Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT
Photo credit: Don Shall (CC-By-NC-ND 2.0)

Earlier in March Charles Murray, a scholar with American Enterprise Institute, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT at the invitation of the American Enterprise Institute Club that is organized on campus. Attempting to speak he was instead shouted down by liberal protestors at the event. The college cancelled the event and instead held a live stream conversation with Murray and Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger who was supposed to moderate the live event.

Professor Stanger was injured as she attempted to escorted Murray off campus The Addison County Independent reported:

As Stanger, Murray and a college administrator left McCullough following the event, they were “physically and violently confronted by a group of protesters,” according to college spokesman Bill Burger.

Burger said the protesters were masked.

“It is our belief that some of them were nonstudents. They were not from our community. I would call them ‘outside agitators.’ But I also believe that it’s possible that some of them were students,” he said.

Burger said college public safety officers managed to get Stanger and Murray into the administrator’s car.

“The protesters then violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and trying to prevent it from leaving campus,” he said. “At one point a large traffic sign was thrown in front of the car. Public Safety officers were able, finally, to clear the way to allow the vehicle to leave campus.

“During this confrontation outside McCullough, one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck,” Burger continued. “She was attended to at Porter Hospital later and (on Friday) is wearing a neck brace.”

Burger described the attacks as “scary, violent mob action” and praised campus safety officers for their part in protecting Murray and Stanger.

At the time of this writing no one has been arrested for this attack. Liberal protests of conservative speakers on college campuses is nothing new and have become more frequent to the point of shutting down events and silencing speakers. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that someone was injured as a result.

Incidents like this have brought together two professors to write a joint statement defending campus free speech that has become increasingly under attack.

Robert P. George, a conservative, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Cornel West, a liberal, is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in the Divinity School and the Department of African and African- American Studies at Harvard University.

Together they wrote the statement “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.” The statement, which they encourage others to sign, can be found here and below:

The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses. As John Stuart Mill taught, a recognition of the possibility that we may be in error is a good reason to listen to and honestly consider—and not merely to tolerate grudgingly—points of view that we do not share, and even perspectives that we find shocking or scandalous. What’s more, as Mill noted, even if one happens to be right about this or that disputed matter, seriously and respectfully engaging people who disagree will deepen one’s understanding of the truth and sharpen one’s ability to defend it.

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.

It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?

Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.

 

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