Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Academic Freedom vs. Academic Legitimacy: Williams College Edition

Williams College has a group called "Uncomfortable Learning", which "aims to encourage students to understand and engage with often provocative and uncomfortable viewpoints that oppose perceived popular opinions at the College." They invited a Suzanne Venker, a prominent critic of feminism and feminists, to deliver a lecture entitled "One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails". Many students protested the decision, and the organizers canceled the lecture.

I read the article, and was actually very impressed, because what I saw was students living out the distinction I drew in my Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy article (previously blogged about in reference to Steven Salaita, the University of North Carolina, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement). Take a look at what the student protesters said:
Emily O’Brien ’18 created another Facebook event, “One Step Forward and We Keep Going,” on the same day in order to organize protests to the talk.

O’Brien emphasized that the goal of the protests was not to have the event shut down, but rather to express dissent from Venker’s ideas. According to her, many protestors had planned to attend the event and to engage with Venker during the question-and-answer session.

“The point of the event was not to censor her beliefs,” said O’Brien. “It was our rightful emotional and political reaction to something that has been harmful to many groups of people.”

Sam Alterman ’18 helped organize the protest and participated in discussions on both Facebook event pages. He said that the protestors were not seeking to censor Venker but rather disagreeing with the decision to provide her with a platform.

“No one has asked for her writing to be blocked on Purple Air [campus internet],” he said. “We were dissenting from the idea that she is someone we should elevate to a level where we feel that her point of view is relevant enough and intellectually rigorous enough to bring to campus, associate [the College’s] name with her, and give her money.”
Gerardo Garcia ’16, another student who was vocal in protests against Venker, said “While I do not agree with the decision for Suzanne Venker’s visit to Williams, I also acknowledge that people are within their right to request for such a speaker. But I also believe we should be able to freely criticize the reasoning for this decision when we invite someone who only spews hate in her talks and in her writing, while providing no concrete evidence to defend her claims. Venker tells women to become subservient to men, while completely ignoring the issues of domestic violence, equality, and much, much more … Personally, I have no patience to learn about a perspective that has no evidence, attacks women and demonizes the queer community.”
The students all make it abundantly evident that they respect the right of Uncomfortable Learning to invite Venker, and were not demanding that the college "ban" her (Williams administrators confirmed that there had been no such request). There were no misguided quotes about "free speech not including hate speech" or anything of that sort. Rather, their criticism was of the idea that Venker represented the sort of speaker whose ideas were intellectually sophisticated enough to be legitimate entries into an intellectual discussion. Presumably this idea is entirely uncontroversial in the abstract: if a student group invited a young earth creationist to lecture on geology, or a Klansman to speak on racial justice, most people would I hope hold the group's decision in contempt (even while not challenging their "right" to do it). As I observe in my article, the decision to invite a speaker to campus signifies something less than "I agree with the speaker" and something more than "the speaker is capable of forming words into grammatically intelligible sentences." The concept of academic legitimacy reflects an appraisal of the boundaries of reasonable scholarly discourse, and it is perfectly fair game to criticize a group for (allegedly) straying beyond those boundaries so long as this criticism does not demand bans or sanctions as a remedy for the breach.

Now, of course, we can argue about whether Venker's arguments really are academically illegitimate or not. The organizers argued that her views are popular ones amongst many segments of the population and that it is therefore worthwhile to engage with them. This has some purchase for me, though it's not a knockout argument (a not-insignificant number of Americans oppose interracial marriage, but it seems like a waste of time to bring in a speaker urging that Loving v. Virginia be overturned). Obviously, the contours of academic legitimacy are open to debate same as anything else; maybe it's wrong to place someone like Venker outside of them (not being familiar with her work, I'm in no position to judge). But so long as that debate occurs as a debate -- free from using the coercive power of the state or college administration to enforce one side's views upon the other -- then academic freedom isn't breached. Say what you will about their substantive evaluations, but as a procedural matter the Williams College protesters did everything exactly as they should, and that's worth commending.


EW said...

"[T]he decision to invite a speaker to campus signifies something less than 'I agree with the speaker' and something more than "'he speaker is capable of forming words into grammatically intelligible sentences.'"

My school invited Noam Chomsky to speak – you know, the guy who wrote "colorless green ideas sleep furiously." I’m not sure he would have passed either test.

Autumn said...

David, to clarify for your readers, Williams College did not invite the speaker. The invite came from a group of Williams students whose organization functions independently; as did the disinvitation.

Autumn said...

David, to clarify for your readers, Williams College did not invite the speaker. The invite came from a group of Williams students whose organization functions independently; as did the disinvitation.

John C. Drew, Ph.D. said...

I think you are bending over backward to minimize what just happened to free speech at Williams College. The student organizers faced tremendous on-line bullying. They got so frightened by this on-line aggression that they decided they did not have enough security to go forward with the event. The administration should have stepped up and provided adequate security. Instead, the administration stood aside and allowed the Uncomfortable Learning students to suffer in their fears. This is not an acceptable, tolerant learning environment. For my take on what it was like to be the token conservative at Williams in the late 1980's, please see my recent interview in The College Fix.

David Schraub said...

Dr. Drew: It is often very difficult to distinguish "bullying" (or what in other contexts we might perhaps call "microaggressions"?) and counterspeech -- albeit very harshly put counterspeech. In your interview, for example, the former Williams Professor complains of being called a "racist". Whether that's correct or not (surely, a question that depends on both complex factual assessments and contested notions of the definition of the term), it's very obviously an example of counterspeech. There is no, and cannot be, a "doctrine of the protected first speaker"; nor are there or could there be special speech rules that render charges of racism uniquely outside the purview of speech-feedback (see my article Playing with Cards: Discrimination Claims and the Charge of Bad Faith).

Now, to be sure I agree that we should not endorse security-based heckler's vetoes -- if an authorized student group like Uncomfortable Learning wants to bring in a controversial speaker, the university should step up and provide whatever security is necessary for the event to go forward. But the mere call for a student group to withdraw it's sponsorship of a talk, or criticizing them for hosting it, is not a form of censorship even when phrased in vitriolic terms.

What it might be (and my post leaves open this possibility) is a failure of curiosity; a topic I broach in this post. But that is a different problem than a free speech problem, though the two are related and often conflated.