Monday March 20, 2017

Why a campus protest has the right and left calling for more civilized discourse

Student protesters disrupt speaker Charles Murray, March 2, at Middlebury College.

Student protesters disrupt speaker Charles Murray, March 2, at Middlebury College. (middlebury.edu)

Listen 22:16

Read story transcript

On March 2, on the campus at Middlebury College, Vt., angry student protesters chanted, "Your message is hatred, we cannot tolerate it" in response to invited speaker, conservative social scientist Charles Murray.

Murray is the author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, that shares his race-based theories of human intelligence. His work has led him to be labelled a "white nationalist." 

While Murray is quite used to facing protesters before and after he speaks, the protest at Middlebury College prompted him to leave without getting to speak at all. 

As Murray stood at the podium, protesters turned their backs and drowned him out with shouting, making it impossible to be heard in the auditorium. Even as organizers moved Murray to a separate room where the moderated discussion could continue, protesters continued to disrupt the event by pulling fire alarms. 

Charles Murray

Although conservative author and social scientist Charles Murray has been labelled a 'white nationalist', he remains a frequent guest speaker on U.S. college campuses. (Twitter)

To conservative commentators, the episode is an example of what's described as the "intolerant left." But to the political left, it's raised concerns over the erosion of civil discourse. 

Jay Parini, a scholar and an English professor at Middlebury College, says he's horrified by the actions of student protesters.

"I'm coming at this from a left-liberal viewpoint and I didn't approve of any of the arguments that Murray was going to put forward," Parini tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"But I'm a passionate believer in free speech as the basis of not only all society but especially within a college or university community — this is where we start."

"And if we don't have free speech, we have nothing, we lose everything," he adds.

Parini, who is also a poet and novelist, says the "mob behaviour" displayed plays right into the hands of Trump supporters who condemn political correctness.

"I was fairly disgusted by it. But in the wake of this I've actually become very hopeful because I've seen a strong gathering of voices in support of free speech and saying, 'Look our students are strong enough to withstand any kind of argument,'" he tells Tremonti.

"They have to be encouraged and taught to debate. That is the basis of any civil society."

Parini protested in his youth and says approach is key in making a protest effective.

Everyone has the right to free speech "but not when it actually supersedes somebody else's right to speak."

"If somebody wants to speak in public and you shout them down and don't let them speak, I mean that's bullying behaviour."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post — including a cognitive scientist who explains his theory on why people are unreasonable about politics.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.