Opening Up: A Podcast

Podcasts allow people to listen deeply on their own terms. This form of listening can open us up to different viewpoints and enhance subsequent efforts at dialogue. In that spirit, the Engaged Listening Project supported a pilot podcast episode. “Lessons from a Speaker Shutdown” focuses on student views two years after a controversial speaker visited Middlebury in March 2017. The file, transcript, and show notes are below. Thank you for listening!

Listen on Stitcher here and on iTunes here.

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OPENING UP: LESSONS FROM A SPEAKER SHUTDOWN

AUGUST 2019

TRANSCRIPT

SCENE 1: INTRODUCTION

NARRATOR: My name is Sarah Stroup, and I am a professor in the political science department at Middlebury College in Vermont.  Middlebury is a beautiful place – the college sits at the edge of a classic New England town.  There is rolling farmland all around and mountain ranges on either side.  Our college is a great place, but it’s not a perfect one. Today there isn’t really a single picture of what Middlebury is. If you enter the word “Middlebury” into the Google search bar, the autocomplete does suggest “Middlebury College,” but it also suggests “Middlebury protests.”  That new picture of our campus was formed in March 2017, when the political science department and a student group sponsored a talk by a controversial speaker. 

Allison Stanger, Middlebury Professor:  Last February, several of my students asked me to moderate a talk with the libertarian scholar Charles Murray.

Alexander Khan, Middlebury Student: This evening’s speaker, Charles Murray. [boos]

Student Protestors: [chant] Your message is hatred. We will not tolerate it!

Jeff Sessions, US Attorney General: Student protestors violently shut down a debate between an invited speaker and one of the school’s own professors.

Peter Hirshfeld, Vermont Public Radio: The episode has become a flashpoint in the national debate over the role of colleges and universities in fostering free speech, and it’s spawning new questions about the state of civil discourse in a time of extreme political divides.

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America: We see a climate around the country of these controversies bubbling up, speakers being questioned, protested, disinvited in some cases.  You know, the incident at Middlebury got violent and out of control, and so it captured the national attention.

Frank Bruni, New York Times: It is hard to figure out where the line is, and everybody draws the line in a different place, between what is kind of constructive and acceptable dissent and what is pure provocation.

Student Protesters: [chant] Charles Murray, go away!  Middlebury says no way!

Maybe you’ve heard about this incident, or maybe you know a similar story about a controversial speaker at another university.  If I think about the people at Middlebury who were there in 2017, listening to these audio clips might bring back a lot of anger and emotion.  In my head, I hear some of my friends and colleagues saying, “Sarah, why are you doing this?  Why revisit this really painful moment for our college?”

The first, and the most important reason, is this: the story that we each think that we know about what happened is incomplete.  The national media covered these events, and there were a small group of people on campus whose views are now in the public record.  But what came out of that coverage was a very black and white story: one group of students wanted to hear him speak, another group of students violently shut him down.  In fact, Middlebury students were a lot more diverse in their views and their actions than this simple story suggests.

ALEX: I started to feel like students’ voices were not being heard.  It’s not that we were having a disagreement as much as it was students were being scolded nationally while not actually having their arguments that they were advancing considered.  We weren’t even having a dialogue at all.  We were almost having a lecture.

Many of our students are uncomfortable with the way they were portrayed in the national media.  But, and this is the second reason for doing this podcast, a lot of the people who were there are graduating. So, in few years, we’ll have a lot of Middlebury students who know that something happened but they won’t know exactly what.  I thought we should revisit this now – with people who have some distance from the event but were invested in it.

ZORICA:  There are textbooks that are talking about Middlebury, and we have lived it, and then realizing how inaccurate, or maybe, just how. .. the truth is so, what is truth is so interesting in this situation, because we all lived different experiences, and now textbooks and sources that students in the future are going to be using will be seeing it as one certain way.

The third reason for this project is that, all of this – the controversy, the protest, the speaker shutdown – this is not an isolated event.  Similar things happen on other college campuses.  This past spring, we had another controversial outside speaker and the event was cancelled at the last minute. These recurring eruptions of frustration and anger are symptoms of the fact that we are divided on some really big questions.  For example, when we talk about diversity, are we actually committed to creating an inclusive community?  What roles should things like free expression or activism play in higher education? 

