Tag Archives: Heather MacDonald

Disrupting Campus Speakers Is Not Just A Free-Speech Problem

From kneeling football players to campus shout-downs to professors and a president Tweeting out malignancies, America now has a new problem.

Taken out of its Christian context, to witness is to make an emphatic assertion to someone else who doesn’t share your view that your view is right. That assertion, moreover, doesn’t aim to persuade by reasoning, logic, or evidence, or even by quiet confidence. It is, rather, an assertion of will that draws on a sense of external power.

The shouters-down of Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald were, for sure,  invoking a different external power that might best be called “Social Justice.”  To them, Social Justice authorizes shout-downs, mob actions, and beatings as acts of piety that display “not the wisdom of men” but the power of the movement.

Will to Power

I introduce this idea as a new way to think about the breakdown in free expression in our society. We usually talk about that breakdown as a crisis of free speech: a matter of Constitutional rights and the sudden loss of respect for letting the other guy have his say. That’s true as far as it goes. Both ordinary civility and the special decorum we used to expect in public events have taken some hard knocks.

But every violation of free speech and every departure from civility is also an expression of a kind of piety. Superficially these outbursts are expressions of animus against “fascists,” “white supremacists,” and the like.

Those labels are so misapplied as to be nothing more than incantations in which a revulsive name is fixed on a designated target.  “Hey hey, ho ho, Charles Murray has got to go,” has no substance except as witness. By repeating it in unison, a crowd expresses its will-to-power.

The Rudeness of the Right

On college campuses, the rudeness has appeared mostly among members of the progressive left who have lately adopted tactics such as shouting down speakers they don’t like, invading classrooms, and barging uninvited into private meetings. But rudeness is bipartisan. And to make the phenomenon of political witnessing clear, it helps to consider examples of conservatives doing it. For example, populist supporters of President Trump recently attempted to shout down a talk by the California Attorney General, a Democrat, at Whittier College.

The “You lie!” moment of nearly a decade ago stands as the outburst that defined the American political right’s temptation with rowdiness. “You lie!” is what Joe Wilson (R—SC) yelled out during a September 9, 2009, address by President Obama to a joint session of Congress. Wilson, as it happened, apologized and was rebuked by the House, but he left a benchmark. Such things aren’t forgotten. As recently as April 2017, Wilson was assailed by angry Democrats at a town hall in his home state, chanting in derision, “You Lie.”

Wilson’s outburst, which came during the early days of the Tea Party movement, pointed in a confrontational direction that, as it happened, the Tea Party movement did not take. Rowdiness, rudeness, and confrontation proved alien to the spirit of those protesters. But their suppression by the IRS and other instruments of President Obama’s government boomeranged. The campaign rallies for Donald Trump were much more boisterous and the rhetoric more bloody-minded. “You lie!” seems tame in comparison to what followed.

The Weirdness of the Left

The rudeness of the right has become an object of contemplation for many on the left. Contemplation at least for some intellectual doyens. More often voices of protest on the right are simply denounced as racist, white supremacist, or neo-Nazi, or attributed to the crudity of “populism.” But it is important to pay attention to liberal and leftist thinkers when they try to go beyond this.

Bill Moyers, a reliable register of orthodox progressive opinion, has just published a conversation with Joan Scott, a historian and gender theorist, and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump,” Moyers and Scott see the problem entirely through the lens of “attacks on the Academy” from right-wing conservatives, a group outnumbered in the Northeast by 28 to 1, where presidents, policies, and primetime television news comes from.  In Scott’s view, these conservatives are in the grips of an anti-intellectual “bloodlust.” It is aimed at “supposed tenured ‘radicals’” and is meant to undermine “free thought” and “critical thinking.”

Scott occasionally argues points that are important and valid. Like her, I have long argued that free speech and academic freedom are profoundly different. Scott quotes Stanley Fish:

“Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.”

Fish’s term, “accuracy of speech,” is his work-around for the straightforward word “truth.” Fish is a kind of post-modernist (he says “pragmatist’) who rejects the concept of truth, but we can meet him (and Scott) on the close-by summit of “accuracy.”

The Saga of Mattress Girl

The shout-downs, speech codes, bullying of conservative students, efforts to intimidate faculty members who defy the edicts of political correctness, are all breakdowns in civility. The governing principles of intellectual exchange collapse as the rancor rises. But these events are also eruptions of ego. They display a particular kind of self-assertion that merges the individual into a collective will. This isn’t always immediately apparent. Mattress Girl, Emma Sulkowicz, lugging her mattress around the Columbia University campus for a year to protest how the university handled her rape accusation against a fellow student would seem outwardly to be engaged in a completely individualized spectacle—and one that didn’t touch the freedom of anyone else’s expressive rights.

