Saturday, March 18, 2017
Middlebury prof Laurie Essig has published an essay in The Chronicle that attempts to complicate the portrayal of the Charles Murray debacle as a regrettable blow to free speech. This strikes me as the paragraph that does the heavy lifting of her analysis:
The Murray event’s organizers encouraged us to debate his ideas and to counter his eugenicist arguments with evidence and pointed questions. To be fair, many at Middlebury, including the president and the political-science faculty, were worried about censorship and committed to the idea that we must be able to hear ideas we find disagreeable. For people who feel threatened in the current political climate, however, polite debate about disagreeable ideas is a luxury they can no longer afford. We live in dangerous times, when immigrants fear expulsion and hate crimes are on the rise. Personal vulnerability drowns out the fear of censorship.
Under what circumstances should polite debate be deemed a luxury we can no longer afford? If Essig had written that relying solely on polite debate and eschewing other forms of action may be a luxury we cannot afford at certain times, I'd agree wholeheartedly. But unless we're in an emergency situation when polite debate is not a wise investment of time, I struggle to think of a context in which polite debate must be rejected as an unaffordable luxury. Contrary to Essig's assertion that "[t]he right became its own precious snowflake when [Milo] Yiannopoulos talked about teenaged boys as sexual subjects who could consent to sex with adult men," I don't think that CPAC's withdrawal of an invitation to Yiannopoulos shows that conservatives also believe that certain beliefs are inappropriate for polite debate. There are legitimate questions surrounding the wisdom of an organization's decision to provide a platform to a particular speaker, but that does not mean that it's categorically wrong to engage in a polite debate about having sex with boys. There was nothing wrong with members of the Middlebury community condemning the decision to invite Charles Murray to campus; the problem is what happened after the invitation was extended and accepted.
Essig is right to point out that we have to be attentive to ensuring that those impacted by the views being expressed are equipped to participate meaningfully in the debate. The proper response to such concerns is to remove barriers to participation and empower traditionally marginalized members of the community; the proper response is not to dismiss polite debate as an unaffordable luxury.