CHARLES: The Charles Murray protest – what people have to understand – it’s not about Charles Murray.  It’s about years of institutional neglect when it comes to race relations on campus.  You know.  That’s what this really is about. Things build up, small things build up over time.  Hundreds of cuts, hundreds of times of not being heard.

If we want to move beyond a reactive mode to one where we understand and address people’s concerns, then the students, staff, and faculty at colleges like mine need to know the stakes and see specific examples of how we can do this better. 

Why should anyone trust me to lead them through this story? Sometimes, when people claim that they are objective or that they are experts, they are actually trying to shut down discussion, not to invite dialogue. I guess you might listen to me because I am still trying to listen myself.  I keep hearing thoughtful, reasonable ideas from people on all sides of this issue.  I am in the political science department, and I participated in discussions about what it meant to sponsor a speaker.  After the protests, I was part of a  committee of students, staff, and faculty that tried to draft principles around speech and inclusion on campus.  For the next few years, I am one of the faculty directors of a project that seeks to advance dialogue in and out of the classroom.  All of this work is a lot different from what I thought I would be doing in the first few years after I got tenure, but it’s really rewarding.  It’s intellectually challenging, it’s  emotionally demanding. 

This podcast project is a way to construct a conversation about a speaker shutdown.  I wanted to put student voices at the forefront and I wanted to put them in dialogue with one another.  So, a few months ago, I emailed a few dozen students that I know are interested in this conversation.  Ten students agreed to allow me to record our conversations and to use their first names.  Every conversation went differently, but I did ask everyone four questions. First, where were you on March 2, 2017?  Second, which person or view frustrated you the most?  Third, under what conditions would you be willing to talk to that person or engage with that idea today?  And finally, what’s the biggest take away for you?  

I invite you to listen with me to the different views of these young people.  You will hear their concerns.  As a group, they are deeply committed to education and dialogue, even though they have quite different political and social views.  They have a lot of great ideas about how to structure productive disagreements and careful listening.  Perhaps most importantly, this is not a group of consensus-seeking snowflakes.  These are discerning, realistic college students committed to their education and trying to help Middlebury move forward.  To Lily, Pete, Charles, Porter, Zorica, Adam, Mike, Trey, Charlotte, and Alex – thank you. [9:00]

SCENE 2: MARCH 2017

Charles Murray’s talk was scheduled for the afternoon of March 2nd.  The talk was in Wilson Hall.  This is the biggest space on campus and it’s located in the McCullough Student Center.  Each of our students encountered the evening in a different way.  I’ll let each student introduce themselves by using their words about where they were on that day.

We’ll start with Trey.  He and some friends were planning on going to the talk.

TREY:  I do remember walking by and seeing a poster that said Charles Murray, coming to talk to Middlebury, prominent libertarian thinker.  So, I remember stopping and thinking, hmmm, we don’t have many libertarian thinkers come to Middlebury, this will be interesting, maybe I’ll go.

There were a lot of students interested in the growing controversy, but they couldn’t go. Mike had made other plans, Porter wasn’t at Middlebury yet, and Alex was off campus on his study abroad program.

MIKE:  I was leaving Stewart [Hall] on my way to the bus station go to Boston that weekend and I walked by the student center and passed by the whole line of students ready to go in, and a lot of whom had signs and were ready to go in and protest, and I stood on line and was talking to people and continued on my way to the bus, and it ended up, I was in Boston that weekend.

PORTER: I was an early decision admit, so I was already on my way here, in a way.

ALEX: I watched the protest on social media live. It was literally the middle of the night but after that I got pretty fired up, and was more or less up to date on everything that happened after that.

For the week before the talk, there was a lot of discussion around campus about whether to go, whether to protest, whether he should have been invited at all, and whether the event could be structured with a different format.  Ultimately, most of the people interested in the talk couldn’t go.  Middlebury has about 2500 students and 300 teaching faculty. Wilson Hall only holds about 350 people.  Students like Adam, Charles, and Charlotte couldn’t get into the event.

ADAM: I think I was just getting out of class in the Chateau and I walked over to meet some friends to try to get into the event, but it had already filled up.

CHARLES: I remember walking past McCullough and I was late to class because I was just taking it all in.  The line was so loud, there were faculty protesting, there were students protesting outside. You couldn’t get in.

CHARLOTTE: I ended up being downstairs in the building, in McCullough, while the event was happening, so I could hear stomping feet, I could hear the chanting, and we were watching the livestream as a group of students, with a professor commenting on it.

