In defense of protesting racists

March 23, 2017

Charles Murray, whose speech at Middlebury College earlier this month was disrupted by hundreds of student protesters, is back on campus with a speaking engagement at Columbia University on Thursday. Here, Monique Dols and Alan Maass question the outcry against protesters, coming from conservatives and liberals, since the Middlebury demonstration--and consider the stakes for the left in the struggles to come.

A BACKLASH against protest is in full swing after the controversial demonstration against racist author Charles Murray at Middlebury College this month--and it isn't only the right wing that's raising complaints.

The latest case in point: a statement titled "Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression" is circulating on the Internet, with hundreds of signatures from academics, alumni and others. The statement begins:

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.

Language like this is familiar when it comes from university administrators trying to quell dissent--and, of course, from conservatives like Robert George, one of its two authors. But George's co-author is Cornel West, the radical scholar and activist, with a long history of protest and speaking truth to power, even when it isn't popular and comes at a personal cost.

Students at Middlebury College stand up against racism during a lecture by Charles Murray
Students at Middlebury College stand up against racism during a lecture by Charles Murray

THIS SHOWS how far the backlash has gone since the protest at Middlebury, where hundreds of students confronted Murray during a speech hosted by a conservative student group, but given campus-wide prominence by the college administration.

When he came to the podium, almost all the students in the room turned their backs on Murray and collectively read out their own statement. Murray was unable to go on and was ushered to another room, where he gave his speech via Internet live stream. Events took a turn for the worse afterward when Murray was confronted by a smaller group of protesters as he left campus--the confrontation left one professor accompanying Murray injured.

The conservative media predictably depicted the whole event as students "rioting" and acting like "thugs." But liberals added their voices to the chorus of criticism. Washington Post columnist Danielle Allen actually compared Murray to the nine Black students who defied "the shouting, shoving mob" to desegregate Little Rock Central High in 1957.

Allen should know better, but Murray is no civil rights hero. If George and West's statement urges students today to respect "intellectual humility, openness of mind and love of truth," Charles Murray possesses none of those things.

Murray is most notorious for The Bell Curve, the 1994 book he co-authored that claimed to prove the intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Two decades later, he's still at it with a recent book that blames hereditary and individual factors for the unequal status of white workers and the poor. As historian Kevin Gannon wrote at his blog:

Murray is a peddler in racist pseudoscience, the likes of which we saw in forced sterilization programs and Nazi medicine. He slaps a thin veneer of misapplied scientific language and thumb-on-the-scale statistical "analysis" onto [racist arguments]...Murray's ideas are the literal equivalent of inviting a flat-earther to lecture on geography or an alchemist to teach your Physical Chemistry lab, or...inviting [Holocaust denier] David Irving to keynote a Holocaust conference.

This is who angry Middlebury students organized to protest against, using a variety of tactics: some focused on a demonstration before the event, others worked on a pamphlet exposing Murray as not "controversial," but a fraud whose claims have been disproven and discredited.

When the Middlebury administration rejected students' criticisms and endorsed an event whose format allowed no opportunity for genuine debate, the protesters used their right to free speech inside the lecture hall. "Without a platform for legitimate discussion," said one Middlebury senior, "it seems that students had few non-disruptive tools to get their voices heard."

The statement by George and West doesn't directly refer to the Middlebury protest, but that's the obvious subject. Cornel West's part in it is deeply disappointing. In putting his respected name to a statement like this, he gives the right wing cover to redirect discussion away from Murray's racism and toward the false claim that "free speech" is under assault by the left, especially on campus--when the right is clearly the main threat to free speech.

IN THE context of the new Trump regime's authoritarianism, a defense of free speech is certainly in order. In fact, historically, it was the left that stood up for this basic democratic right. The right to speak without being shut down was won by generations of people who the right commonly refers to derogatorily as "social justice warriors": abolitionists, antiwar socialists, soapboxing anarcho-syndicalists, civil rights fighters.

