‘Racism Is a Pathetic Excuse for Disinviting a Speaker from Campus’ – Zach Wood

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the website The Fire, and has been republished here with the author’s permission.

In my time at Williams, President Falk has been an analytic and deliberative leader. However, I cannot help but think that Falk’s decision to cancel John Derbyshire’s speech at Williams not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This cancellation evidences the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. To be sure, I radically disagree with John Derbyshire on many of his views. Indeed, Derbyshire has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things to which I take exception. That is precisely why I was looking forward to exposing the flaws in his arguments. If every student does not desire the intellectual challenge of defending their own ideas against those they find objectionable, that is perfectly fine (anyone can choose not to attend the talk). However, for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity by disinviting the speaker was not merely injudicious, but undemocratic, irresponsible, and frankly, pathetic.

While there are students who concur with me and firmly believe that Falk made the wrong decision in canceling Derbyshire’s speech, there are also many students who support Falk’s decision on the grounds that hate speech should not be allowed on a college campus. For many of those who support Falk’s decision, bringing Derbyshire to campus should have been disallowed because of his offensive claims and racist remarks. Those who support Falk’s decision have legitimate reasons for doing so and their reasons warrant thoughtful consideration. Briefly put, many of the students who vehemently oppose bringing Derbyshire to campus feel that his views are dehumanizing in that some of his statements denigrate their intellect and question their humanity. Under that analysis, they believe that bringing Derbyshire to campus is destructive.

Since the cancellation of the event, I have spoken with students of all races who strongly support Falk’s decision. Although justifications differ, most of those who support Falk’s decision posit that a line must be drawn somewhere. Personally, I’m less convinced. This past Friday, I met with the Black Student Union and attendant students of color to gain a better understanding of the range of opinions on the issue. The conversation lasted for over two hours. The majority of dissenting opinions were expressed cordially and many were insightful and informative. Toward the end of the discussion, however, emotions were brought to bear as several students exclaimed that this was personal and then suggested that I bring a Black Panther or radical black activist to campus to show more racial solidarity and to better embody racial kinship.

Needless to say, I am sympathetic to their concerns and have always been open to the idea of bringing speakers to campus of various ideological stripes. In my tenure as president of Uncomfortable Learning, many people have asked me why I value provocative, even offensive speech. For me, it begins with my commitment to and love of the life of the mind, which for me is founded on my insatiable desire to gain a deeper understanding of the world and of humanity—including John Derbyshire and Suzanne Venker. I would describe myself, in most academic settings, as an intellectual purist. This means that while my identity may naturally affect how I feel and think about certain issues, I try my best to separate the head from the heart in thinking critically about any issue on which people heatedly disagree. While I can certainly learn from speech that is not provocative or offensive, it is often provocative and offensive speech that prompts me to be most critical and to ask tougher questions of my own reasoning, jarring me into looking at issues from different perspectives, even those that some dismiss for being racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. To many, Derbyshire’s views might not be worth trying to thoroughly understand. To me, they are worth the intellectual investment of interrogating and dismantling principally because that is the only way in which it may ever be conclusively decided upon that his racist views are invalid.

Some would argue that people like John Derbyshire contribute to an atmosphere in which minority viewpoints are disadvantaged before they’re even uttered or read. By this logic, until there is a level playing field, free speech can—and should—come second. From my experience, this argument is usually made by black students who feel that many white people actively resist putting racism at the center of political conversations. Many of these same students struggle to imagine change when they feel that their white peers refuse to deal substantively enough with racism. Thus, the imagination required for change seems inaccessible to them. This viewpoint, in fact, is at the very heart of what we’re seeing on college campuses around the country today.

Needless to say, there is an important virtue in the assertion of the value of black life; however, I am not convinced that racism needs to be at the center of every, or even most political conversations. Robust and open discussion of ideas, no matter their content, is of critical importance because that is how we gain a deeper understanding of our world and of humanity. We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas. We also should not settle for using the term “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic” as an excuse to dismiss or quarantine any idea that is felt to be deeply offensive. The best way to deal with speech we dislike is not to restrict it or quarantine it. Rather, it is to combat it, to challenge it, to question it, and to expose precisely what it is about such speech that is erroneous. Taking this approach, I believe, positions each of us to contribute to the advancement of human understanding by interrogating and evaluating the quality of competing ideas. Embracing a diversity of opinions and a multiformity of intuitions is essential to a pluralistic society.

And colleges across the country should embrace free debate because every student in America would be better off improving their ability to defend their own ideas rather than hoping that their ideas prevail by censoring those that disturb them.

14 thoughts on “‘Racism Is a Pathetic Excuse for Disinviting a Speaker from Campus’ – Zach Wood

  1. As a long-ago alumnus of another liberal arts college, I regret to inform you that this incident makes Williams look like a pack of quivering ninnies. If Williams students are so delicate that they cannot withstand exposure to views that contradict their late adolescent Weltanschauung, they should avoid careers in fields that involve controversy and debate. Goodbye law, public policy, and the more rigorous academic disciplines.