But in fact, Mattress Girl’s spectacle depended entirely on the active collaboration of the Columbia University community, which implicitly and often explicitly supported her vilification of the student she accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. The student newspaper and fellow students made Sulkowicz’s campaign into a collaborative enterprise aimed at shaming Nungesser, who in the end was exonerated and who successfully sued the university for its treatment of him.

So, the individual act of witness may look like a personal statement, but it rides like a surfboard on a wave of collective resentment. The many egos of the protesters join in a chorus of derision and deviation from this group will is harshly punished. But as in other romantic movements, behind this collective conformity lurks a great deal of individual torment.

Clouds Above, Rocks Below

Moyers and Scott provide a genteel version of this kind of witness. They write with the assurance that their attacks on conservatives will meet the smiling approval of their in-group because, after all, they are testifying to the validity of a set of beliefs. They do so in a thoughtful, discursive manner that is not intended to outrage anyone or draw special attention to themselves. As someone who is not part of their intended audience, I do find some of their confident assertions false to the point of outrageousness, but my outrage is stilled by the realization that Moyers and Scott are denizens of an imaginary place, a cloud continent, remote from the actual world.

The students, on the other hand, pose a problem that deserves very serious attention. They are doing their part—consciously and deliberately—to destroy a civilization. Ultimately, they won’t succeed. Civilization has resources beyond their understanding. But in the short term, as in a generation or two, they will do a lot of damage.

Reedies Against Racism

Consider Reed College where a slow-motion protest under the name Reedies Against Racism is waging war on the college’s core humanities course, Humanities 110, “Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean.” The students seem to have gained the upper hand in their attack on Reed’s only required freshman course. Classes have been canceled; a day-long boycott was launched; a Black Lives Matter group presented the president of the college with a list of demands, and President John Kroger capitulated to many of them. The humanities course in question has been a cornerstone of a Reed education since 1943 and is the successor to a requirement that goes back to the college’s founding in 1908. The problem, in the eyes of Reedies Against Racism, is that a course on Ancient Greece is by definition a course on Western civilization. It is thus ethnocentric and “racist.”

I don’t know whether the course at Reed will survive, but the will to oppose the protesters seems weak. The Reed alumni magazine quoted one of the student critics:

Hum 110 should include a history of the Western canon as racist and anti-black; Hum 110 lecturers should restructure delivery and analysis of content, in an understanding that the texts are not familiar with everyone and their backgrounds. Or made non-mandatory given options of other Hum courses with books outside of the Western canon.

Options for “compromise” like this amount to an evisceration of the course in favor of contemporary identity politics and grievance theatre. The alumni magazine, however, frames the debate entirely according to the protesters’ premises:

The protest has ignited a respectful but passionate campus debate over the scope and structure of the course and whether it represents a vision of intellectual life in which all students feel included. At a deeper level, the debate is about race, power, culture, and the nature of education itself.

The debate is really about whether Reed students will learn something about the deep history of western civilization or instead be immersed in something else.

Reed College, of course, has a well-earned reputation for its leftist leanings. Remarkably, Humanities 110 survived the general purge of Western Civilization courses in American higher education. A few years ago, the National Association of Scholars published a study, The Vanishing West, which tracked the dismantling of this course at elite colleges and universities from 1963 to 2010. At the beginning of that range, a two-semester Western Civilization requirement was almost universally required, and it provided the backbone of general education. By 2010, they were all gone, except for fragments here and there.

The Reedies Against Racism movement is about ending a very old legacy—not the legacy of racism, but the legacy of learning how Western civilization invented itself. When I say the iconoclastic movement on campus today will do a lot of damage, this is the damage I expect: loss of historical depth, subordination of knowledge of the past to the political preoccupations of the present; and the ever-inflating assertions of group grievance and grievance-based personal identity. Who has the courage to tell the Reedies Against Racism that their complaint is trivial and that they should get over themselves? I suspect it won’t be President Kroger.

Saying Rude Things

Students protesting to prevent Charles Murray from speaking, or Heather Mac Donald, do plenty of damage. But students organizing to silence Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides may well be the greater threat. Their efforts, extending back to the culture wars of the 1980s, have already stripped American higher education of much of its coherence as well as its ability to teach students about the hard-won nature of our freedom. That ignorance is part of what licenses today’s eruptions of protest against “privilege,” racism, and the like. The targets of the protest are not wholly imaginary, but they are wrongly imagined. The protesters often say they are fighting “structures of oppression” when they are really witnessing against their own exile and confusion.

Attempts to silence speakers or forestall speech are the most conspicuous part of the crisis in free speech, but they are not the heart of the matter. Every effort to talk over someone else (“You lie!”) is also an effort to say something in its own right. It is the saying of rude, outrageous, and provocative things that is the essence of the crisis.