I made it into Wilson Hall for the talk. Zorica and Lily were there too.

ZORICA: I was actually one of the first people in front of Wilson, lined up there with my friends, amd so I was able to see that whole line develop up Mead Chapel Hill, and then when we entered I was actually right in front of the podium on the ground floor, right in front of Charles Murray.

LILY: I remember a lot of adrenaline, and kind of the buzzy energy of being in the room.  And,  for me, I think, the adrenaline came out more as excitement, or “oh wow, something’s happening,” and less in the moment fear or worry. It was very “all these people are in this room, more people are standing up than I thought,” excitement, we’re doing something important and I am glad I’m here.

You can find the story of what happened that evening in a lot of places.  The short version is this: hundreds of people were protesting outside and inside the building.  The talk was moved to another room where it was live-streamed, and a colleague of mine was hurt leaving the building. In the next few days, student protestors were brought in for disciplinary proceedings, and the spotlight of the national media turned on our tiny campus. [13:30]

SCENE 3: THE CONVERSATIONS THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

When I asked everyone about their experiences, many people said that it was just hard to talk about, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, on that day and for the next few weeks, everyone was just trying to understand the basic facts about what had happened.  Also, the conversation quickly took on a “with us or against us” sort of tone.

Pete and Charlotte have different ideas about how we should engage with outside speakers, but both of them said that the short notice of the event made it hard for students to learn about who Charles Murray was and decide what to do.

PETE: I had heard about Charles Murray and what he thought. One of my friends had bought the book, we wanted to see what was going on.  We all read the chapter, we passed the book around, we figured out that he was kind of wrong and really off and kind of warped, but we’d been hearing all this build-up and stuff. We had gotten emails that there was a protest area and all this stuff, it was turning into a big thing…It all happened real fast. You saw the videos on Facebook Live of people not letting him talk.  My friends and I are sitting in our suite, just jaws on the floor, just – what is going on?

CHARLOTTE: I remember waiting in line, and being really unsure what the right course of action was, and being surrounded by a lot of people who were not sure what the right course of action was. There were definitely people who were there to protest, who were very sure that this event should not be taking place, there were other people who were determined to get in, because they wanted to support the event, they thought it was important to have this discussion, and then there were a lot of people who were not sure if it was better to be in the room, if the best way to say that we weren’t supporting Charles Murray being on campus was to just pretend the event wasn’t happening, if we were giving him more power by having hundreds of people show up to get into the event, rather than going to any other event that would happen at Middlebury’s campus, that would potentially have a more productive dialogue on the subjects that Charles Murray was likely to discuss, and I think that’s my most vivid memory of the event itself.

In the weeks that followed, the conversation seemed to evolve into two mutually exclusive options – you were either in favor of absolute free speech, or you were in favor of a more inclusive campus. 

Charles said that the invitation to Charles Murray, and what Murray symbolized, was hurtful to him as a student of color.  But he found it difficult to discuss the event with other students.

CHARLES: I think what was most frustrating though, was having conversations with people that would go nowhere because if you critiqued the protest, even if you were in agreement about the feelings, if you weren’t there or if you critiqued it or whatnot, then you were really just hurting the movement.

Zorica also said that the fear of judgment from other students limited the conversations she could have.

ZORICA: One of my biggest fears was that I would be seen as somebody who didn’t support, sort of, all of these things that were being thrown out. You know, I was afraid that people were going to say she’s homophobic, that she’s all of these…racist, all of these things. And by me sitting down especially in the front I was very visible, and I was very confused because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Was I supposed to stand up? I had no time to talk to anybody about what was going on. I felt weird and so I just remember afterwards I had very difficult, difficult conversations with friends about what had happened, especially, I have some friends who were at the forefront of what was happening and I was sort of afraid to approach them and ask questions, because I was afraid they would perceive me in this one way instead of genuinely being curious about what the expectations were, what the plan was, and all of this.

Lily was one of the students that came to the event ready to protest.  She felt really determined about this course of action, but she also recognized what the protest meant for some of her fellow students.

LILY: I remember a group of boys sitting in the audience, in the bleachers, and I remember looking at them, and them looking at all of us, and just kind of a look of anger or frustration on their faces. And I didn’t talk to them.  But I could tell that they were of the camp that “we came here with questions, and we prepared, and we want to share those.”  And I felt, with them and with a couple of people, like, almost an “I’m sorry, I know, but this is just the way it has to happen.”  And we’re here, doing this, and we are not going to stop, kind of.

