, a guest lecture at Middlebury College by Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was disrupted by hundreds of student protesters. Allison Stanger, a political science professor at the college, subsequently interviewed Mr. Murray at an alternate location on campus. As they left the second venue, they were violently confronted by masked protesters, and Ms. Stanger was injured. On Campus reached out to several students to reflect on the event.

Will DiGravio, Film & Media Studies and English, ’19

The debate on Middlebury’s campus about Charles Murray’s lecture began roughly a week before the talk, after the student newspaper where I am an editor published an Op-Ed by members of the school’s American Enterprise Institute Club. It urged students to come and “argue” with Murray, who was going to speak about his 2012 book “Coming Apart,” which focuses on the decline of the white working class. The president of Middlebury, Laurie L. Patton, was set to introduce him, and a political science professor, Allison Stanger, would lead a Q. and A.

Hundreds of students and alumni signed letters calling Murray’s appearance at the college unacceptable and unethical, and over 55 faculty members requested that President Patton not introduce “a discredited ideologue.”

Phil Hoxie, Economics, ’17

I helped organize the lecture through Middlebury’s American Enterprise Institute Club. Mr. Murray was invited to discuss his 2012 book, “Coming Apart,” about class divisions in the United States — a topic that is particularly prescient given the recent political changes in the country.

Edward O’Brien, Economics and French, ’17

The anger over the event was really about Murray’s previous book, “The Bell Curve.” In that work, Murray and his co-author, Richard Herrnstein, argued that a high I.Q. is the most important predictor of individual success. Low I.Q., they argued, is to blame for poverty, welfare dependency, crime and unwed pregnant mothers. The book also seemed to endorse a dangerous theory of genetic superiority: At the time it was published, the average I.Q. of black people was 15 points below whites, but the authors dismissed the idea that it could be caused by bias in testing. There is also lots of debate about whether I.Q. scores even have scientific merit.

Elizabeth Siyuan Lee, Philosophy, ’17

For too long, a flawed notion of “free speech” has allowed individuals in positions of power to spread racist pseudoscience in academic institutions, dehumanizing and subjugating people of color and gender minorities. While I defend Murray’s right to speak his mind, the fact that the college provided an elevated platform for him did more harm than good. To that effect, I do not think Middlebury made sufficient avenues for students to engage with the implications of Mr. Murray’s ideas.

First, the event was co-sponsored by the political science department and featured opening remarks by the president of the College, elevating the speaker’s institutional legitimacy. While students have the right to bring speakers of all kinds to campus, the university itself must be responsible and academically honest when giving such events a show of approval through cosponsorship. Much of Murray’s work is not peer-reviewed and his assertions are not scientifically proven.

Second, and more important, the format of Murray’s talk did not allow for equal discussion. Were students, especially students of color, expected to just sit and listen for 45 minutes to an individual who has written that they are inferior to whites? Do Asians have to accept Murray’s assertions that we have “higher IQ’s” than other races, and as a result become the metaphorical “punching bag” for issues surrounding race and class? Where was the avenue to speak out against such ideas? How could students engage in debate on an equal playing field when Mr. Murray had a stage and a microphone, and we were just members of the audience? Without a platform for legitimate discussion, it seems that students had few non-disruptive tools to get their voices heard.

Hannah Blackburn, Economics, ’17

The pre-talk rally began at 3:35 p.m. Two students, a townsperson and a professor spoke, standing before a line of people that stretched a little over 200 yards up the hill. They talked about the symbol of the platform Middlebury was giving Murray, and about how the power structures in our society and on our campus routinely prop up white male voices over other members of the community. It made a lot of sense. Systemic racism and sexism do permeate all levels of society and power always seems to favor the rich white man.

As we waited to be let in, protesters chanted: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” I joined in a few of these chants, but sporadically. White supremacy is certainly the enemy, yet it felt like many students really meant: “Who is the enemy? Charles Murray.” Another chant — “Racist! Sexist! Anti-gay! Charles Murray, go away!” — irritated me. I’d been reading articles about Murray, interviews with him and excerpts from his work all week and had found no evidence he was anti-gay. In fact, he had urged the Republican Party to support gay marriage. I chanted “Black Lives Matter” wholeheartedly; it is one of those things that you should always reaffirm when you can.

Sophie Vaughan, International Politics and Economics, ’17

I fully believed that Middlebury should honor its institutional commitment to academic freedom and debate by letting Charles Murray speak. But I also believed that students’ voices should be integral to this dialogue and so I planned to protest before the talk and ask Murray tough questions in the Q. and A. that followed his presentation.

My plans changed when I arrived at the event and sat next to an activist friend. When Murray began his speech, she said, protesters would stand, turn their backs on him, read a statement in opposition, and then do a few chants. I was hesitant, but when the protesters began to read their statement, many of the students in the room stood with them, me included.

I joined in the chants — “Who’s the enemy? White supremacy!” — but felt uncomfortable that my actions went against my original plan. Still, I didn’t sit down as the noise became louder and more raucous and students began to dance in the event hall.

