The Munger Rule – Jack Noelke ’13

It’s time to focus on solutions. After a week in which the Washington Post, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lambasted my alma mater, there is no reason to criticize the bright, well-meaning students who attend Williams College without offering a way forward.

For those who were unplugged: The leaders of Uncomfortable Learning, a group that brings underrepresented voices to campus, revoked an invitation to anti-feminist speaker Suzanne Venker. Ironically, campus dissent made Uncomfortable Learning members uncomfortable. When co-leader Zach Wood ’18 wrote an article in the Williams Alternative, however, he highlighted a chorus of character assassination attempts that occurred on social media. One claimed that Wood was “dipping [his] hands in the blood” of marginalized groups. Predictably, multiple media outlets cited this episode as yet another example of undergraduates shouting down views they don’t want to hear.

Here is an invitation to both sides of the Venker debate: At an institution like Williams, students are responsible for openly engaging with their opponents. In his 2007 University of Southern California commencement address, Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger offered students his own “iron prescription” to avoid self-serving bias: I am not entitled to have an opinion on any subject until I can state the arguments against my position better than my opponents can do it themselves.

Imagine how intelligent public discourse would be in America if everyone tried to follow the Munger Rule. Political participants would actively seek out opposing ideas and consider them carefully. Students can determine how to do this at Williams, but I will open the conversation with a few suggestions.

According to critics of the Venker event, some students at the College would relish an opportunity to see modern feminism debated out of spite rather than to forward intellectual discourse. Whether or not these students ever decide to publicly bear witness against themselves as Enemies of the People, they would benefit from taking at least one Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) course. I think they might be pleasantly surprised. A friend once asked me to list the five best courses I took at the College, and two of them had the WGSS label.

Provocative groups like Uncomfortable Learning are important for pushing intellectual boundaries at the College. If Uncomfortable Learning predicts that a topic will generate inappropriate backlash, sometimes a measure of diplomacy might help both sides follow the Munger Rule. To establish trust, what if Uncomfortable Learning engaged feminists with a critic who began her or his career from a pro-feminist perspective? Two scholars immediately come to mind. Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor at the American Enterprise Institute, used to teach WGSS. She still self-identifies as a feminist, but she makes heretical claims that ignite plenty of debate. For discussing men’s rights, former feminist Warren Farrell sat on the New York City Board of the National Organization of Women. His ice-breaking questions usually include the benign, “Why do more men die in war?”

Given that Uncomfortable Learning voluntarily canceled its event, its opponents are right that the media unfairly focused on them. However, these activists should still be above using character defamation tactics, especially on social media. It is immature to assume that the leaders of Uncomfortable Learning have malicious intentions. Uncomfortable Learning offered a viewpoint that caused hurt feelings, but deliberately bullying specific individuals is a different level of verbal violence.

Williams is capable of leading the way in re-establishing freedom of expression on campus. President Obama has challenged college students to do as much. We should be thankful that the great activists of history – whether Mary Wollstonecraft or Martin Luther King – didn’t flee into a safe space every time they heard hurtful words.

It is tempting to conflate dissent with danger. Last week, the Washington Post blasted the Record for considering whether students should be barred from “introducing harmful thoughts” at the College. Assuming that the Record’s apology was genuine, I see no reason to pile criticism on a student newspaper. Prominent intellectuals have often made the same mistake. Indeed, the listener is not always the best judge of which thoughts are “harmful,” and our perception of certain views can change upon further reflection.

Civil discourse requires discipline, humility and freedom for ideas we detest. There is a way for the campus to heal. As a student at the College, before you condemn a political rival, ask yourself this question: Am I sure that I can argue my opponent’s view as eloquently as they would argue it themselves?

14 thoughts on “The Munger Rule – Jack Noelke ’13

  1. Jack, this is truly a fantastic point. I appreciate someone finally looking at these issues dispassionately and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. We need more pieces like this.

    This can be a rallying point for all, for both sides to come together and engage in a civil and open discourse with a foundation of mutual respect. Thank you for your maturity. I think we’ve had enough of finger-wagging from all sides.