This attention to, or this fear of, how other people are going to react – I think this feeling is pretty familiar to most people.  It is definitely not unique to this moment at Middlebury.  But it might get in the way of the sort of open inquiry that defines higher education. Adam had a nice way of capturing this tension. When we were talking, I raised the argument made by a lot of students worried that this event would prevent us from tackling any tough subjects in the future. I put this question to him: 

STROUP: How do you respond to those sorts of concerns?  How do you think about what Middlebury is supposed to do in terms of grappling with a range of ideas?

ADAM: What really hit home with me, is that a student in class, kind of following the event, said that this was a clash between a tolerance of ideas and a tolerance of identities, which I thought this was a nice concise way of kind of describing the whole event.  I think that’s true, and I also think that higher learning in general, and Middlebury in particular, shouldn’t necessarily be characterized by how any singular event unfolds, but how, kind of, the conversation and culture of the institution unfolds over periods of time. 

What does tolerance for people and tolerance of ideas look like? Later in our conversation, we returned to the fear that students might have about how their peers would react, and Adam put a different spin on being uncomfortable:

ADAM: Well I think Charles Murray, or in the wake of this event, really forced students to stand by their beliefs.  And really kind of put a certain identity on students, depending on what their beliefs were.  Which was uncomfortable for a lot of people.  It made talking about certain things difficult, and I think a lot of people avoided a lot of conversations after the fact.  Me personally. I know that my maybe view of what should have happened was, I’m not going to say the opposite of what some of my friends believed, but it kind of feels like it is in opposition. You were afraid that you as a person going to be, your reputation, or who you were to your core, was going to be changed by your one thought on this event.  And I think we live in a very privileged place, with a lot of opportunities to forge our, to make mistakes, and forge our reputation.  But I think having to stand by an idea, to truly think about the repercussions of those ideas, would overall be beneficial. I know for me I really had to do a lot of self-reflecting and really think about it.  Was that uncomfortable?  Hell yeah it was uncomfortable.  But there are also people who live here with uncomfort every single day.  I think a little uncomfort is necessary for growth. [22:05]

SCENE 4: THE SPECIFIC QUESTION OF FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS

There are a lot of important conversations that didn’t happen in the months after this controversial speaker. Now, not everybody withdrew from these conversations, and later I’ll talk about some of the valuable moments that did happen, because there are some important lessons there.  But first I want to share our students’ views on the specific question raised by this event: who are we going to invite to campus?  Are there some ideas that are unwelcome or unproductive in an educational setting? Or, should we strive to serve as a forum where anyone can say anything? 

Porter was one of the students who had a lot of concerns about the content of Charles Murray’s arguments but thought he should be allowed to speak. As he put it:

PORTER: The shouting down was the biggest thing that concerned me, and I think there are much better ways to address the inconsistencies in his arguments in a more productive way.

Porter spoke a bit more about the value of encountering lots of different views, and then I followed up on this question – of which ideas we should consider.

STROUP: You expressed your concern about the shutting down of the speaker, and I really appreciate your eloquent call for exploration of different viewpoints.  One of the conversations that we’ve been having in the aftermath of this event is whether our interest in free speech in society might be different given the educational nature of the institution and the project that we’re engaged in. I’m wondering if you think there is a particular type of speaker that shouldn’t be welcomed at Middlebury?

PORTER: Yeah absolutely. I think any speaker who wishes to use their words to inflict harm or verbally, hopefully not physically in any way, shouldn’t be allowed on campus. I don’t think that’s something that’s respective to any certain viewpoint. I think that’s a pretty baseline argument with extreme examples that can be found on both the left and the right and I would hope that Middlebury wouldn’t support bringing any of those extreme people to campus. I do think that there’s a benefit of bringing extreme viewpoints if they’re seen as productive, as seen as a multitude of viewpoints. Last week we had a debate between capitalist and socialist.  That was something that can be seen as radical to debate, but very helpful and informative for students in our community. So, it’s a fine line for sure, and there might be subjective feelings about that but anyone who has an intent other than bringing academic insight to students in a way that is supposed to move them forward in some way, yeah, that’s where I would draw the line.

