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Williams College’s Zachary R. Wood: ‘Racism Is a Pathetic Excuse for Disinviting a Speaker from Campus’  

By February 22, 2016

Editor’s Note: In the wake of Williams College President Adam Falk’s decision to forbid writer John Derbyshire from coming to campus at the invitation of the student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, FIRE reached out to the program’s president, sophomore Zachary R. Wood, and invited him to share his thoughts with readers of The Torch.

In my time at Williams, President Falk has been an analytic and deliberative leader. However, I cannot help but think that Falk’s decision to cancel John Derbyshire’s speech at Williams not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This cancellation evidences the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. To be sure, I radically disagree with John Derbyshire on many of his views. Indeed, Derbyshire has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things to which I take exception. That is precisely why I was looking forward to exposing the flaws in his arguments. If every student does not desire the intellectual challenge of defending their own ideas against those they find objectionable, that is perfectly fine (anyone can choose not to attend the talk). However, for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity by disinviting the speaker was not merely injudicious, but undemocratic, irresponsible, and frankly, pathetic.

While there are students who concur with me and firmly believe that Falk made the wrong decision in canceling Derbyshire’s speech, there are also many students who support Falk’s decision on the grounds that hate speech should not be allowed on a college campus. For many of those who support Falk’s decision, bringing Derbyshire to campus should have been disallowed because of his offensive claims and racist remarks. Those who support Falk’s decision have legitimate reasons for doing so and their reasons warrant thoughtful consideration. Briefly put, many of the students who vehemently oppose bringing Derbyshire to campus feel that his views are dehumanizing in that some of his statements denigrate their intellect and question their humanity. Under that analysis, they believe that bringing Derbyshire to campus is destructive.

Since the cancellation of the event, I have spoken with students of all races who strongly support Falk’s decision. Although justifications differ, most of those who support Falk’s decision posit that a line must be drawn somewhere. Personally, I’m less convinced. This past Friday, I met with the Black Student Union and attendant students of color to gain a better understanding of the range of opinions on the issue. The conversation lasted for over two hours. The majority of dissenting opinions were expressed cordially and many were insightful and informative. Toward the end of the discussion, however, emotions were brought to bear as several students exclaimed that this was personal and then suggested that I bring a Black Panther or radical black activist to campus to show more racial solidarity and to better embody racial kinship.

Needless to say, I am sympathetic to their concerns and have always been open to the idea of bringing speakers to campus of various ideological stripes. In my tenure as president of Uncomfortable Learning, many people have asked me why I value provocative, even offensive speech. For me, it begins with my commitment to and love of the life of the mind, which for me is founded on my insatiable desire to gain a deeper understanding of the world and of humanity—including John Derbyshire and Suzanne Venker. I would describe myself, in most academic settings, as an intellectual purist. This means that while my identity may naturally affect how I feel and think about certain issues, I try my best to separate the head from the heart in thinking critically about any issue on which people heatedly disagree. While I can certainly learn from speech that is not provocative or offensive, it is often provocative and offensive speech that prompts me to be most critical and to ask tougher questions of my own reasoning, jarring me into looking at issues from different perspectives, even those that some dismiss for being racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. To many, Derbyshire’s views might not be worth trying to thoroughly understand. To me, they are worth the intellectual investment of interrogating and dismantling principally because that is the only way in which it may ever be conclusively decided upon that his racist views are invalid.

Some would argue that people like John Derbyshire contribute to an atmosphere in which minority viewpoints are disadvantaged before they’re even uttered or read. By this logic, until there is a level playing field, free speech can—and should—come second. From my experience, this argument is usually made by black students who feel that many white people actively resist putting racism at the center of political conversations. Many of these same students struggle to imagine change when they feel that their white peers refuse to deal substantively enough with racism. Thus, the imagination required for change seems inaccessible to them. This viewpoint, in fact, is at the very heart of what we’re seeing on college campuses around the country today.

Needless to say, there is an important virtue in the assertion of the value of black life; however, I am not convinced that racism needs to be at the center of every, or even most political conversations. Robust and open discussion of ideas, no matter their content, is of critical importance because that is how we gain a deeper understanding of our world and of humanity. We should not settle for merely refining and advancing our own ideas. We also should not settle for using the term “racist,” “sexist,” or “homophobic” as an excuse to dismiss or quarantine any idea that is felt to be deeply offensive. The best way to deal with speech we dislike is not to restrict it or quarantine it. Rather, it is to combat it, to challenge it, to question it, and to expose precisely what it is about such speech that is erroneous. Taking this approach, I believe, positions each of us to contribute to the advancement of human understanding by interrogating and evaluating the quality of competing ideas. Embracing a diversity of opinions and a multiformity of intuitions is essential to a pluralistic society.

And colleges across the country should embrace free debate because every student in America would be better off improving their ability to defend their own ideas rather than hoping that their ideas prevail by censoring those that disturb them.

Schools: Williams College