Free speech should be vigorously defended on campuses, and university administrations shouldn't be able to ban or shut down speakers--experience teaches that they turn this power against the left.

But we must also stand squarely on the side of the right to protest. The statement by West and George clearly fails to do this. Instead, it paints students who seek to protest deplorable ideas as trying to "immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities."

This line of argument echoes the rhetoric of the right dating back to at least the 1980s, especially its "snowflake" claim: that young people in general and students in particular are self-indulgent brats who have been coddled and given too many participation trophies, and, as a result, can't handle having their ideas challenged my someone that makes them feel "uncomfortable."

The Middlebury students who protested Murray prepared carefully and debated intently in the lead-up to the protest. Whatever shortcomings they identify in retrospect, particularly regarding the confrontation after the event, they did their homework--which is much more than can be said about administrators and faculty members who defended Murray as no more than "controversial," and even disputed the Southern Poverty Law Center's characterization of him as a "white nationalist."

Any discussion about free speech must also be about the right of people like the Middlebury students to voice their disagreement with others' speech--and to expose those in positions of power who legitimize these ideas.

This is particularly important at a time when right-wingers--backed, unsurprisingly, by funding from the billionaire Koch brothers--are introducing cynically named "campus free speech legislation" that, if passed, would seriously curb students' right to protest.

Meanwhile, at Middlebury, the administration that sanctioned Murray's prestigious speaking event is threatening disciplinary action against students who protested him. We stand with the students against this threat to curb and silence their speech.

NO ONE would suggest that Jewish students should be made to "listen respectfully" to a Holocaust denier. But for some reason, it is okay to state that Black students should "listen respectfully" to Murray, a peddler of racist eugenics and pseudoscience.

The same was said, by the way, when Jim Gilchrist, the spokesperson for the armed anti-immigrant vigilantes known as the Minutemen, came to spout his racist bile at Columbia University back in 2006.

While the statement by George and West makes a nod toward the right of students to protest speakers they disagree with, it nevertheless asks students to consider: "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?"

The problem with this formulation is that it assumes a level of civility that isn't present among a right wing that is openly seeking to eviscerate the remaining hard-won gains of oppressed people. Murray's racist claims have been comprehensively debunked for many years, yet he continues to get a stage because his ideas can be used to justify reactionary policies.

Should we be prepared to debate someone like Murray and the reinvigorated right wing that is inviting him to college campuses? Absolutely. The left can't rely on authorities to ban hateful speech or rescind their invitations, nor will it do for a small group of activists to use force or property damage to shut down their events.

We want to expose the reactionaries and racists, and win the debate, in order to persuade those who might be pulled by their ideas. But in cases like Middlebury, college officials frustrated any attempt to challenge Murray on these terms.

Free speech guarantees the right to speak without intervention by the state. But it doesn't guarantee the right to speak unopposed or uncontested. It is our right--one we must organize to defend--to turn our backs on a racist, to stage a walkout, and to raise our voices in protest.

There are many ways for the left to engage with the aim of winning politically. We can try to democratize the spaces where these speeches take place. We can expose the staged nature of right-wing speaking tours and call for groups sponsoring speakers like Murray to make the events into debates. We can push for longer discussion sessions, where students have an opportunity to speak uninterrupted and ask a question, make a point or read a statement, if they so choose.

We should show how much racist ideologues like Murray are getting paid and compare this with the budgets of left-wing student organizations that put out an alternative point of view. We can make fact sheets addressing the real issues at stake and draw attention to the impact of hateful and derogatory speech. We can put our ideas onto signs and banners, and we can use every effective opportunity--before, during and after such speeches--to raise our own voices.

Our movement faces important challenges. We must be in the forefront of defending the right to free speech. Without it, the left would be nowhere. But we must also challenge both the words and the deeds of repugnant racists, Islamophobes, xenophobes, misogynists and other reactionaries.

That requires building a movement with strength in numbers and politics, which can defend our own rights from escalating attacks in the era of Trump--and push back against the advances of the right wing.

Further Reading

From the archives