Why Uncomfortable Learning Is Right – Alex Sun ’15

In a recent piece penned for the Williams Alternative, Zach Wood ’18 (co-President of Uncomfortable Learning) criticized the culture of “motivated ignorance” on campus, a term he used to describe the insularity of many students and their unwillingness to challenge their esteemed beliefs. I agree with Zach’s stance that “we are all biased”. He and his peers at UL are biased. Those upset by their invitation of staunch anti-feminist, Suzanne Venker, as well as those who lauded it as a practice in intellectual freedom, are biased. I too am biased. I take sides. And I believe UL stood up for something right: freedom of speech at a college that prides itself on critical thinking and intellectual freedom. But criticism of their decision to invite Suzanne Venker is grounded in something very real, as is criticism of Zach’s piece in the Alternative. And yet, I think these critiques are ultimately mistaken. It’s my license to think so, and it’s yours to disagree.

The critiques are largely comprised of seven distinct points, which are outlined below. I address each of them in turn.

Point #1: It’s unfair to suggest that “vitriolic” and “ad-hominem” backlash from many dissenting students forced UL to cancel the event, when many of them were simply opposed to Venker’s ideas, rather than the event itself.

I get that dissent does not equal censorship. I get that many of you were only opposed to Venker’s ideas rather than her coming to campus (though there was a lot of flip-flop on this after the event was canceled). Was it unprofessional of UL to cancel the event just days before it was scheduled to happen, thereby wasting all of Venker’s time and effort in preparing? It really was.

But the fact is that many of UL’s organizers were indeed rattled by the scathing backlash, enough that they cancelled the event. It’s impossible to draw a line in the sand and prove which of the comments and heckles crossed over and which did not, but I can tell you this: I felt pretty intimidated just reading the comments posted on Facebook 700 miles away from Williams. It was obvious that many were calculated to be demeaning and accusatory towards the organizers. Vitriolic social pressure can function as an unspoken form of censorship. It’s a bewildering experience to be heckled on your way to class, to be harassed in your private inbox, and to have people tag your name on social media and accusing you of being culpable in acts of “violence”.

One can argue that the extent of this vitriol has been exaggerated. But remember that much of this was made on social media, which is another beast altogether. It’s a place where a single accusation can be seen by hundreds of your peers. While it could be said that it’s unfair to zone in on these comments and make them the face of all protest, social media is a world with its own dynamics, and for a fiercely accusatory and ad-hominem post to receive so much online support is an indication that such vitriolic tactics do indeed receive tacit approval from much of the student body. Nonetheless, it is their license to give it.

According to the Record, the members of Uncomfortable Learning canceled the event because “the nature of the backlash made them believe that the lecture would not achieve Uncomfortable Learning’s goals of generating productive conversation”. They made a solid assessment. There comes a point where communication becomes impossible, and the significance of the event is no longer the ideas that were debated between the speaker and attendees, but instead the revilement on display.

In a community of 2000 people, it takes only one person to throw something at Venker, or for someone to bar the entrance and refuse to step aside, or for a physical altercation to break out between participants and demonstrators, for an event to get out of hand. If there’s one thing the world knows about college students, it’s that they get pretty fired up. There’s no doubt that the organizers of UL considered these possibilities before canceling the event. They made the right call.

Point #2: Isn’t it ironic for Zach Wood ‘18 to cancel UL’s event due to the perception that the backlash against it was overly vitriolic, only to go on and pen a piece for the Alternative that was itself quite harsh? Might he be a little thin-skinned?

To clarify, Zach was the only member of UL adamantly opposed to cancelling the event. If he really was too sensitive to the backlash, enough to have wanted to cancel the event, then he would never have penned that piece in the Alternative. So let’s make an important distinction here: Zach’s piece speaks for Zach, not for his colleagues, and not for UL. It was his piece alone. Was it shy? No. His choice of words (“motivated ignorance”) was indeed unnecessarily strong in describing a social phenomenon that any other word, such as “insularity”, would more than have sufficed. It was bound to evoke strong reactions from fellow students. In that sense, he deserves criticism.