The choice appeared stark: I could either protect Murray’s academic freedom and our college’s commitment to intellectual debate, or I could stand up for those students — black, Latino, female and lower income — whom Murray, in his book “The Bell Curve,” claimed are in an unequal position in society seemingly because of their genetic inferiority.

I feared that by not participating in this effort, by not expressing my solidarity with marginalized people, I would become what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderate” in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” — someone who “is more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.” Someone who “constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ ”

But as the protests continued, and Murray stayed silenced, I grew more and more concerned. It is easy to paint “Resist” on a poster, but harder to define what that should mean. If I resist a speaker like Charles Murray, despite the fact his views have been used in the service of “white nationalism,” am I also resisting intellectually open inquiry? Aren’t we more akin to authoritarian countries if we begin to choose whose speech is acceptable or not? It’s Charles Murray today, but what if it were a communist speaker tomorrow?

Alessandria Schumacher, Geography, ’17

I felt good about the questions I had prepared for the talk. The first one, which I developed after reading Murray’s essay “Where Are the Female Einsteins?” was about why he discounted research in social psychology that attributed differences in performance to the socialization of gender. Girls do worse than boys on math tests when you remind them that girls are stereotypically bad at math. Why not consider that as an explanation for a dearth of “female Einsteins”?

I had left cartography lab early on Thursday to attend the pre-talk protest and get a good spot in line. Students passed out signs, and I gladly took one small enough to bring in that read “Respect Existence.” A friend and I made our way to the back of the bleachers: We wanted a good perspective and felt no desire to be on the ground with those leading the protest. Tensions were clearly running high.

Alas, as we know, there was no opportunity to ask questions, let alone to hear Murray speak. He walked onstage, and I was surprised to see a huge group of students stand and turn their backs. As they recited a statement that had been distributed outside, I stood and joined. Then the chants erupted. I felt conflicted. Should I stand and join in for the sake of solidarity with a protest that — at the beginning — I supported with full force? Or should I do what I wished everyone else would do: Sit down and wait. I chose the latter. I sat, holding my sign on my lap, looking straight ahead.

Enough students remained standing and chanting so that Murray never spoke. We could have proved our maturity and commitment to justice by asking hard, well-researched questions — something Middlebury College students tend to do really well. We had let an opportunity for intellectual protest and resistance pass us by.

Hannah Blackburn

After students stood up and chanted, I began streaming the event on Facebook Live. Murray stayed at the podium for 20 minutes, waiting. He was then ushered out: The speech was to be delivered via livestream from a secret location instead.

The protesters quickly found the new venue. I went there and saw a student scale the side of the building, hang off a windowsill and yell: “Mr. Murray, are you in there? Hello? I’m trying to have a dialogue.” Inside, students were still singing, stomping and chanting to interrupt the talk. In comments on my social media posts, students who were watching the livestream said they could hear the protesters over the feed.

Edward O’Brien

I was one of over 300 students who watched the livestream of Murray’s talk from a room in the basement of the student center. I think that much of Charles Murray’s work is unscientific and has only helped fuel inequality. I am horrified that it has been cited by groups to advance white nationalism.

What Murray focused on in his speech, however, was how America was founded on a certain type of egalitarianism: Even if you were upper class, you did your best to never let that be known and you still lived and worked with people of all classes. He said that America now is more economically segregated (which is true) and liberals, like the ones that were protesting outside, are out of touch with the way most of America lives (also true).

Liberal students are worried about many of those same societal issues, but we use different language (born of different ideology) to express our concern. We students are self-critical of our “privilege.” Murray’s phrasing — that we are “out of touch with most of America” because of “easy upbringings” and “elite education” — describes the same phenomenon with a different vocabulary. On Thursday, Murray talked about an increasingly stable, wealthy upper class that institutionalizes its power at the expense of ordinary Americans, concerns similar to those expressed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other progressives we idolize.

So let’s seize every opportunity we can to agree: rising systemic inequality is harmful. We can organize around that.

I do not consider Murray’s views scientifically or morally sound, and I condemn all white nationalist and white supremacist ends it has been used for. This does not negate, however, that he is right about the educated elite and our isolation from the rest of America. As a group we need to learn to interact with, if not the views of people like Charles Murray, then at least the reality that there are people who hold these views. We must learn to communicate effectively and authentically, if for no other reason than to make progress over the next four years.

Will DiGravio

When the conversation between Charles Murray and Professor Stanger was over, they left McCullough Student Center and a violent confrontation with protesters occurred. Professor Stanger’s hair was pulled as she tried to shield Charles Murray, and her neck was twisted violently. She later went to the hospital. It is unclear if the violent protesters who allegedly banged on the car were students, but it is clear that both Murray and Professor Stanger were physically intimidated, and Professor Stanger was hurt and later diagnosed with a concussion.

Nearly every major media outlet has now written about the event. A video I posted of students preventing Murray from delivering his lecture has been viewed over 60,000 times and has been shared and featured nationally. It’s an interesting experience watching your name appear next to Tucker Carlson’s face.

Most of the coverage does not capture the conversations and soul-searching here at Middlebury. National coverage presents a big picture, but what we are learning here is that the big picture obscures its own truth, for it is actually made up of many contrasting points of view.