In these last couple of sentences, Porter is explicitly addressing the million-dollar question: where should we draw the line?  He thinks we should be pretty expansive in exploring ideas, only keeping out those speakers who seek to inflict harm.  Now, at this moment, I imagine some of my friends yelling into their iPhones, going “Yes! That’s where the line is, and this speaker crossed it!”  I have been in numerous conversations where people have argued about whether this specific speaker was over the line.  Honestly, as far as I can tell, few people’s minds have been changed in those heated moments.  So let’s scope out. Let’s talk about whether there should be a line at all.

Porter suggested that exploring lots of ideas helps people learn.  Many proponents of this position argue that we can’t bracket certain ideas if we are engaged in the pursuit of truth.  When I talked with Charlotte, I also asked her about the purpose of higher education, and I presented this position to her.

STROUP: One conceptualization of the university is that it is a place where conversations that are not possible in the rest of society need to take place.  That in civil society, we tend to not say certain things because we are looking to avoid offending strangers or causing harm, but that that retraction from certain subjects keeps us from addressing difficult topics, even if they are morally fraught.  What’s your response to that argument for the special responsibility of the university to tackle all subjects, even if they are morally sensitive or might create hurt feelings or might push back against the principles that we think we hold dear?

CHARLOTTE: I think universities have an obligation to be promoting educational value and exploration and promoting new ideas in their students and in society as a whole.  But the way that they do that doesn’t need to be putting one speaker on a stage, and having them speak at the students. I also think that universities don’t necessarily have an obligation to talk and give equal time to every viewpoint, and they are always making decisions about what viewpoints are the most valid, what viewpoints … like, if you are grading a student’s essay, and they make an argument that isn’t relevant or that is not well backed-up or substantiated by scientific research, they’re probably not going to get a good grade.  They have a right to write that, if they wanted to, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to gain credit. There is a falsification of valuing the freedom to say whatever you want to want with the freedom to say that to a large group of people.

At the risk of oversimplifying Charlotte’s words, I think you could listen to her comments and hear her saying, “Do your job. You’re a scholar.  You’re a teacher. Figure out which people and ideas will enhance student learning and open up discussion, and invite them.” 

Pete comes at this from a very different position. He strongly believes that lots of different types of speakers should be allowed to speak.  Like me, Pete grew up in Texas, a much more conservative setting than Vermont, and he is an outspoken young man who enjoys the back-and-forth of debate. Interestingly, though, when Pete talked about the importance of listening to a range of arguments, he didn’t make an abstract argument about truth-seeking. He made instead a very pragmatic point about college as a place to develop citizenship skills.

PETE: I’ve talked to other conservatives on campus, and no matter how calm you stay, the majority of the time these people will still get furious, end up making it very personal, and storm away.  And then the two sides are further apart than they were at the beginning, which was never the purpose of that conversation and I feel like these college campuses are like a microcosm of what’s happening in this country.  You see it all the time.  People cannot have conversations about difficult issues, which is just a skill that you have to develop. And I think that if you don’t develop it here, you’re never gonna go out in the world and then start to develop it.  If you don’t do it at a young age, you’ll just go into your own echo chamber and never come back out.  

Ultimately, Middlebury college students do have different ideas about where to draw the line.  Most of the students I’ve spoken with think that there is a line, even if they disagree about where to draw it.  The people who emphasize unrestricted speech see our college as part of the public sphere, or at least as a place to practice the skills necessary for public life.  The people who are more restrictive emphasize that education involves evaluating the merits of different arguments. These debates happen at Middlebury and at other schools.  Some colleges might have debated these issues already and reached some consensus. Middlebury isn’t there yet.

I thought that Alex offered a nice explanation of why we are stuck.  I had asked him one of my standard questions – “under what conditions would you have a conversation with the people that frustrated you?” He said that he thinks that free speech and inclusion are difficult topics and that he would talk to anyone whose views were different from his.

ALEX: But what I would need from them is to admit that there’s a debate to be had. They can believe that they’re right, but there is a debate to be had. And what I took issue with was people taking to the media and saying “these principles are unassailable.” Like, “the things we believe are unassailable in a free society and the context of higher education,” and then putting forward a bunch of points which are just clearly assailable. They might be right, but they are not unassailable. And to do that just felt so one-sided, and also just, like, completely regressive in terms of any type of conversation we’re going to have about how we move forward from this.

