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Respecting the Right of Free Speech

Debates over free speech and intolerance have become, once again, news. Over the past few weeks, a number of television pundits, columnists and fellow academics have commented on the fracas that took place at Middlebury College. In fact, some professors who teach at the institution such as Environmental Studies professor Bill McKibben wrote an article for The Guardian and Allison Stanger professor of International Politics and Economics at the college penned an op-ed for the New York Times.

For those of you who are unaware of what transpired, on March 2 the usually tranquil and scenic institution found itself engulfed in an ferocious uproar when a couple of conservative student groups invited Charles Murray, a prominent conservative political scientist, sociologist and author to the prestigious liberal arts college known for its stellar academic reputation to deliver a talk.

Murray began to become well known in certain conservative libertarian circles in the early1980s with his often statistically detailed scholarship that examined topics such as marriage, economics and suburbia. He was catapulted into the mainstream in the mid-’90s with his best-selling yet controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in which he argues that certain racial groups harbored superior intelligence over others. The book hit the public arena like wildfire and many prominent individuals and some fellow academics accused Murray of scientific racism. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labeled him a nationalist who ascribed to eugenics (raced-based scientific testing commonplace in the late 19th and early 20th century).

Students and some faculty who were upset that he was his being allowed to speak on their campus and made their displeasure known by signing petitions, shouting him down and refusing to allow him to speak. The situation became so volatile that Murray and several other people suffered physical injuries. Things became volatile. It was chaos and dysfunction of the most disturbing kind.

That a large percentage of students at Middlebury College were offended, upset and outraged at the fact that a person with the reputation of Charles Murray was granted permission to speak in and of itself is not surprising. This is particularly the case in regards to Black, Hispanics, Arab, gay and lesbian, disabled Asian and other marginalized populations on campus. Over the past several years, college campuses have not been the most hospitable and welcoming places for students of color or in some cases, women. On the contrary, they have been environments rife with hostility, intimidation and occasional violence.

Outside the ivory towers of the academia things are just as volatile. The state of political discourse in our nation is as hostile as it has ever been. We recently witnessed one of the ugliest, mean-spirited and divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory. Our current president has engaged in numerous acts of racial invective, employed numerous dog whistles in his rhetoric to appease the racially intolerant and hostile segment of his base of supporters. He has attacked the Fourth Estate and attempted to demonize his enemies through round the clock and wanton tweeting. He has arrogantly defied the separation of powers that have been the foundation of this nation.

Yes, indeed. The humidity has made the climate uncomfortable and many people who fall outside of the White, male, able bodied, Christian, heterosexual, category (at least 70% of the population) are justified in being unsettled by the current state of affairs.

That being said, I still take issue with how Murray’s critics handled the situation. Whatever feelings of anxiety and frustration and harbored, refusing to allowing him to speak, his detractors allowed him to gain the upper hand of the situation. The fact is that Murray, like Milo Yiannopolous and a number of provocateurs on the political, social and cultural right live to skewer and discredit their opponents as being intolerant of diverse voices. This is their standard argument.

Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Shawn Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and others on the right live for this sort of reaction from the left. They desire and hope for such incidents to occur and reoccur. Such events supply them with ongoing ammunition to denounce and vilify academia, diversity, multiculturalism and other entities that they fear, despise and associate with the “other.” Such reactions by students are like a dream come true to them.

To be sure, it is tough to have to listen to rhetoric from others who see you as less than equal that denies, and in some cases, dehumanizes your very right to exist as a human being. Moreover, when you are in your late teens and early 20s, your emotions are often tender, reactionary and fertile. You are often inclined to react in an irrational manner if you feel that you are being disrespected and disregarded. Nonetheless, the answer is not to prohibit others with whom you disagree the right to express their viewpoints. Rather, the appropriate and more effective response to challenge such abhorrent rhetoric with facts and logic that will effectively dispel such morally irreprehensible and indefensible speech. To coin the old saying “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Free speech is crucial to our democracy. Either you have it or you don’t. When you attempt to deny others the right to speak, it may be only a matter of time before you, yourself will be silenced. Attempting to deny others the right to speak is a misguided and dangerous activity that can result in disastrous efforts for all. Such Stalinistic behavior cannot be tolerated or allowed in our society. Period.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, African American Studies, and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University.

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