Credit the New York Times with digging a little ways beneath the toxic surface of the Middlebury College disorders to find out what students there are presently thinking about the protest that injured a professor and closed down the sociologist Charles Murray’s intended lecture.
Faint glimmers of common sense appear in the responses. As: “We have to be willing to listen to one another through our buzzwords and despite our ideological differences.” (Edward O’Brien). And: “In the United States, we have reached a point where nobody is willing to engage with viewpoints that don’t conform to their own.” (Phil Hoxie). And “It’s Charles Murray today, but what if it were a communist speaker tomorrow?” (Sophie Vaughan).
But also: “Student protesters were not violating Mr. Murray’s First Amendment rights when they spoke out against him. They were changing the terms of the discussion.” (Elizabeth Siyuan Lee). Ms. Lee dilated on her already expansive position: “How could students engage in debate on an equal playing field when Mr. Murray had a microphone, and we were just members of the audience?” The implied remedy: Grab Mr. Murray’s microphone; make sure nobody “engaged in debate.” Solves that problem: no talking, no exchanging ideas, no learning through exchange; just yelling, just vilifying, just accusing.
It isn’t that students are necessarily less rational than they used to be; it’s partly that they receive, from their instructors in academia benevolent permission to feel resentment at perceived heresies, and to let that resentment boil over into conduct formerly considered juvenile and sometimes unhinged.
Nobody should forget where the present disposition to shout down opposition commenced: at temples of learning like the University of California-Berkeley and Columbia University, way back in the mid-to-late ‘60s, of rancid memory. The liberal faculty of the day weren’t disposed to lecture students – intellectual co-equals, as they seemed to more intellectually awakened faculty spirits – on the virtues of withholding judgment pending mastery of all the facts. Goodness, no – that would have been to discourage justifiable wrath at the injustices of the day: war in Southeast Asia, white racism, police brutality, etc., etc.
Just as discipline of various kinds sinks into the human makeup, so permissiveness becomes, first, a pleasant experience, then the expected norm. It’s not just that you don’t expect your professor any more to tell you how the cow ate the cabbage; you don’t, if you’re a student, expect anyone to tell you you’re wrong, not least in your challenge to long-accepted viewpoints like the friendly uses of free speech.
Behold, at Middlebury, the working out of the pride and passion of the ‘Sixties. Behold also hints of a not necessarily inevitable but certainly possible backlash. “What if it were a communist speaker tomorrow?” It might be: a good point for reflection – by communists and non-communists alike.