If Middlebury and other colleges are going to make progress on this question – on whether and where to draw the line – I think Alex’s point is a good place to start.  Can we admit that there is a debate to be had?  [32:15]

SCENE 5: HOW WE WILL TALK WITH ONE ANOTHER

Over the past two years, the students I have spoken with make thoughtful points on various sides of the question of who should speak on campus.  I don’t see any magical point of consensus that we are going to reach.  And, as a scholar, I think that is just fine.  The questions of who speaks on campus, or who feels included in a campus community, these are complex questions about the tension between freedom and equality.  There are many other big questions on which there is no consensus. In political science, we debate whether foreign aid works.  In film and literature, we debate whether to read authors or watch movies if the language is racist or the author is sexist.  The problem with talking about controversial speakers is not that we have different ideas, but that people felt silenced and disrespected when they tried to engage in the discussion.  Because of that, we can’t agree on a couple of pretty basic questions: what are we going to talk about, and how are we going to talk about it?

In this polarized local and national climate, we don’t trust the capacity or the intentions of those around us.

TREY: The thing that was most frustrating was just talking about how speakers should come and be respected without feeling like I was endorsing his work or his ideas. Students want to engage on certain topics but there’s sometimes a worry that people are very, very receptive to ideas and people worry that if he was able to speak on campus there would be students and other faculty members that would be validated by these ideas and then that would inform their treatment of other students on campus. I’m definitely open to that critique, but I also personally think that Midd students are pretty discerning, and I think for the most part good, but that’s my experience.

I agree with Trey. In general, our students are incredibly smart and can be quite discerning. There were some things about that particular moment in March 2017 that led people to shut down rather than open up.  This was just a few weeks into the administration of a very controversial president whose initial policy moves were hostile to large categories of people.  The event itself was announced about a week in advance, which gave our campus little time to discuss these big questions.  But again, these conflicts over who speaks on college campuses have cropped up at Middlebury and elsewhere.    

How do we negotiate these disagreements over speakers?  For that matter, how do we deal with other heated disagreements that are basically inevitable on an increasingly diverse but also quite small campus?

The students I spoke with talked about some great conversations that did happen, even at a very divided time. They offered some guidance on what makes them more likely to open up and engage with different viewpoints. They also explain some of the landmines that sometimes destroy conversations.

How do we deal with our divisions over complex subjects? The first thing seems to be a simple recognition that difficult conversations take time and space.  Mike talked about a professor who acknowledged the stakes of this issue for the Middlebury campus.

MIKE: She devoted the whole hour and fifteen minute block of time to scrapping our game plan for that day in terms of course material and talking about the event, the situation that had just unfolded over that weekend. And I really appreciated it, and I think a lot of students appreciated that space to decompress and flesh out what the clear elephant in the room was. And having a professor normalize this space for us, and say that, “for an hour, we’re not going to focus on academics, like we’re typically here to do.  We’ll get to that, but right now people are feeling a lot of things and if those things don’t get addressed, we’re going to have a difficult time studying what we need to study.”

There were some campus leaders who convened big public gatherings to discuss these issues.  The students I spoke with had mixed feelings on these big events. While they appreciated the acknowledgement of the divide on our campus, those settings aren’t great for really diving into deep discussions.  Most students found that small group conversations were the most productive. Here’s Alex.

ALEX: I found the most beautiful moments, the most inspiring, positive things that came out of it, came from the bottom up, came from one-on-one conversations that people had with each other to make things right, and get positive momentum.

There was one big public event six weeks after Charles Murray’s visit that impressed a lot of people.  It was a student panel that Charlotte helped put together. 

CHARLOTTE: What we ended up doing with the Debate Society is co-hosting an event with the Community Council. And so we brought people who were large supporters of the event and of complete free speech on college campuses, and people who had supported the protest, to have a discussion. A lot of faculty and students told us that it was a bad idea, because they didn’t think people were ready to have that conversation. And we did it anyways, and it went really well, and students were able to have that conversation.  We were able to have intelligent discussions that didn’t break down into anger, and after the event, a large number of students and faculty stayed after to have a discussion. And that felt really constructive to have a platform where people could voice their views and then afterwards having a discussion about what the right steps forward were.

STROUP: As you think about recruiting people for that sort of event, why do you think people willing to participate?  How did you decide who to approach?  What are ways in which to put together a really wide-ranging, student-led conversation on campus?

