When President Adam Falk of Williams College wrote to the campus community on February 18, to say that he was disinviting John Derbyshire, he didn’t offer much explanation. Derbyshire, who had been invited by students as part of a program called “Uncomfortable Conversations,” was supposed to talk about immigration. Falk said that Derbyshire had “crossed the line” and was guilty of “hate speech.”
The line was apparently written in magic ink that only President Falk could see. The “hate speech” was presumably there to be found if one went looking. Of course, Derbyshire is semi-famous for having written an essay that advises the children of white parents to avoid black people. The essay got him fired from the National Review in 2012. He went on to publish other ill-judged racial provocations in out-of-the-way places.
“Hate speech” is one of those phrases that often says more about the person using it than the person who is accused of uttering it. It might bring to mind crude epithets; perhaps it conjures bullying or incitements to violence; or again, it might bring to mind slander or libel aimed at destroying someone’s reputation. For some, the term is also a way of deprecating opinions they strongly disagree with or even statements of fact that, however much they rest on good evidence, contradict the beliefs of the speaker. For example, pointing out the 18-year absence of global warming as measured by satellite readings is, in some eyes, “hate speech.” So is noticing the dramatic disparities between blacks and whites in commission of violent crimes.
To label what someone says as “hate speech” is, of course, to judge that person’s motives. It is also an attempt to put the content of what the person says outside the bounds of further consideration. It is a tool, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt might put it, that helps a moral community police its boundaries. To label someone a purveyor of hate speech is to write him out the deliberations of all right-thinking people.
Is Derbyshire a purveyor of “hate speech”? That depends on what President Falk meant by it. I wanted to know, so I asked him. He wrote back and told me, and with his permission, I quote his answer. He stipulated that I quote it in its entirety, so I will in deference to the spirit of the times, offer a trigger warning:
Are we narrowed down the audience to the insensitive louts who can bear up? Good. Here goes:
Dear Mr. Wood,
While I am not interested in an extended dialog with the National Association of Scholars regarding matters at Williams College, I am prepared to give a brief response to your question about John Derbyshire’s canceled appearance here. To that end, please see his opinion piece “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” This article was considered so racist by the National Review (no bastion of left-wing orthodoxy, I assure you) that upon its publication the editors severed their association with Derbyshire and refused him further access to their pages. Typical of its content is the following excerpt, in the form of advice to “nonblack” children:/
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
As for Derbyshire’s views on white supremacy, I would point you to the following passage that appeared on the website VDare:
Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.
Frankly, this is the kind of material I would expect to see distributed by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Derbyshire’s rhetoric, as typified in these passages, isn’t the explication of provocative, challenging or contrary ideas. To speak to what I’m sure is a particular concern of the National Association of Scholars, his work on race isn’t remotely scholarly. Derbyshire simply provokes. His racist bile would have added nothing to the complicated and challenging conversations occurring every day on our campus, across a wide range of ideologies and experiences. No educational purpose of any kind would have been served by his appearance at Williams.
I hope this clarifies matters.
Adam F. Falk
President and Professor
Full disclosure: I met Derbyshire once in a social setting, but I don’t know him well and have not read any of his books on mathematics or other subjects. What I do know of him is that he is a man who seems almost to have courted opprobrium. Those of his writings about race that I have seen make me think of someone absorbed in the pleasure of seeing how close to the edge of the cliff he can stand without falling over. But he seems to have no real animus towards blacks. I would describe his writings as misanthropic and heedless. They are objectively racist, as he clearly believes that races are biologically real and that the differences matter in all sorts of ways. But if a distinction can be drawn between racist writing and “hate speech,” Derbyshire’s writing might provide the occasion to draw it. It seems motivated by fear, not hate, and it counsels withdrawal rather than aggression.
I can well imagine that those distinctions wouldn’t satisfy President Falk, but they are important if we want to understand why students invited Derbyshire in the first place. He is plainly not someone who hurls epithets; bullies people; torments opponents; incites violence; or libels individuals. He just says awful things and tries to defend them as reasonable judgments.
And many people understand that. In 2010 the Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA) of the University of Pennsylvania Law School invited Derbyshire to speak on the question, “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?” In his speech Derbyshire stated explicitly his belief “that racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races.” The BLSA did not think a line had been crossed: they gave Derbyshire a respectful hearing.
The same could and should have occurred at Williams College. It didn’t because President Falk was too eager to draw his line. In the end, he didn’t draw it well. All we know at this point is that when a speaker appears to President Falk to have engaged in “hannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnte speech,” he is unwelcome at the college.
In “A Guide to Disinvitation,” I’ve tried to disentangle the justifications for free expression from the exceptions. The essential points: Intellectual freedom is part of the foundation of higher education because it is a precondition of the pursuit of knowledge. Unless we are willing to hear and consider views contrary to our own, we are on the path to settled orthodoxies and mere doctrines, not the path to intellectual growth, increased understanding, or critical thought. Free speech is not the be-all and end-all of higher education. It exists for a purpose: to enable learning.
And President Falk is right that there is “a line” or a whole set of lines. He just didn’t find any of them. Freedom of speech requires civility; commitment to seeking the truth; and recognition of the differences between the course syllabus (which is not ordinarily open for debate) and the speaker on a public platform (who is). Exceptional circumstances might indeed arise where a speaker should be disinvited. Think of the emissary of a foreign power that is at war with the United States; a terrorist; a wanted criminal; someone about to expose national secrets. But there no legitimate exceptions based on dislike of the speaker’s opinions no matter how wrong-headed we think those opinions are.
Colleges should lean over backwards to accommodate invited speakers. Such individuals have a special and limited relation to the college community, which has an obligation to protect them and foster their opportunity to present their views. We have known this for a very long time, though it seems every generation has to learn it anew. It isn’t too late, President Falk. You could be among those to illuminate this principle for today’s generation. Just re-invite that man and explain why.