But why is it that I mollify the harshness of Zach’s words but not those of the students opposed to the event? After all, both their words stem from places of frustration. The distinction is this: Zach did not single out the names of people in his piece. He did not violate the privacy of individual students. His words were a response to those that were initially thrown at him. He showed, at the very least, the veneer of respect for the human autonomy of his detractors, something many of them failed to do in kind.

When people don’t respect the human autonomy of their peers because of the opinions they hold, everyone becomes equally miserable. At Williams, I’ve seen many students falter away from finishing their comments during class discussions when faced with growls and hisses from their classmates. I’ve seen students walk out of seminars brimming with anger because they betrayed fright and confusion in front of their peers. I’ve seen professors ask students to desist from hurling personal accusations at one another. It is your license to doubt my words, but there’s a reason why Zach’s piece on “motivated ignorance” spoke volumes to so many people on this campus. 

Point #3: Giving Suzanne Venker a platform to speak at Williams College is harmful because it is a symbolic validation of her ideas.

Suzanne Venker was not invited by Williams College. She was invited by Uncomfortable Learning, a student organization that isn’t funded by the college. Whether you simply wanted to listen to Venker, or voice your disagreement with her, or stage a demonstration against her, that’s entirely your license. But the purpose of UL is to establish a space for dialogue on ideas, no matter how uncomfortable. Venker isn’t just a controversial author and occasional talking head on Fox News; she espouses an ideology that’s shared by tens of millions of Americans. And so her voice does play a crucial part in the dialogue. Engagement does not equal endorsement.

There is real value in having a human speaker deliver his or her ideas to a live audience. When given limited time to make their case, they choose their words carefully and present their argument to the best of their ability. You have the chance to see first-hand how exactly they attract so many people to their ideas, to confront them with questions and counter-arguments, to see how they defend their ideas, and to empathize with their reasoning, even if you disagree voraciously with them. Empathy does not equal sympathy. And so UL is not a monologue. It’s a dialogue.

Point #4: Giving Suzanne Venker a platform to speak is harmful because her ideas are hurtful to some students, and because she gets paid to preach them.

No one can deny that some students are hurt by Venker’s ideas. It is not for me or anyone else to criticize those feelings. But you can put them into perspective: free speech and free intellectual debate cannot coexist with the total absence of offended sensibilities.

You can argue that there’s harm in paying a speaker to present offensive ideas on a public platform. But to have a public platform on which to hear everyone’s opinions is an exercise in free speech and intellectual debate, which I believe are worthy principles that have no price tag. As to whether the organizers and attendees of such an event are culpable in the perpetuation of “violence” in the world, one can acknowledge that violence exists in many forms. But what I’ve taken away from my time at Williams is this: you are the world you create. Where new ideas were turned into reality, that’s one world. Where the ideas drifted in the realm of imagination because its conjurer was too afraid to take a risk, that’s another world.

When I studied abroad in the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford, I saw firsthand what a free speech platform can bring to a collegiate world. At the Oxford Union, described as “the last bastion of free speech”, we saw amazing discussions out in its debate hall. The Union invites people from all walks of life, from best-selling authors to four-star generals and reality TV stars, to give speeches or participate in its weekly debates. It believes everyone, regardless of occupation or ideological stance, has something to say. And it doesn’t shy away from controversy. Past guests include Richard Nixon and Malcolm X. Its weekly debates have argued stances like “This House believes religion holds society back” and “This House would be glad to have gay parents”.

In my year, the Union invited George Galloway, Member of Parliament and perhaps the most polarizing figure in British politics. Hailed for his opposition to the Iraq war and his fight for working-class immigrants, yet reviled for his close association with anti-Semites and religious fundamentalists, Galloway was every bit as polarizing to the student body as he was everywhere else. But his speech was riveting, and the audience’s questions and criticisms were sharp and stimulating. There was applause and counter-applause. Tensions ran high. One student even waved an Israeli flag in his face. But if you asked a hundred students at Oxford if they would do away with the Union along with all its controversy, the vast majority of them would absolutely hate the idea. It’s an ingrained part of their collegiate culture. I envied them for what they had, and I wished we had something similar at Williams. 

