When It Happens in Your Place, to Your People: Campus Violence and Disruption

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“BOSTON — Hundreds of students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down a controversial speaker on Thursday night, disrupting a program and confronting the speaker in an encounter that turned violent and left a faculty member injured.”

The New York Times has some coverage of this disappointing event you can read here. The Washington Post headline is even more pointed, and you can read that here.  I don’t want to write about what happened. I need to write about how it has made me feel.

Some Middlebury College students shut down a campus speaker with whom they had deep divisions and disagreements. When things turned ugly and one of the most respected professors on campus (she was helping to live-stream the talk and to assist the speaker) was physically attacked and injured, it must have been outsiders.

That is not how our students behave.

They would never . . .

As of this writing, we still don’t know who made the leap to rocking the car the speaker and professor were in as they tried to get out of the mob.

And what is on everyone’s mind, we still don’t know who assaulted the professor and sent her to the hospital for treatment.

Everyone hopes to find out that it was outsiders. Not ours.

I think it’s too late for that to matter much. It’s a distraction, because here’s the thing: These kinds of violent people don’t hide well in crowds of nonviolent people.

Middlebury College and every other place claiming the words “higher education” needs to own how quickly this violence established itself, and how easily it made a get-away.

There is a kind of violence inherent in refusing another person the right to speak. Growing up female, I was often talked over, interrupted, laughed at, and dismissed when I wanted to express myself. It happens less now that I’m older and I’ve learned my own strategies for countering the shut-downs by others, but I will forever recognize it.

There is a significant difference between choosing to disregard someone’s speech, and choosing to try to shut it down. I believe trying to silence others is an activity that leads to being willing to contemplate a wide range of ways to achieve that goal, and at some point, you find yourself in the midst of some unacceptable behavior.

Cockroaches hate the light. Keeping voices like that of Charles Murray or Steve Bannon or other white nationalists in the dark is a dangerous game that only empowers those voices long-term.

I say, let them say what they have to say. And then let them deal with counterarguments and the disdain they earn. But do make them deal with the consequences of how they think and what they say.

Behavior like that on the Middlebury College campus only shames the students and other protestors, as well as the institution. There have to be better ways of standing up to hate speech and bigotry than finding yourself lost in the very crowd you oppose.

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