As a culture, we are accustoming ourselves to interruption. We’ve invented justifications for this: an ethic of interruption. The interruptions are more than just shouting down or talking over. They are also the interruptions of civility and thought that could be achieved all on one’s own with a Tweet or some act of solitary protest. The intention in such cases is to interrupt and arrest the flow of things. To demand attention to oneself by means of peculiar pronouncements is part of the new cultural warfare.

The Diversity Takeover of Science and Tech Has Begun

The director of UCLA’s Women in Engineering program trotted out the usual role model argument for gender-and race-conscious decision-making. Audrey Pool O’Neal told the Daily Bruin that she never saw anyone who looked like her (black and female) when she was an undergraduate and graduate student. “When I do teach classes, the female students let me know how much they appreciate seeing a woman in front of their classroom,” O’Neal said.

Why not appreciate seeing the best-trained scholar in front of your classroom? Any female who thinks that she needs a female in front of her in order to learn as much as she can, or to envision a career in a particular field, has declared herself a follower rather than a pioneer—and a follower based on a characteristic irrelevant to intellectual achievement…. Marie Curie did not need female role models to investigate radioactivity; she was motivated by a passion for understanding the world. That should be reason enough to plunge headlong into the search for knowledge. — From “Standing on the Shoulders of Diversocrats” in City Journal.

Shouting Down Speakers—a Regular, Organized Campus Business

Last week a mob of chanting students prevented author Heather Mac Donald from speaking at Claremont McKenna College. After the students prevented entrance to the assembly hall, Mac Donald managed to give her talk by remote livestream for a while, until police cut her short out of concern for security; students had discovered her whereabouts and blocked all exits to the building. A noted author on a wide range of subjects (and former colleague of mine at the Manhattan Institute), Mac Donald has drawn particular ire of late by defending police departments against claims of racism brought by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Will the Colleges Even Try to Cope?

The campus attacks on speech are getting bolder and more organized, aren’t they? The night before Claremont, Mac Donald’s speech at UCLA had been disrupted, though with less physical obstruction. At Middlebury College last month, the assault on the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray came near to injuring him and did injure faculty member Allison Stanger. Nor are conservatives the only targets: last month Princeton philosopher Peter Singer was shouted down at the University of Victoria, in Canada, by disabled-rights activists accusing him of “able-ism.”

Having long ago tired of hearing apologies for such attacks on speech, I’m also tired of efforts to dismiss them as scattered incidents blown out of proportion. “You keep talking about six or eight episodes but there are thousands of campuses.” Think of all the books we aren’t burning!

In Britain, where “no-platforming” has been going on for some years, they’re franker about these things: of course, it’s an organized movement with goals. Early on the distinction began to blur between urging campus officials to disinvite someone, and physically preventing them from speaking once invited. By now it is accepted that the goal of no-platforming is to stop hated figures from speaking not just on campus but to audiences more broadly — before public assemblies, on broadcast media, you name it.

They Won’t Even Debate Free Speech

Rather than equivocating on the question of whether their adversaries should be free to be heard in public debate, student activists will now just flatly say no, they shouldn’t. (This is beginning to happen in America too.) And once “direct action” against wrongheaded speakers comes to be accepted, the terrible trio of institutional risk aversion, security expenses, and insurance considerations tends to do most of the rest of the practical work in disposing of targeted speakers.

At Claremont, as at some other campuses in comparable episodes, there has been bold talk of consequences. “Blocking access to buildings violates College policy,” announced Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh. “CMC students who are found to have violated policies will be held accountable.”

Well, that’s good. But if the script runs as before, his comment will stand in retrospect as the peak of any tough administrative response by the institution.

The working partnership between college administrators and security personnel, while successful in this instance at preventing injuries, will not turn out to have been optimally structured to gather the evidence needed for either criminal charges (should any be pressed) or college disciplinary action.

The College Censors Have Lawyers

The in-house process of investigation and discipline will be slow, while the national spotlight moves on. Affluent parents will hire lawyers to minimize consequences. The wider campus community of faculty and administrators, assuming it was privately on board with a hard line to begin with, will wobble. Time is on the disrupters’ side.

What’s particularly notable is that the Claremont action was planned in large part openly, on Facebook and other social media posts with visibility levels set to “public.” “Bring your comrades, because we’re shutting this down,” declared a Facebook event shared not only among students but by officially supported campus organizations like Pitzer Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. (Pitzer is one of the five Claremont colleges.)

A training session for “accomplices” to the action was announced for the Scripps Student Union (Scripps is another of the five) with the advice, “For white accomplices: Please keep in mind that your role at this protest, aside from acting in solidarity with POC students at the 5Cs, particularly Black students, is to serve as a buffer between students of color and the police. That means, if the police come, it is imperative that you stay at the protest with fellow accomplices and engage with cops should it come to that.”

