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Speaker Disinvited from ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ Series for Making Students Uncomfortable

By October 22, 2015

Students at Williams College in Massachusetts disinvited self-described “cultural critic” Suzanne Venker, author of The War on Men and The Flip Side of Feminism, from the “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series after other students protested her scheduled talk on campus. According to Inside Higher Ed, the Uncomfortable Learning series is run by Williams students and funded by alumni. The college itself was not involved in the disinvitation.

Zach Wood, one of the students in charge of running the series, told Inside Higher Ed that while he personally wishes Venker could have spoken, security concerns brought on by the hostile response to her invitation prompted the decision to cancel her talk.

Wood said that he worried ”people would get riled up while she was speaking. …The last thing we wanted to do was do something destructive.”

Writing for FOX News, Venker herself explained how the group informed her via email that she was no longer welcome to give her talk, entitled “One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails”:

“Thank you for agreeing to speak,” read the email, “but we’re not going to be able to host this event.”

Though my contact didn’t give a reason, the day before he’d sent me this email: “Dear Ms. Venker, A quick heads up…We’ve been advertising the event, and it’s already stirring a lot of angry reactions among students on campus. We just wanted to make you aware of the current state of students before your presentation…”

When I pressed further as to why the event was being cancelled (though of course I knew why), he conceded that Williams College “has never experienced this kind of resistance” to a campus speaker.

The plain irony here is that the very point of this particular speaker series is to bring speakers whose viewpoints likely clash with many students’ beliefs. Indeed, Williams describes the “Uncomfortable Learning Initiative” as “an effort to provide countering or unheard opinions on a variety of issues, all with the goal to facilitate greater critical analysis of our own views and encourage diversity of thought.”

While universities themselves often disinvite speakers under pressure from the campus community, it is more unusual to see a student group behind these actions. However, as FIRE president and CEO Greg Lukianoff discussed in his widely acclaimed article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the call to sanitize campuses of offensive viewpoints is increasingly coming from students themselves. It’s no surprise, then, that the student group behind Uncomfortable Learning—a speaker series openly attempting to increase diversity of thought on campus—would be a target for this kind of pressure.

Yesterday, the Williams College student newspaper The Williams Record published an editorial highlighting the conflict students face when confronted with controversial speech. The Record’s editorial board goes back and forth between praising the benefits of confronting new viewpoints and openly fretting about students who might face “emotional injury.” In that vein, the Record’s staff editorial resolves very little:

The potential value and harm of inviting Venker to speak are difficult to quantify. Weighing the two against each other is an even more complicated calculus, and we at the Record could not come to a unified consensus on this calculation. It is important that Uncomfortable Learning pushes the envelope of campus discourse, but they must consider the potential damage of introducing harmful thoughts into the safe space that is so vital to the College’s ability to nurture and educate.

Here at FIRE, we believe it’s an easy equation to solve: when you add more speech to combat speech you dislike, the result is the safest space of all. It’s a place where everyone’s ideas—even uncomfortable ones—can be thoughtfully considered and debated.

For more information about speaker disinvitations, you can view FIRE’s comprehensive Disinvitation Database, which logs university-led efforts to disinvite campus speakers.

Schools: Williams College