“When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’ you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students, but you are also—paying—for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters. You are giving those who spout violence the money that so desperately needs to be funneled to black and brown (trans) femme communities, to people who are leading the revolution, who are surviving in the streets, who are dying in the streets. Know, you are dipping your hands in their blood, Zach Wood.”
These words were posted on Facebook Thursday evening, shortly after I began inviting people to an Uncomfortable Learning event, entitled One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails. The speaker, scheduled to come to Williams on Tuesday, October 20th, was Suzanne Venker, author of The Flipside of Feminism. Owing to the vehement reactions of students diametrically opposed to bringing Venker, a staunch antifeminist, to campus, the event has been cancelled.
To claim that bringing Venker to Williams is an attack on what this college stands for and the women who work here is unfounded. At Williams, learning (theoretically anyway) begins with confronting challenging ideas. Tens of millions of Americans espouse Venker’s views–and I am not one of them. I am, in fact, of the opinion that her arguments deserve trenchant criticism, but to challenge her intellectually and critique her arguments substantively, we must first understand her views. Each of us has the license to engage Venker’s ideas, or to ignore them, but energetic intellectual engagement is not synonymous with ideological endorsement. Those who protested viewed this event through a lens of motivated ignorance.
It is lamentable, yet also perversely predictable, that this lens is a blurred one through which only the most suspicious eye can honestly claim to see clearly. Through this lens, the culprit of all unjust human suffering is ‘imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.’ To critique that argument is to hurt the oppressed. To deepen said argument is to honorably bear witness to injustice and admirably speak truth to power. Through this lens, writing this article is shameful precisely because it lacerates those who speak so much of their bleeding that I wonder what they would do with their time if their wounds ever healed and the culprit vanished from the face of the earth.
Put crudely, what contaminates this lens is not its focus; rather, it is the myopia of those who look through it. This myopia breeds a searing aversion to fruitful intellectual exchange that challenges politically progressive students at Williams to reexamine their sacred beliefs. Evincing said myopia, the ad hominem diatribe in this article’s opening quotation criminalizes freedom of thought, typifies progressive ideological absolutism, fuels motivated ignorance, and corrodes intellectual humility. This is to say:
1) When an individual goes so far as to describe someone as having blood on their hands for supporting the idea of bringing a highly controversial speaker to Williams, they are advancing the belief that what offends them should not be allowed on this campus precisely because it offends them and people who agree with them.
2) In an attempt to subvert antifeminism, this argument descends immediately to ideological absolutism by charging Venker’s political views with “actual mental, social, psychological, and physical” violence, absent any analysis or corroboration.
3) By assassinating Venker’s character (without presenting a shred of evidence), the argument implicitly characterizes any level of intellectual engagement with her work as futile, even immoral, thereby invalidating alternative understandings of feminism and antifeminism. In fact, such remarks unwittingly disparage scholarly efforts to scrutinize Venker’s work, which might engender sharp critiques that offer a pat on the back to the righteous activists leading the revolution.
I find it frustrating that some of our peers prefer demonization to thoughtful discussion. I understand that people are connected to various political issues in different ways, and that, for some, the stakes feel more personal. That, however, does not mean our political differences prevent mutual understanding. Whether we agree or disagree with her, each of us can learn from the work of Suzanne Venker, if we commit ourselves to doing so. I relish the fact that I can learn something from every student at this school about how they understand various facets of the world we live in.
At America’s top liberal arts college, we should not settle for petty personal attacks, unchecked confirmation bias, and Taco 6-like verbal harassments when we deeply disagree with people. We can come to terms with meaningful disagreements without making presumptions of guilt. We can critique each other intellectually and challenge people effectively without snidely suggesting that they are sexist, racist, anti-black, anti-feminist, or xenophobic. Fact is: All of us are biased. So before we discount what someone has to say because we think that they are biased or prejudiced, we should ask ourselves, as Socrates asked Plato, whose bias do we seek?
Too often, it seems, student activists who view the world through the blurred lens of motivated ignorance tend to accent the expression of existential catharsis without seriously confronting conservative arguments on political issues of significant interest to them. This willful disregard of uncomfortable learning, at times, results in insulated world-views.
When one only, or mostly, talks politics with people they agree with, they tend to receive a round of applause, but this ring of motivated ignorance, grounded on tribal insularity, suffocates the potential for uncomfortable learning and dynamic intellectual exchange. This ring of motivated ignorance, in fact, becomes the refuge of those who, in the face of intellectual challenges, avoid critical reexamination of their sacred beliefs at all costs.
To break through this ring of motivated ignorance, I suggest: make an effort, individually, to understand the very best counterarguments on the issues that you care about most. Mention should be made of the fact that the BSU made one such effort in their first general meeting this year. Intellectual integrity does not necessarily entail changing one’s mind. Rather, intellectual integrity consists of the willingness to be self-critical and think as hard as one can about counterarguments out of the understanding that each of us can and should try to learn from those with whom we vociferously disagree.