CHARLOTTE: We were very careful about what was put out about the event, careful to make sure it wasn’t a debate about whether the Charles Murray event should have happened, or whether he’s right. But that it was about the nature of free speech on college campuses. So it was slightly abstracted but still able to touch on what we thought was the core issue at play.  And then also, being clear that the idea was to put both sides on an equal platform and an equal playing field, which we didn’t think had been happening in other debates.

Charlotte highlights a couple features of this panel that invited dialogue.  First, the way the question is posed is critical.  This panel chose a topic that invited discussion rather than immediately dividing people.  Second, the structure as a panel suggested equal attention to various viewpoints.  I am not surprised that this was led by students.  There was another student group that convened a similar panel a few months ago after another speaker was cancelled. On and off our campus, there are a lot of commentators who claim that our students can’t hear perspectives different than their own.  At Middlebury, though, the students often seem to do a better job than the adults in the room.

Zorica also spoke about the importance of small group discussions. But she raised another concern, one that has been constant for the past couple of years.  How do you get people to participate?

ZORICA: I think what had worked for me was definitely to have conversations with smaller groups of people.  I think bringing up the topic in public settings was very touchy, and people had different experiences and different knowledge going into it. And so I, especially immediately after the event, I just felt comfortable speaking to people who I know I saw and I know what they were doing, and they saw me, and sort of clearing that up, that was for me just being very honest.  I think one of the problems of that was that, once we would have a discussion, it was sort of put away and we would continue our friendship, and even today I want to always want to like engage in these topics, but, is that right? Should I talk about something that is traumatic to someone else? It is difficult to make a place where you want everyone to engage, but not everyone has the same sort of incentives or even investment into the topic.  How do you create space where you are getting these diverse voices who maybe weren’t even at the event, who had no idea that it was going on, and then people who were at the forefront, who were just in the middle of it.

There is no way to sugarcoat this. Asking people to sit down and talk to one another just feels hopelessly naive.  People don’t trust one another. They don’t respect one another.  And they don’t understand why they should invest time and energy for something that has no clear outcome.  So they don’t show up.

I get that.  We can’t pretend there is no inequality, or that our differences won’t get in the way of understanding. Sometimes we talk about a Middlebury “bubble”, but what happens on our campus is shaped by social, economic, and political dynamics outside this place.  When I talked to Charles, he said that we still have to dig into these differences, even if they make us uncomfortable:

CHARLES: If we are going to continue with these kind of conversations that go nowhere when it comes to interrogating why things are the way they are when it comes to race relations, when it comes to gender relations, how are we going to progress?  And I think that’s why you see the campus culture the way it is. Because people don’t want to even interact with those types of emotions. When they do they get highly uncomfortable. A real education would make people comfortable, you know, facing the feelings, the emotions, the passions that surround these types of issues that we are facing on campus and in the world beyond and beyond after we leave this place. I would ask professors, how are you preparing your students, mostly white students, for that reality?

Even though Charles and Pete have very different views on this one event at Middlebury, they both share an idea of education as preparation for the world beyond.  Our students want us to help them get ready for civic life.  How are we going to do this in an environment where people don’t trust one another?  Before Charles made this point about education, he and I were talking about a frequent issue that comes up in these sorts of dialogues, that is, whether sharing personal experiences or expressing emotions helps or hurts the conversation.  Charles was pretty clear on this.

CHARLES: You can’t tell a person of color to talk about race while limiting their whole selves in the conversation. These are very personal experiences.

I also raised this issue when I talked to Pete.  I was thinking of Charles’ point, and I suggested that it could be our privilege that allows us to argue in distant and abstract ways.  So I asked Pete – do you think it helps understand people’s arguments to understand where they come from?

PETE: I would say that, I acknowledge my privilege as well. I’m very lucky. At the same time, those issues that I’m talking about could be close to me as well.  Even if the effect might not be as drastic.  So I think as difficult as it is, and I’m sure it’s more difficult for people who it affects more drastically because they have more at stake, it still, there’s no benefit in my opinion to making it so personal.

STROUP: Do you think it helps understand people’s arguments to understand their personal experiences and where they come from?

PETE: Absolutely it helps understand them, but I think using your background as a trump card or reason your argument is superior or should work is just in my opinion ridiculous.

Pete and I had had these conversations before, so I pushed back.  I asked him – what happens if I say, for example, that you’ll never understand abortion issues because you’re not a woman?