  2. Simply fantastic. This is the perfect response – very balanced and constructive. I definitely will take “The Munger Rule” to heart.

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself. A very elegant response. Glad to read your balanced perspective as someone who’s also still deeply committed to Williams two years out from graduation. Thanks for not casting blame… we can all learn from these events!

  4. Excellent. I really like the concept of articulating the other side’s best arguments. People of all political and social views tend to do exactly the opposite.

    I consider myself very liberal but can’t get over the sense that something is very wrong on many campuses. Disagreeing vehemently (and even loudly) is still very different from demonizing. Whether it should or shouldn’t, the latter leads to a culture where people are afraid to publicly own certain viewpoints. I just can’t see such a culture as a victory for the left in any sense of the word.

  5. What is puzzling to me about this whole situation is why didn’t the Williams College administration take practical steps to protect the UL organizers from the bullies who sought to shut down the event. It is clear to me that at least one of the UL organizers was anxious about the physical threats faced by Suzanne Venker if she followed through with her speaking commitment. At a minimum, the administration should have assured the UL organizers that security would be tight and that anyone who attempted to disrupt the event would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. As it looks now, it sounds as if the administration failed to provide a safe atmosphere for the UL organizers.

    • The administration didn’t take practical steps to protect the UL organizers because there was no need to protect them. They were not in harm’s way. Their peers had zero intention of engaging in any form of violence. There were no physical threats made as the planned protest was to be a peaceful one. You seem to be poorly informed on what exactly transpired between the different groups of students, so your accusation and your suggestion that UL be given special protection are totally unsubstantiated.

      • I’ve been following the comments here and elsewhere for a long time now. One of the reasons offered by the UL organizers for shutting down the UL event is that they did not have the time to establish proper security measures. If you exercise a little more empathy for others, I think you will understand why they had reason to be anxious about Venker’s safety. This is why, for example, Zack felt the need to provide Suzanne with a heads up about the extraordinary level of conflict at Williams prior to her appearance.

      • It is clear to me that a lack of security was a factor in preventing Suzanne’s appearance on campus. According to Slate:

        The concern, Wood explained, was that “people would get riled up while she was speaking,” maybe even throw things, and there wasn’t time before the event to organize security. “You never know,” he said. “We’re just trying to think ahead here. The last thing we wanted to do was do something destructive.”

        See, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/inside_higher_ed/2015/10/williams_college_uninvites_suzanne_venker_after_student_backlash.html

        • You haven’t been at Williams in about 30 years, and your time here was incredibly limited (two years? three, max?), so pardon me if I take your opinions on the culture here with the slightest grain of salt.

          That being said, I am currently a student here who has seen and listened to conversations and discourse from the students involved first hand. Zach Wood and his fellow UL leaders made an outrageous, far-fetched assumption that the crowd could get rowdy. Even then, Zach Wood has said on social media pages that you don’t have access to that he did not (mean to) imply that the students would get violent (despite the fact that his words suggested someone might throw something at Venker).

          Again, John C. Drew, Ph.D., you do not have enough information to imply that the students of UL do not have a safe space to hold their talks and express their ideas. They’ve had their safe space and they will continue to have their safe space. Venker was not going to be the first UL speaker of this year.

          • You sound like someone in an abusive marriage who thinks they need to sugar coat reality for the outside world. You suggested there was no need for protection for UL and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I have indicated that Zach Wood saw a need for protection and I have provided you with evidence. What’s so bad with just admitting you are wrong? I didn’t become an award-winning political scientist by denying the reality. :-)

        • In fact, I’ve just noticed that the bit about students potentially throwing this is not in quotation marks, so I am inclined to question whether or not those were Wood’s own words, of if the author of the Slate article took creative liberty in embellishing it.

  6. I think this comes with one caveat, that academic types account for this rule, and so design their verbiage to be so misleading that learning it becomes an almost self-destructive act for any rational human being.

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