Point #5: As one student succinctly asked: If UL truly believes in the disinterested engagement of ideas, then what’s stopping them from inviting Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, etc.?

UL is a student organization, not the Jerry Springer Show. There is a world of difference between inviting a Holocaust denier and inviting Suzanne Venker. Venker’s brand of anti-feminism is an ideology that pervades through everything in our world, while Holocaust denial is a negation of historical fact and established evidence. Venker’s ideas have tens of millions of sympathizers in this country, while Holocaust deniers are generally living beyond the pale. To put it bluntly, Venker’s ideas shape societal perception and our way of life, while Holocaust denial is a movement on the fringe. So too are those of tattooed skinheads and Westboro Baptist members.

Point #6: But what about inviting speakers that many can assert are closeted racists or undercover “white supremacists”, such as someone who advocates for the dismantlement of affirmative action, the institutionalization of colorblindness, the restriction of immigration, etc.? Should UL do that?

There is no reason why UL shouldn’t. Their ideas may not be popular with this student body, but they’re built on a substance (albeit sanitized) that resonates with a broad segment of society outside the Purple Bubble, thereby impacting our world in a significant way. That’s why those ideas exist in the first place. Once again, engagement does not equal endorsement.

Point #7: Despite all its talk about free intellectual debate, isn’t UL still “baiting” uproar and “trolling” students by inviting controversial speakers who espouse ideas that are inherently unpopular with a student body at a progressive-leaning institution?

It’s a shame that many don’t take the time to at least look up UL’s past work before making this often repeated and tiresome accusation. Here are the facts: UL has brought speakers with long and controversial careers challenging the comfort of conservative viewpoints. They include Norman Finkelstein, a devoted activist for the Palestinian independence movement, and Randall Kennedy, an African-American professor of law at Harvard University who writes about the intersection of racial inequality and the American justice system. Yet their invitation to Williams hardly saw the sort of backlash that was sparked by Venker’s scheduled visit. It’s a distinction that speaks volumes.

I attended a UL event that asked the uncomfortable question of whether athletic recruitment came at an academic setback to the college. It’s a divisive issue worth addressing considering that nearly half our student body is comprised of varsity athletes. The speaker was a Williams professor who gave quite a few compelling reasons against athletic recruitment. But the audience had even more time to ask questions and voice disagreement, and a coach brought up a few facts that really put a dent in his presentation. From that event, I learned there’s no statistically significant difference in GPA between male athletes and male non-athletes, and that female athletes have higher average GPAs than female non-athletes. It made me reflect on all the times I secretly dismissed athletes as a bunch of guys built like trucks and about as intellectually curious as the average brick.

Was there tension? Of course. The speaker was addressing a large crowd of athletes aware that many on this campus are dismissive of their academic abilities, and the atmosphere was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. But what I remember most was the clarity and dynamism of the conversation between the speaker and the audience. That was possible because people were calm. They let each other speak, they listened, they didn’t interrupt each another, and they made dialogue possible.

Someone pointed out that UL has yet to organize panel discussions which give voice to multiple speakers, each with different facets. Point taken. UL will really have to reflect on that. But at the end of the day, UL is a tiny student club of three people (down to two now) without much infrastructure or established procedures in place. And let’s face the sobering truth: a lot of people have never heard of Williams College. It’s harder to bring a panel of speakers to a student-run event at Williams than it is at the Harvard Kennedy School or the Oxford Union.

Williams is both a microcosm of the real world and, at the same time, an insulated place where the usual dynamics of exchange and discussion don’t happen. I think there’s more to this place than just a narrative of white-supremacist, heterosexual, male, cis-gendered, capitalist oppression.

10 thoughts on “Why Uncomfortable Learning Is Right – Alex Sun ’15

  1. “Williams is both a microcosm of the real world and, at the same time, an insulated place where the usual dynamics of exchange and discussion don’t happen. I think there’s more to this place than just a narrative of white-supremacist, heterosexual, male, cis-gendered, capitalist oppression.”