PETE: In my opinion that’s a legitimate statement to make. I don’t know anything. I only know what I read, and what I observe, and what I hear from people that we talk about this from, and I would love to talk to you about this so I can better understand and hopefully get closer to truly understanding it. But as soon as you pull the “you’ll never understand ‘cuz you’re not”… The entire conversation is shut down, at which point no one’s going to learn anything. The two sides of that argument are never going to move any closer to each other, in fact, they will probably just move further away.

Is there some point of agreement between these views presented by Charles and Pete?  I do think that both are concerned with equality – who gets to talk, and how. When we convene these dialogues, we might say that personal experiences and deep emotions are welcome, but not as a way to silence another person.  Our students see the sorts of inequality about who gets to talk.  We have to be active facilitators who create equal time. 

There is another challenge.  Sure, we can agree to welcome people’s experiences and emotions, but the stakes for participants in a dialogue can feel quite different.  This came up when I was talking to Lily.

STROUP: If I were in the “let the speaker speak” camp, I might argue that I felt disrespected also, that I had an interest in hearing a viewpoint perhaps quite different from my own, and that denying me that opportunity was a disrespect of my interests and desires. What would you say to that viewpoint?

LILY: I’ve always felt that maybe people in those camps, or people concerned about free speech, that the playing field is not level.  And that some people arguing for their right to hear a perspective or to ask questions or to engage are not the same as a student of color’s right to feel like they belong here or feel safe here.  That’s been a contentious point, I guess.

If you were in favor of Murray speaking, you might say “it wasn’t my intent to make a group of students feel unsafe or feel like they don’t belong!” And, for a while at Middlebury, we have been in a place where we are assuming the worst about other members of our community.  But Mike made a more general point about what we have to do when we plan these events in an increasingly diverse community.

MIKE: One of the most important takeaways for me is the true value in considering how different groups of people might react to things [laughter]. I’m sorry if I can’t get more specific than that, but this whole situation was proof to me, like, very direct, tangible evidence of how, you want to do something, you want to bring in somebody that has a history of being quote- controversial-unquote, whatever that means, that they’re going to come here and people are going to feel a lot of things about that. And all these feelings are going to come from a huge array of different backgrounds.

These differences can create the sort of conflict that disables us.  But, on our better days, these differences might also generate productive disagreements and open our eyes to different ideas and experiences.  Porter offered a hopeful take on how we might do this:

PORTER: I think college is such a unique place and time in our lives where we should be able to try out our ideas, learn from others, and really be able to try and fail. I think that being called out for saying things that are concerning is something that’s important, but also, students should be allowed to take on challenging issues and really try to understand them in a productive way. And that’s really, really hard, and no student will get it perfectly on the first try. This is such as unique place with such diversity of many kinds, where we can really learn from one another to move ourselves forward as a community and as individual students.

CONCLUSION

In 2017, a speaker at Middlebury College was shut down.  As painful as that experience was, it has opened the door for people to raise long-standing concerns.  And it was these concerns – about inclusion, equality, representation – that caused the protests and the shutdown. 

Last month, I was at a dinner on campus climate, and a student made a really great point.  His idea was this – can we recognize the validity of protest as a form of free speech while still hoping that we have fewer protests?  I thought that this was a great idea. We could vigorously defend protest as a form of speech while also working to create a learning environment where our students never feel so excluded that they turn to protest. 

Whether it’s an outside speaker or another student in class, we are in trouble if our learning environments regularly silence certain voices. The story about what happened at Middlebury has been told by a few people, but what really matters for a college is how the students encountered it and what they have learned.  I hope that hearing directly from students enriches the conversation, and that those of us affected by controversies like the one at Middlebury can throw open the doors to dialogue.

GRATITUDE

Many people helped make this project possible.  Brett Simison tolerated my poor audio recordings and agreed to produce this episode.  Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.  The news clips are courtesy of NPR, Charlie Rose, VPR, CSPAN, and PBS.  Production was underwritten by the Engaged Listening Project at Middlebury College, which is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Finally, though ten students are featured in the episode, thanks to the students and colleagues at Middlebury College who have opened up, argued, and laughed with me over the past several years.

To learn more about our efforts at campus dialogue, visit our website: go.middlebury.edu/elp

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For questions or comments, email listeningmidd@gmail.com. Many thanks to Erin Davis for her careful editorial ear and encouragement and to Nan Guilmette for her feedback and supportive words about teaching. The DLINQ team at Middlebury helped with many technical questions.

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