Training sessions for disrupters and allies are an important element of direct action, and they usually follow formulas closely informed by lawyerly knowledge of how to skirt the line of later-provable illegality. (Just because persons showed up in response to a call to “shut down” a speaker, can you prove they’re an unlawful assembly?) With the players prepared ahead of time, lucrative counter-claims can also be generated should police or authorities respond with too much force or the wrong kind of it or with the wrong timing.

Even if it doesn’t come to that, the university may find it difficult to establish precisely which students were responsible for what — and in this context, unlike that of a Title IX trial, federal agencies will not be in the background pushing for the use of standards more favorable to guilt-finding. Video evidence, if it exists, will be scantier than one might wish; reportedly angry demonstrators rushed student journalists from the conservative Claremont Independent whom they saw trying to videotape the events.

Why Not Ban Direct-Action Training?

If the will and the staying power were there, universities could fight back. Given advance word of an attempt to shut down speech, as they had in this case, they could make sure experienced videographers were there under university sponsorship to document what happened for the sake of both guilty and innocent. They could declare direct-action training (including for “accomplices”) contrary to university policy and deny meeting space to it. They could note as evidence students’ social-media promotion of calls for disruption, and strip university funding and official recognition from groups that openly promote such actions.

Failing such will, this is not going to stop with Mac Donald, Murray, Singer, or whoever is the next target after that, or the next, or the next.

Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute

THE SALARY OF UCLA’S DIVERSITY CHIEF PAYS FOR 12 NEEDY STUDENTS

Well-known author and scholar Heather Mac Donald recently visited UCLA to talk about the idea of “micro-aggressions” on college campuses, but before she even went there, she had a few words to say about the people running the place.

The launch of her talk Thursday began with outlining the proliferation of the “massive diversity bureaucracy” at universities in general and UCLA in particular. She called out UCLA’s brand new Vice Chancellor for Equity and Diversity position by mentioning his salary alone could “pay…for 12 under privileged college students” to attend UCLA. She also chided UCLA Chancellor Gene Block for “selling out his faculty” and believing “that faculty need constant monitoring by a phalanx of chancellorettes and deanlettes.”

She went on to say university administrators have cast the diversity issue as an “epidemiological miasma,” because they never mention the exact perpetrators but allege that it is everywhere.

And she was just getting warmed up.

MacDonald, a self-proclaimed “secular conservative” who is well known for her articulation of conservative views on crime, proceeded to describe a litany of academic horrors at the public campus.

First, she recalled an incident in the UCLA Education school where professor emeritus Val Dean Rust was subject to protests because of alleged microaggressions in his editing of student papers a few years ago.

Among the 81-year old professor emeritus’s alleged transgressions were repeatedly requiring students to write “Indigenous” in lowercase form instead of uppercase, requiring students to capitalize “white” if they also chose to capitalize “black,” and requiring students to use the Chicago Manual of Style instead of the style standards of the American Psychological Association.

Mac Donald called the result of the situation – in which Rust was forced to stay away from UCLA for six months and the student protester who led the cause was praised – as a “travesty of justice typical of this reign of terror.”

She mentioned that she herself interviewed many of Rust’s former students, and all of them had nothing but praise for the retired professor, who was well known for only wanting the best for his students. Her final verdict on the situation was that “UCLA grovels to protesters.”

She also cited a viral video that attacked UCLA for grievances against black students. Mac Donald said the way the university responded to the video, which was public praise, defies the true narrative of the situation.

The video implies that current black students are as equally oppressed as black students on campus in 1969. But Mac Donald highlighted that although only 3.8 percent of the university is black, only “5 percent of UCLA applicants are black” and only 7 percent of California is black. She said interviews with Professor Richard Sanders and Professor Tim Groseclose, UCLA whistleblowers on affirmative action, have revealed to her that “UCLA twists itself into knots to admit blacks.” She went even further by claiming that the “UCLA Law school admits blacks at 400 times what their proficiency would predict.”

In the closing moments of her lecture, Mac Donald implored students to reject what she calls a “cult of victimhood.” She encouraged students instead “get revenge by acing your chemistry exam.”

During the question and answers portion, Mac Donald fielded questions on a variety of topics, including the “campus rape epidemic.”

She questioned the validity of the rape epidemic, postulating that if such an epidemic existed at elite universities, then there would be a strong movement for single sex schools, but instead there is a push for coed bathrooms. In an additional remark, she said that the idea that women are only victims at universities “makes her want to throw up.” She cited the larger number of women at universities and the “frenzy to find qualified women and minorities” for professorships as evidence against such an idea.

The event drew attendance from both students and outside community members, and was organized by Bruin Republicans as part of their “Lectures on Conservative Thought” series. There were no protests of the talk.


College Fix contributor Jacob Kohlhepp is a student at UCLA and vice president of the Bruin Republicans.This article was published originally in College Fix.