Commentary: At Middlebury, protesters assault free speech and the politics that bind us

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Students turn their backs on guest speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont in a protest that turned violent earlier this month.

Steven F. McGuire is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University. John-Paul Spiro teaches in the Augustine and Culture Program at Villanova.

On March 2, some faculty, students, and others at Middlebury College in Vermont protested a scheduled lecture by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Video of the event shows students turning their backs to him, chanting, and accusing him of hate speech. The event could only proceed by moving Murray to another room and streaming a video of his talk. Afterward, the protest turned violent, leaving one of Murray's hosts, Allison Stanger, in a neck brace.

The protesters were motivated by their conviction that Murray's words endanger oppressed groups within their community. Their chants evince this, as does a letter signed by more than 450 Middlebury alumni:

"His invitation to campus . . . is not an educational opportunity, but a threat. It is a message to every woman, every person of color, every first-generation student, every poor and working-class person, every disabled person, and every queer person that not only their acceptance to and presence at Middlebury, but also their safety, their agency, their humanity, and even their very right to exist, are all up for 'debate.' "

Apparently, these student protesters think everyone has a right to exist and be safe except Charles Murray and anyone who acknowledges his right to exist and be safe.

Stanger, a political science professor at Middlebury, had intended to question Murray and vigorously challenge his views, but the students did not want dialogue or debate. The implication is clear: Charles Murray espouses hate, so you must hate Charles Murray. You must agree with us or face an angry, violent mob.

This episode provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the nature of our politics and the role of our universities. Many people (rightly) see this as an issue of free speech, but freedom of speech is a political right based on more fundamental premises about how we are to live together and govern ourselves.

Aristotle argues that politics is a strictly human activity made possible by our capacity for speech. We join together to debate what is just and unjust, expedient and inexpedient. Politics thus proceeds by means of persuasion and is predicated on the possibility of finding common convictions and interests.

By contrast, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write in the Communist Manifesto, "Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another." What place does persuasion have in such a conception of politics?

If politics is defined by oppressive power, then there is no possibility of entering into community with one another. There is no "we" in this conception of politics, only "us" and "them." We simply have to pick our sides and fight until we find out who's on the wrong side of history.

Middlebury's student protesters owe a debt to Marx and Engels. They think they're engaged in a struggle against oppressors who, by definition, cannot be reasoned with. As the Middlebury Campus editorial put it: "No one person on this campus is going to unravel the personal convictions that have formed the basis of Murray's 40-year career in one lecture. We do not believe this is possible, nor do we believe this is our responsibility." Instead they "encourage" their readers to come "prepared and ready to fight."

As Aristotle knew well, the alternative to persuasion is force.

If politics is undone by violence, so much more so is the university. The students rejected Murray not simply because they did not want to hear what he had to say, but they did not see the possibility of convincing him of the rightness of their views. It is as if one only listens to one's opponents to grant them their "turn" before proceeding to defeat them.

But why not listen to Murray and to those challenging him and evaluate the arguments on both sides? If the students listened to him, they might have found that his work does not fit their preconceptions. For example, he supports gay marriage and a guaranteed national income. He opposed Donald Trump, and his lecture could have helped them to understand the forces that led to Trump's election.

The problem with these student protesters is they know everything already, and they won't grant anyone permission to express other views or present inconvenient facts. They silence their opposition rather than give it a hearing. They call their opponents "violent" as an excuse to be violent themselves. They thereby undermine the very purpose of their own university.

Clearly these are tense times in our country. People feel threatened and embattled. There is renewed talk of "two Americas." Murray himself argues in the book about which he spoke at Middlebury that we are "coming apart" - and he explores in great detail how and why this is happening. Our divisions are now so intense that debate might seem to be no longer possible.

When Allison Stanger spoke to the mob at Middlebury, she addressed them as "brothers and sisters." They booed her. If this is our politics, then they aren't really politics at all. If we want to find our common interests and convictions, we're going to have to talk to one another. If that's going to happen, our universities need to be better than this.


IF YOU GO

Charles Murray "What Does Trumpism Mean for Liberty in the Long Run?" 4 p.m. March 30 at Villanova's Bartley Hall, Room 1011.

www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/ryancenter.html