    • I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, unless you’re trying to shoehorn this into some imagined narrative about “college kids these days” being too cooped up in their own safe spaces to know about the outside world. The students who were calling for Derbyshire not to come were precisely those students who were engaging most with his ideas. Having read what he has written on topics similar to that of his planned talk, they decided that he has no place talking about this at a purportedly academic institution.

      Let me stress that at no point was anyone involved in this movement (so far as I am aware) trying to insulate themselves or others from Derbyshire’s ideas. On the contrary, those who were decrying Derbyshire were beyond eager to share his writings with others in the hopes that they, too, would come to see that he simply isn’t qualified to talk about topics such as race. If you think Williams students are avoiding controversy and debate, you should see the way the dining halls and Yik Yak feed explode when these things happen. The conclusions you’re drawing from this simply couldn’t be more wrong.

  2. I’m really proud of Zach Wood’s courage. Williams College is a small, isolated, insulated environment. It is easy to become ostracized there simply because you think independently and remain open to the true complexity of the world.

    Sadly, Williams College no longer deserves a reputation for intellectual excellence. I think it lost it long ago, by the way, as far back as 1989.

    Instead, it has become a rotted cesspool of politically correct doctrine, administered by a paternalistic administration which is more concerned with its Democrat party affiliations, than its reputation for encouraging persuasive independent discoveries.

    I’m please to see my friends at The College Fix are giving Zack the visibility he deserves for his remarkable vision and courage. http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/26316/ and http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/26302/

  3. Sure, we should engage with the views of people like Derbyshire. But what intellectual value do we get from having them give a short talk at Williams that we couldn’t get by reading what they have published in books or online? I even heard (and this may not actually be true, but it was going around) that there was no Q&A planned for the Derbyshire event, which, if true, would seem to rob the event of its only potentially redeeming factor.

    Really, the criticism I’ve heard the most often isn’t that the idea of bringing challenging speakers is bad — almost nobody I’ve talked to has said anything of the sort. Everyone agrees that hearing alternative points of view is immensely valuable. These particular speakers have simply been people we wouldn’t have learned much of substance from. I’m sure we can do better.

    What is UL’s process for choosing a speaker, anyway? Who makes the ultimate decision? How are they paid for? I’ve seen a lot of people wondering about these things and very few answers, so it would be interesting to shed some light on them.

  4. Memo to Zach Wood –
    Please invite the following people to campus.

    It will be instructive to see how Prof. Falk finds reasons to support their racist/anti-Semitic/sexist and heinous views as a worthwhile tool for a liberal arts education.

    Here is the partial list of the paragons of virtuous thinking:

    Haters of Jews/Israel
    Ali Khamenei – Iran Supreme Leader
    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Former President of Iran

    Haters of White America/Jews/Zionists
    Jerimiah Wright – Trinity Church Chicago
    Louis Farrakhan – Nation of Islam
    Malik Zulu Shabazz – Black Panther

    Haters of “Men”
    Robin Morgan
    Andrea Dworkin

  5. Ampersand (Feb. 23 at 2:37 a.m.), assuming as your post implies that you are a current Williams student, you are well aware that hearing someone speak and having the opportunity to ask him questions adds dimensions not available from simply reading his writings. That is one of the reasons you are attending college rather than doing the same readings on your own at much lower cost. Exerting pressure to prevent Derbyshire from coming to campus does not show engagement with his ideas; rather, it shows a nasty disposition to dictate to others that they should not hear what you do not want them to hear. It also indicates a degree of intellectual presumption that you will not earn until you have written half a dozen books, as Derbyshire has.

    As an aside, it is disappointing, though not surprising, that you lack the guts to use your real name.

  6. @ Kurt Schuler

    You have identified the fundamental essence of free speech and intellectual freedom, elegantly expressed in the Woodward Report:
    “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

    The Woodward Report should be required reading for all college students, faculty, and administrators.

    Finally, when intellectual freedom is under challenge, pseudonyms are an ethical attempt to point out truth. My originator lived in such times; Williams can do better.

  7. I couldn’t help but notice the way Sam Crane awkwardly attributed a fake quotation to John Derbyshire. This unforgivable mistake is nevertheless a great example of why it is so important to allow students to see controversial speakers face to face.

    Students cannot trust biased, ideologically driven professors like Crane to provide a fair or accurate explanation of the controversial author’s views.

    Controversial speakers provide great value when they appear on campus if only because students soon see that they are not the cartoon character monsters portrayed by their politically biased, sometimes completely unhinged professors.

  8. I recall we had a conservative speaker come on campus, there was a big controversy and within a week or two everything settled down and nothing much really changed. Why are people so afraid of ideas they don’t agree with these days? If you’re truly correct any challenge to your ideas should be easily defended, right?

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