Allison Stanger, the politics professor who was injured by last month’s execrable Middlebury mob, has taken to the New York Times to reflect on the incident. Much of what she writes is unobjectionable, albeit she seems to be a good deal more tolerant of illiberalism than I would be in her position — and, indeed, am in my own. But a couple of things stood out to me as being worthy of comment. The first: How openly she concedes the ignorance and laziness of some students and professors at her college. The second: Her occasional, and counterproductive, retreat into platitudes.
Stanger is rather damning about her own school:
Part of the problem was the furor that preceded the talk. This past month, as the campus uproar about Dr. Murray’s visit built, I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character without ever having read anything he has written. It wasn’t just students: Some professors protested his appearance as well.
In other words, a bunch of academic professionals, whose sole job is to read and research, felt comfortable maligning a visiting figure “without ever having read anything he has written.” Worse still, some of them went so far as to protest him.
Perhaps inspired by their feckless teachers, many students followed suit:
Intelligent members of the Middlebury community—including some of my own students and advisees—concluded that Charles Murray was an anti-gay white nationalist from what they were hearing from one another, and what they read on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. Never mind that Dr. Murray supports same-sex marriage and is a member of the courageous “never Trump” wing of the Republican Party.
It sounds as if Middlebury is quite the rumor mill. Happily, Stanger understands that this is unacceptable:
Students are in college in part to learn how to evaluate sources and follow up on ideas with their own research. The Southern Poverty Law Center incorrectly labels Dr. Murray a “white nationalist,” but if we have learned nothing in this election, it is that such claims must be fact-checked, analyzed and assessed. Faulty information became the catalyst for shutting off the free exchange of ideas at Middlebury. We must all be more rigorous in evaluating and investigating anger, or this pattern of miscommunication will continue on other college campuses.
Quite what she intends to do about it, however, is never stated.
Now, it could be the case that Stanger is on the verge of becoming a champion of academic freedom, and that this is her opening salvo. I would be lying if I suggested that I know what is happening behind Middlebury’s closed doors. But if that is the case, and she is to push for a transformation, she’ll have to get past an idea she expresses about half way through the essay: That “all violence is a breakdown of communication.”
On the contrary. Most of the time violence is the result of fundamental disagreements that result from perfect understanding. Country A wants to take country B’s stuff; country B dissents; so they fight. Group A wants to maintain slavery or ethnic cleansing; group B dissents; so they fight. Person A is visiting physical violence upon person B; person B resists; so they fight.
In the case of Middlebury, group A thought that those invited to speak on campus should be permitted to speak freely; group B thought it possessed a veto; so they fought. Sure, the censors who ruined Murray’s appearance may have had no idea who he was. But that was not the root of the problem. The root of the problem was that they believed they had a right to disrupt a lecture that had been sanctioned by the college. Ultimately, it does not matter who Charles Murray is, or what he believes; and it does not matter whether the Southern Poverty Law Center is right or wrong or whether Middlebury’s faculty is conscientious or easily-led. If one group considers speech to be violence and the other is full of well-adjusted adults, there is going to be a conflict. As so often, the contretemps at Middlebury was the product of perfect understanding, not lamentable confusion. For Stanger to grasp that would be for Stanger to make herself disliked in the faculty lounge. But if she wants to usher in a change, she’s really not going to have much choice.