John Seven: To conquer prejudice, we must confront it; not avoid it
NORTH ADAMS >> The incident at Williams College in which conservative John Derbyshire was disinvited to speak — or banned, depending how you want to portray it — refuses to go away, and that's a good thing.
I felt the school had every right to do what it did. An appearance at a college can represent an endorsement, and I understand any institution that is wary of who gets to claim it. It also has a mission to serve to its community, and keeping hate speech off campus is part of that.
That doesn't mean I think a school has an imperative to ban speakers, just the right to exercise discretion according to what is appropriate for its community.
The student at the center of the controversy, Zach Wood, has a piece in the Washington Post and it's worth reading (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/04/14/i-tried-to-confront-racism-head-on-people-called-me-a-sellout/).
Wood is everything you want in a young person — intelligent, curious, responsible and able to express these traits clearly. Wood seems not afraid of the ugly, the reprehensible, and appears determined to not only confront it, but to listen to it and understand it, as part of his responsibility as a citizen in the world.
I can't help but admire that, and I agree with him. To do something about the worst things in existence means you have to listen to it, understand it, think about it, meet it on its own level. You have to understand why they think the things they do.
To understand racism, you actually do need to listen to what the racists are saying and to do more than consider it misguided or hateful and move along. To do anything else is to stick your fingers in your ears and hum very loudly. That's what I believe, anyhow.
I know this is not generally accepted view of the current college generation, which has featured highly publicized protests to remove hate speech from their community.
That's fine, I think they have that right, community standards and no tolerance for bigotry, sexism, and I think it is in many ways a reaction against generations on the other side who would shove that nonsense down other people's throats while my generation and before sat meekly, whispering something about tolerating free speech, and appearing to be gormless and ineffective against these woes. I don't blame the younger generation for protecting their own space.
However, I'm unclear that it solves anything any more than what my generation did. Time will tell; maybe, maybe not. I would say that it's a knee-jerk reaction that rightfully turns the tables on the oppressors by using their own tactics, and feels good to do, but doesn't really solve much. There's justice in stopping a racist from speaking, but what have you learned by doing so? And have you just contributed to the echo chamber?
We have reached an impasse where people like Wood are rare. He thinks he might learn something by climbing the walls of the echo chamber and listening to what is going on elsewhere.
Wood seems to believe, and I agree with him, that the only way to defeat prejudice of all stripes is for people to encounter each other, listen to each other, talk it out, to reveal other human beings as individuals and not totems for your particular view of what is heinous about the world.
I wish Wood could've have taken his event to an off-campus venue. I'd urge him to do so in the future.
He didn't get the conversation he wanted, but he did get this conversation, and it's a good one. Transforming the world is hard work, anyhow.
Contact John Seven at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven.
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