Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the author’s blog, Useless Tree, and has been re-published here with the author’s approval.
I am a teacher. Every day I make decisions about what my students read and write, and what kinds of speech are intellectually meaningful in our classroom discussions. Within the limits of my pedagogical goals, I encourage them to freely explore arguments, push and pull ideas in unexpected directions, make mistakes. When it works well, it’s like John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things: marvelous innovation within the limits of the melodic structure.
From that perspective, I can see why President Adam Falk was right to cancel the planned appearance of a speaker widely recognized, on both left and right, for his racist views. Williams College does not have an open-ended obligation to provide a platform for unmediated racist speech, nor is it a place of absolutely unlimited speech. Because we are an institution of higher education, our mission is to promote and support speech, and writing and learning, that is intellectually meaningful. The planned event did not meet that standard and, thus, was rightfully cancelled. Indeed, it should never have been scheduled in the first place.
Let me provide what might seem to be an extreme example as a starting point. Assume that I am teaching a class on Chinese politics, my field. One day I ask a question about the assigned reading and a student responds, “Fuck you.”
Clearly such a speech act would be out of line. I would be shocked if it happened, and I would ask the student what he meant. Suppose he repeated it. Suppose further that this behavior persisted for weeks, that he was in his right mind and was determined to say what he wanted regardless of any external constraint. Obviously, I would talk to the student, tell him to desist or a penalty would be imposed: he would get a zero on the “participation” portion of his final grade. I would also tell him that his behavior is disrupting the learning environment for other students.
Although highly unlikely, this example brings to light two criteria that might be used in a college classroom to limit speech: irrelevance and disruption.
In the abstract world of free speech absolutists, the student has a right to say “fuck you” if he wants. Indeed, the First Amendment guarantees that the power of the state cannot be invoked against him. Yet in the particular context of a college classroom more specific criteria are used to judge what is intellectually meaningful speech, and it is the duty of the teacher to engender such speech, even if that means limiting other speech acts that he or she deems irrelevant or disruptive of the learning process of other students.
We can see those criteria at work in a somewhat more likely scenario. When I teach about the horrendous violence of the Rape of Nanjing, I give my students readings from a variety of perspectives. We talk about historical details and the politics of interpretation. I tell them that, just like Holocaust deniers, there is a fringe group of writers who argue that no violence at all was perpetrated by the Japanese military against the people of Nanjing. I inform them of the existence of these arguments but I do not give them the book I have on my shelf that runs down the rabbit hole of denial (were a student doing an independent project on holocaust denial, I would certainly provide all relevant sources to her). The reason for my not spending more time and attention on those arguments in class is, simply, they are empirically wrong. To dwell on them at length would be to slip into irrelevance and dissoluteness.
Furthermore, if a student were to write a paper that argued, as a matter of fact and without providing some hitherto unknown evidence, no violence at all ever occurred in Nanjing in 1937, I would, at first, be bewildered. After speaking with the student and urging revision in light of clear historical error, should the student persist, I would give the paper a very low grade, perhaps a failing grade. I would, in this sense, punish speech that was irrelevant. And if that student decided to stand up in class and repeat these erroneous arguments, I would limit him on grounds of disruption.
Again, this example may seem far-fetched (though something rather close to this has happened in my experience), it illustrates something essential about teaching, an endeavor that involves the daily judgment of countless speech acts and the occasional limitation of some of them.
Notice: occasional limitation. Our jobs involve encouragement of a very wide range of speech. Students are free to challenge the arguments we put forth and the texts they confront. Many times inaccurate or morally dubious statements can be pedagogically useful. But though the latitude is very wide, it is not unlimited. All teachers must occasionally reject some speech acts as irrelevant or disruptive to learning. That is what teaching entails.
The crux of the matter is: who decides what might be irrelevant or disruptive? Academic freedom, the freedom of the teacher to define his or her pedagogical goals and to decide what texts will be read and how the classroom will be managed, is the foundation of American higher education. I, the teacher, decide. Not the politician or the hedge fund manager or the newspaper editor, who have no experience of actually teaching and no obligation to the specific students in my classroom. And that tradition of academic freedom has produced the world standard in college and university education. We know what we are doing when we occasionally limit speech in the service of our intellectual purposes.
We can scale-up this dynamic to think about invited speakers. Here, again, we take into account how such events relate to our broader educational mission. We are very much attuned to the extraordinarily wide variety of intellectual trends and specialties not commonly found in general American discourse, ranging across many disciplines and fields: French literature, contemporary performing arts, neuro-biology, ancient Chinese philosophy, ethnomusicology, and on and on. Our purpose, as a liberal arts college that creates and preserves knowledge of myriad sorts, is not to proportionally represent current political debates, most of which are amply available to our students through various media. Most of our invited speakers, beyond the odd celebrity appearance, are academics doing what might appear to be obscure intellectual work. That is the goal: to present something new, something seemingly obscure, and learn from it.
When we make decisions about who might fulfill these criteria we do so collectively because we are a community of learning. If I have an idea for a speaker, I consult with my colleagues. If funding is needed, I ask the Chair of my department or other departments for support. A wide variety of student groups engage in collective decision-making to come up with proposals for speakers. When those discussions involve faculty, we encourage outcomes that will be intellectually valuable.