The protest has caused the student body to ponder the values of Middlebury as an institution, and what the implications were of providing a platform to a speaker whose work has been accused of empowering hateful rhetoric.

As a young journalist who strives to be objective, watching my peers have these conversations has been eye-opening. It has made me understand in a visceral way that no story can truly cover every angle, not every view can be reported.

Hannah Blackburn

The violence against Murray and Stanger is terrible. The details around the event are murky, with some students saying that public safety officers escalated the situation, while the school administration (and the press) has laid the blame squarely on the protesters. The first line of this newspaper’s report on the event made it sound as though hundreds of students participated in violent rioting. The debate about what exactly happened, however, overshadows what I see as the most powerful questions for all us to consider: How can we distinguish unpopular ideas from hateful or discriminatory ideas? How can we have “rhetorical resilience” — President Patton’s favorite term for using free speech to debate our way to a more inclusive society — while recognizing and combating the systems that support some voices and silence others? How should we balance the right to protest and the right to speak? How can we heal the current rift between the administration and much of the student body?

I feel compelled to write about this now because both the left-leaning and right-leaning media have demonized Middlebury students, calling them a violent mob and ignoring the real emotional and intellectual concerns of marginalized students who protested.

Many such voices are missing from the national conversation, as they fear repercussions on campus and beyond in such a tense political time. At least one protester decided not to publish her opinion because she is afraid such a controversial issue might affect her application for U.S. citizenship.

Sophie Vaughan

I’m still confused about my actions during the protest, but one thing I don’t regret is the conversations the protests have ignited. We students were fighting speech that perpetuates stereotypes and inequality, but in the process we discovered we were promoting another form of injustice — checks on free speech and a more closed environment of intellectual discourse. This has created tension on our campus, but I think it is tension of the best kind — the kind that will push us to engage more deeply both with issues of racial oppression and the parameters of our campus dialogue.

Phil Hoxie

What happened at Middlebury is no longer about Murray or his work. It’s not just a story about college campuses. Middlebury is not unique. In the United States, we have reached a point where nobody is willing to engage with viewpoints that don’t conform to their own. In order to move forward, as a community and as a country, we must engage in tough and challenging conversations. The only way to do that is to preserve free speech, which often means defending the rights of those you disagree with, or even hate.

Alessandria Schumacher

Murray’s ideas have real, tangible outcomes, which is why those who want to engage with and challenge them must be allowed to do so. Theoretically, it would be nice to discount his ideas and have them go away; pragmatically, they are not going anywhere, and if we want to fight them, at least some of us have to face them. That doesn’t mean that those who feel targeted by his work should have to sit there and listen. Not all of us need to push for progress in the same way.
Elizabeth Siyuan Lee

As Americans, we are lucky to be able to talk about our political beliefs without legal consequence. The government cannot throw us in jail or punish us for the words we write or the things we say. This is our Constitutional right. But that does not mean that individuals or institutions must offer all ideas a stage, a microphone, and a large space for an audience. It does not mean that academic institutions or students must guarantee every individual 45 minutes of unchallenged and broadcasted speech, no matter how harmful. Student protesters were not violating Mr. Murray’s First Amendment rights when they spoke out against him. They were changing the terms of the discussion.

This is not to say that students ought not to engage with Mr. Murray’s ideas at all. Given the controversial nature of his work, colleges must take into account the implications of the format of guest lectures so students can meaningfully evaluate the topic at hand.

Edward O’Brien

This weekend, I read these headlines “Student protesters turn violent at Middlebury College” and “College administrator and staff assault students” — two seemingly contradictory reports. Going forward, we have to be able to hold complex truths together, or we are only fueling the polarization of our society.

We cannot allow anyone to threaten or call into question the humanity of people on our campus, but we cannot threaten people who do so either. We can only protect one another and try to understand one another. We need to complicate our truths — regardless of whether we use the language of intersectionality or the language of traditional American values. We have to be willing to listen to one another through our buzzwords and despite our ideological differences.

[The following was a comment appended to the main article:]

Student Writers Middlebury, VT March 7, 2017

We are five of the students who contributed to this piece. While we are happy to have the opportunity to voice our opinions, we want to recognize that not every student’s voice was heard or represented in this article. Most notably, the voices of Black and Latinx students and protest organizers were missing. We recognize that this piece is significantly limited by its exclusion of these perspectives.

A piece about race and the silencing of voices should not contribute to that silence. Such a piece is incomplete when it does not recognize and elevate the voices of those least often heard. We believe that the voices of students of color, especially those who participated in or organized the protest, should absolutely have been included in this article. While we were not involved in the selection of contributors, it is important to address the systemic reasons why such voices did not surface — whether it is due to the nature of the organizations that were contacted, a short publication deadline, or student fear of negative repercussions from official institutions.

Despite this, we hope that we have contributed meaningfully to the discussion around this event. We also hope that future articles will take active steps to express the true diversity of opinion at Middlebury.

Hannah Blackburn
Elizabeth Lee
Edward O’Brien
Alessandria Schumacher
Sophie Vaughan