When Liberal Intolerance Crowds Out Debate on College Campuses

The scene is now familiar. A conservative thinker is asked to speak on campus only to be met by liberal intolerance in the form of protest or violence, thereby preventing an exchange of ideas. It began several years ago when students forced former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde from speaking. And it culminated last week when conservative (whatever that means in this context) sociologist Charles Murray became the victim of violent protests as he tried to speak at Middlebury College.

Murray was there to discuss his new book, Coming Apart, which examines why white America has become fractured based on education and class, and how that has contributed to the establishment of separate cultures. Murray’s thesis is indeed controversial, but it’s also an incredibly interesting insight into the current economic and political divide the United States’ is now experiencing.

The American Enterprise Club—the campus organization that invited Murray—knew that his discussion would be controversial. As Peter Beinart writes in The Atlantic, they took prophylactic steps to encourage a dialogue and questions to test Murray’s ideas.

To appreciate the ugliness of what transpired at Middlebury, however, one needs to look not merely at the principles involved, but at the specific sequence of events. In its letter to the campus explaining its invitation to Murray, the AEI club declared that it “invites you to argue.” It invited a left-leaning Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger,  to engage Murray in a public conversation following his talk, thus ensuring that his views would be challenged. In his introduction to Murray’s speech, a representative from the AEI club implored his fellow students to debate Murray rather than shouting him down.

That didn’t happen. What transpired was chaos. Dozens of students loudly disrupted Murray’s remarks, prompting the university to proceed with it’s backup plan (kudos to them for having one), in which Murray and Professor Stanger would record their discussion from a secret location. Somehow students discovered their location and began shouting and banging on the wall. As Murray and Stanger attempted to exit, a crowd of students, some of whom were wearing ski masks, physically assaulted them and then proceeded to rock the car back and forth and jump on the hood. The two then attempted to go to a planned dinner, only to learn that protesters had discovered where they were eating, forcing them to leave town.

Ultimately, Professor Stanger—a liberal whose purpose was to act as an ideological counterweight to Murray—was forced to go to the hospital to tend to her injuries.

If this were just one example of illiberalism on college campuses perhaps it could be written off as an outlier. Instead, it is the latest, and most worrisome, event in a gradual shift away from earnest debate and toward the demand for a singular viewpoint, a “wrong way” and a “right way” as decided by the mob.

The trouble is that these students, by requiring total ideological capitulation as a precondition to dialogue are, as John Stuart Mill wrote, “robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation…of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.”

Perhaps ironically, as Noah Millman argues in The Week, they may also be robbing the progressive movement of a powerful argument.

“[T]he concerns Murray is airing should be of particular interest to the left, which historically stands against the concentration of economic and political power, and against domination by a ruling class. If meritocracy and equality of opportunity does not increase social mobility and reduce class stratification, but the opposite, that would seem to be at least as powerful an argument for old-school left-wing solutions, like strong labor unions and the redistribution of wealth, as it is for Murray’s own conservative libertarianism.

But that’s why you have a debate. …

By ruling Murray unworthy of consideration, the radicals who protested him have not just traduced important norms related to free speech and civil respect (which would be bad enough), they have traduced those norms in the name of preserving themselves from having to question the institution they attend and its place in our society.”

What then are these students so afraid of? If they are so assured of their viewpoint that they feel comfortable shouting down an academic, then why not debate him outright? If his viewpoint could lend itself towards policy that support progressive viewpoints then why not let him speak?

There doesn’t appear to be answers to these questions. Such is the lingering disappointment that comes when violence crowds out debate.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore. See more of his work HERE.