    Nah, it’s a place where you get to bully people if you talk about the narrative of white-supremacist, heterosexual, male, cis-gendered, capitalist oppression.

  2. I am honestly surprised by the number of cowards on this campus who aren’t willing to put their names to their words. Honestly amazes me. If you can’t do that at Williams where the stakes are so low I have few hopes for the future of y’all. This goes out to people on both sides of the issue. Regardless of my opinions on anything regarding this whole debacle I greatly appreciate Zach’s and the writers of the response article willingness to do so.

    • For the love of God, Aramis, please get off your high horse. You are not holier because your ass sits higher up from the ground.
      At a social factory like Williams, people too often fail to make the distinction between the argument and the author, allowing the latter to overshadow the former. Your accusations are a case in point. The arguments presented here are fairly polite and conciliatory. But it looks like you couldn’t resist throwing the first punch. Maybe if you focused on the arguments, we’d be able to move on to the real issues.

  3. I fail to see where I’m making accusations regarding the authors point of view. They wrote and interesting article. Doesn’t change the fact that many people at Williams prefer to go by anonymous sources rather than actually stand by what they say. My comment was made only addressing that trend and my disappointment in this person and others for continuing it.

  4. Nice work. Regarding point #5 — I’d take it a step further. if some student or group wanted to invite a Holocaust denier or white supremacist, as sure as I am that there is no value in either perspective and as much as they sicken me, I still don’t think it should be blocked by anyone (either officially or implicitly through intimidation). Hopefully this wouldn’t happen too often, and probably the audience would be pretty small to zero (what is there to say?), but I still lean on the side of not policing words/points of view so long as there are no direct threats. Otherwise you are still in the territory of having some governing body make judgments of what is within bounds. The arguments you make are obvious to you but they won’t be to everyone or in all cases.

  5. Many people at Williams have the same opinion on anonymity as mentioned above, and I simply cannot see why it matters at all.

    I much prefer anonymity, especially when entertaining unpopular stances, so that I’m not viewed by others simply as “that guy with that opinion”. It goes the other way too. I’d rather see other people here as generally nice people, and would rather not have that biased by just one single opinion they’ve put their name to, however stupid or poorly argued I think their opinion is. You can tell me not to judge, and I usually don’t, but it can be quite difficult not to judge (especially when someone argues like a complete asshole). I sometimes have to actively catch myself when I see certain people and remind myself that there’s more to them than just being an asshole, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

    As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with anonymity. People act as if your opinion is not valid unless you put your name to it, or that your opinion is more valid with a name attached. That’s wrong. My opinion here is perfectly valid even if I’m anonymous. It shouldn’t even matter who I am. My argument should be judged regardless of my name, race, political affiliation, etc. For the purposes of a written discussion, putting out my name would only serve to bias the readers. But for some reason, many are fixated on calling those who prefer anonymity “cowards” and “pussies” and telling them to “grow some balls”. The skeptic in me says the goal of this is so that these people can know who to dislike, can try to discredit others’ opinions based on their personal characteristics and backgrounds, and can gather fuel for ad hominem attacks. My more optimistic side says they simply want to be able to engage in discussion in person, but I find this to be unlikely since insulting and verbally assaulting those who prefer anonymity is a poor way to achieve this goal and I think Williams students know better than to expect a favorable result through harassment. Perhaps I am giving Williams students too much credit.

    • Posting anonymously is only an issue if it indicates that people are afraid of the repercussions of having the “wrong” opinions, however subtle, implicit, or indirect. I seriously doubt people with the “correct” opinions would feel any such pressure and I’m sure are typically happy and proud to put their names on their posts.

      I admire people on the wrong side of this debate who post their names. I would not however pass judgment on those who are uncomfortable doing so. It is understandable.

      Of course, some people choose to post anonymously for a range of other reasons. Those cases aren’t so interesting to me, and I’m not referring to them in my opinions above.

Leave a Comment