March 16 2017
A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged.
And a campus liberal who's been mugged by campus radicals can discover what liberalism is actually supposed to mean: freedom of speech and expression.
That's what's seemed to have happened after violent student protesters at Middlebury College didn't just shut down a scheduled March 2 speech by Bell Curve author Charles Murray but physically assaulted Allison Stanger, the Middlebury politics professor moderating the speech, sending her to the hospital with a concussion.
Suddenly a lot of liberal professors got "woke"--to the idea that campuses are supposed to be forums for actually discussing controversial ideas, instead of "safe spaces" for shielding students like hothouse flowers from anything that might offend their delicate sensitivities.
Stanger herself, by her own description anything but a conservative, wrote an eloquent March 13 op-ed in the New York Times in which she reiterated her willingness to host Murray's speech, even though she strongly disagreed with his theories that link racial and class-based stratification in America to performance on standardized intelligence tests, theories that have led some to call him a racist.
I know that many students felt they were standing up to protect marginalized people who have been demeaned or even threatened under the guise of free speech.
But for us to engage with one another as fellow human beings — even on issues where we passionately disagree — we need reason, not just emotions. Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments. They could have challenged him in the Q. and A. If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the option of protesting outside, walking out of the talk or simply refusing to attend.
And now, one of academia's most prominent liberals, Harvard philosophy and African-American studies professor Cornel West, has teamed up with a prominent conservative professor, Robert George of Princeton, to publish a joint statement denouncing "campus illiberalism" and supporting “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression" on college campuses. The statement is a brief but pungent defense of what a liberal education is supposed to stand for:
The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share....
Our willingness to listen to and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree (especially about matters of profound importance) contributes vitally to the maintenance of a milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects us against dogmatism and groupthink, both of which are toxic to the health of academic communities and to the functioning of democracies.
The first fellow professor to sign the statement was...Allison Stanger. Inside Higher Education reports:
Stanger said she was asked to sign the statement first and did so, willingly. “It is beautifully written and badly needed, both for college campuses and the country at large,” she said via email. “Nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters.”
Another signer was Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer, who has attracted disruptive student protests over his controversial support of abortion and euthanasia of disabled infants. He joined with Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard who opposes abortion and is, as Inside Higher Ed put it, "in many ways Singer’s ideological opposite."
George told Inside Higher Ed that "signatures for the statement were flowing in at rate of several per minute, and that the names reflect all points of the ideological spectrum."
So--health, in the form of a healthy respect for opposing views that is the essence of true liberalism, may be returning to America's college campuses after all.
Sometimes, sad to say, it takes a mugging.