Kenneth Edison, Editor-in-Chief
Follow him at @krazo1
A panel of five EC professors and a famous political scientist unpacked how the growing partisan gap has affected civil discourse in a special teach-in on Friday, Sept. 29 titled ‘Dare to Disagree.’
“It’s very important to engage with ideas that differ from your own to find out what you really think,” said Middlebury College political scientist Allison Stanger.
Stanger was famously involved in an altercation at Middlebury College where she experienced a mob of students attempting to shut down her discussion with conservative political scientist Charles Murray.
“What surprised me was the level of discord that began to arise on campus,” she said. “There was a small group that wanted to shut down the speech and they were quite vocal and vehement. They reached out to an Antifa group in Burlington and brought them to campus.”
Stanger described the aftermath of the incident where many asked why she, a liberal political scientist, chose to speak with Murray, a conservative.
“I was asked to speak on why I chose to engage with Charles Murray. And the more I think about it the more it’s a funny question to even ask because it’s so obvious. We want to engage with people we disagree with because that’s how we learn,” she said.
Stanger and Murray were chased to different destinations when protesters made their discussion too chaotic to continue, silencing their platform to speak. Free speech, and the platforms to express that freedom quickly became a large focus for the teach-in and its subsequent Q&A session.
Dr. Ron Wiginton, who is the faculty advisor for The Leader, was on the panel of professors and gave an overview regarding how the First Amendment protects all kinds of speech, even if it is hateful.
“Here’s the deal, no matter how offensive it might be, the court consistently rules that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment,” he said, “What is not protected are acts of hatred. Burning a cross is within your constitutional rights, but you cannot burn that cross in someone else’s yard.,” he added.
Wiginton went on to point out that censoring opinions like the students attempted to do with Stanger and Murray often has the opposite effect.
“It’s been shown that attempts to silence a minority voice will almost always backfire. Censorship never works. Once you tell someone they cannot read a certain book, that book will most likely become a best seller,” he said.
Philosophy lecturer and fellow panelist Tyler Fagan admitted to feeling conflicted on how to approach the issue of hate speech and the reactions it elicits.
“If I’m being honest, I find myself confused and conflicted when it comes to the topic of free speech,” he said. “I suspect that I’m like many of you when you consider the question of how free should speech be, the answer that presents itself as correct would be something like: pretty free.”
Fagan acknowledged that the freedom to say whatever you want can often have harmful side effects, but argued those risks are ones that we must bear.
“Speech acts can do real things. Speech acts can do real harm in very real and familiar ways from libel to fraud to the old example of someone maliciously shouting ‘fire’ in a public theater.”
“On one hand we have the value of the right to free speech which demands our steadfast commitment,” he said. “On the other hand, upholding that commitment creates a responsibility on our part to offset and mitigate as best we can, the harms risked when we open the door to an expansive protection of speech.”
Other panelists included Urban Studies Department Chair Constance Mixon, who provided a map showing the partisan divide of the country. Intercultural Studies Department Chair Michael Lindberg also spoke and contextualized the discussion with a background of America’s complicated history with racist legislation.
During the Q&A portion of the teach-in, Dr. Bhoomi Thakore of the Sociology Department suggested a more drastic solution to the institutional racism that contextualizes many differences in political stances.
“You probably know my answer... I would say we need to dismantle all the structures in our society and just start over,” she said. “That’s the only way any kind of visible work can be done.”
After acknowledging that solution would be unrealistic, Dr. Thakore asserted that the teach-in itself was a concept that pushes society toward the goal of de-institutionalizing racism.
“So I’ll have to come up with a more realistic solution and that has to do with this kind of approach,” she said. “We’re talking about these issues, were thinking and making points about these various current events that are happening that deal with free speech, protected speech, racism etcetera. We can use them as teachable moments.”
While the problem of accepting hurtful opinions from others was openly acknowledged as a difficult task, Fagan resolved that the acceptance of these ideas will always be necessary.
“It’s going to take courage and intellectual honesty and empathy and a bunch of other virtues that are not easy to exercise all the time,” he said. “I think we often feel like we’re not doing toogood at walking this tight rope. We should probably feel like it’s hard, because it is hard. But we owe it to each other to try.”