Attendance at such events is not compulsory, so disruption is not the same as in a classroom. If a person doesn’t like a particular talk, he or she can just walk out. But disruption of a different sort might still be a factor. It depends on the context and expectations of the event.
Let’s return to the person who repeatedly says “fuck you.” Perhaps if, as a staged event, this were framed as some sort of performance art, it might have a certain intellectual value. If, however, it were a famous anthropologist expected to expound on his recent fieldwork, we would all look askance, and wonder what happened to the poor fellow. Some might take offense. If the anthropologist took off his clothes and engaged in a sex act while repeating the expletive, more would likely take offense. At some point the scale of offense would disrupt the community. If a sufficient number of colleagues and students were outraged, legitimate questions would be raised about the intellectual value of the event. And, knowing this, should a student group suggest a return visit by the anthropologist, a rejection of this proposal, on the grounds of disruption and irrelevance – irrelevant because lacking in intellectual value – could be acceptable.
Of course, such a situation is very rare. Most decisions about speakers on campus fit comfortably within community expectations of intellectual relevance and civility. Sometimes lines are crossed, and offense is taken by some. We tolerate most such instances because others, maybe many others, might find value over and above offense. Although we generally err on the side of including potentially offensive speech,there may be rare moments where offense lapses into harassment. Balancing relevance versus disruption is a tricky business, one that we confront every day in the classroom. We are, at times, criticized by activists and commentators outside our campus for getting that balance wrong. That is their right. And it is our right, exercised through our academic freedom, to be the final arbiters of when racist speech of minimal intellectual value can be prohibited on our campus.
In the unusual case of the invited racist, President Falk decided that insufficient intellectual value would be gained against the great deal of disruption and harassment it would cause.
To appreciate this very rare occurrence (in my twenty six years as a faculty member at Williams I cannot recall an analogous case), it is necessary to understand its particulars.
The decision to invite the racist was not taken by the usual processes of community deliberation. The group involved is not a duly recognized student group at the college and thus it does not stand for or represent “Williams College”. It is a small but unknown number of students in league with a coterie of anonymous alumni who operate outside of the standard organizational and financial procedures of the College that other student and faculty groups follow. A key alumni organizer is well known for his conservative ideology, and that appears to animate the actions of the group. Their access to tens of thousands of dollars of funding, unavailable to any other members of the Williams community, has led me to characterize them elsewhere as representing a certain“conservative privilege.” They have chosen to establish themselves outside of customary practices of the community and it was that from vantage that they extended this invitation.
So this group decided that it would be a good thing to hear a racist speak, a racist whose writings are readily available. No context was provided for the talk. No public framing that might suggest why it might be good to hear a racist speak or what the specific educational goal might be. The working assumption seems to have been that any speech at any time will have intellectual value above and beyond its possible irrelevance to the College’s educational mission or the disruption it might cause to the community, an assumption invalidated by the daily classroom experience on campus.
As it turns out, the College’s educational mission does not require that we hear the racist speak. Racist speech is not novel or intriguing, it is, unfortunately, common and abusive. With so much intellectual material out in the world, so much of it of greater value than a run-of-the-mill racist, and so much more of it not present in our current academic life, we can do our jobs very well without the racist.
Then there is the matter of disruption. In this case, it really is like the person saying “fuck you.” That is what statements like
“African Americans are genetically inferior to White Americans and thus should be avoided by Whites” “John Derbyshire’s execrable article “The Talk: Nonblack Version” are. They are a “fuck you.” They are intellectual disruptions on several levels. They roil the community at large in intellectually unproductive ways.
We might be able to think of some carefully constructed contexts where confrontations with racist statements could be made intellectually meaningful: an artistic performance with a particular purpose or a reading in a class designed specifically to engage with such speech acts. But care must be taken in such instances to ensure that the disruption does not overwhelm the intended intellectual value. None of that was happening with the invitation extended to the racist.
Williams College has no obligation to support racist speech that falls outside of, and might undermine, its educational endeavors. We limit speech in many ways, in the classroom and in events on campus, because we are focused on a particular academic mission: to encourage our students to “…explore widely and deeply, think critically, reason empirically, express clearly, and connect ideas creatively.” As teachers we are daily engaged in decisions about what particular kinds of speech acts best promote those goals in a wide range of disciplines with a diverse set of students. There is much excellent material to draw upon in the pursuit of this objective. Random acts of uncontextualized and unmediated racism do not serve our mission.
President Falk was thus right to take the decision he did. Faculty will legitimately question the abrupt use of executive power in this regard, something we have not seen before. He is not the single teacher of a campus-wide classroom, but one member of a community of learning who happens to have certain administrative duties and authority. He was confronted with a highly unusual case, where the distinction between offensive speech, which might be acceptable, and harassment, which might reasonably be prohibited, had to be adjudicated very rapidly. Given the unusual circumstances of this case, the lack of prior community consideration of the invitation and the short time frames involved, his choice was reasonable.
Some will disagree with his decision, as is their right. But we will continue to exercise our academic freedom, as a community of learning, to make the many decisions required to maximize intellectually meaningful education for our students.
And now, with that discordant note out of the way, it’s time to get back to Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.