A recent New York Times article described a study in which the speech Charles Murray was to give at Middlebury College (that almost speech that led to protests and an injured professor) was analyzed to determine if it was viewed by readers as liberal, conservative or middle of the road. The point was to see if the students "over-reacted" as I perceive the analysis.
The study was then picked up by InsideHigherEd and the Chronicle. All these publications shared the perspective detailed in the article: the proposed Murray speech was not ultra-conservative when rated/ranked by numerous readers including professors. In sum, there was nothing to protest.
The net conclusion from all this is that students over-reacted to Dr. Murray and silenced him unnecessarily. Indeed, relying on the data, what he was saying in his proposed speech was hardly inflammatory and qualified as neither ultra conservative nor offensive. The implication here is that students were in the wrong and jumped the proverbial gun. Inference: bad students; over the top protesting.
I beg to differ on the conclusions one can draw from the study and those of the NYTimes article author. While I have not seen the actual data results nor the questions as posed to readers, I think there is a key data point and question that have not received sufficient attention and interpretation. When readers knew the name of the author of the speech as opposed to having it atomized, they were more likely than not (the study showed) to characterize the words as somewhat more "conservative" (forgetting definitional issues for the moment). Even here though, with the name of the author being known (Murray), his speech was not deemed offensive by a myriad of readers.
Here is what people are missing: it is the person, not the speech, to which the protesters were responding. The NYTimes article hints that perhaps the author's previous works (subject to considerable challenge and criticism) were at issue, not the author's current book and current speech. But, this approach, too, misses the real point: context matters.
An offensive speaker -- regardless of the actual words to be spoken -- can be delivered in ways that are demeaning and insensitive. There are nuances in tone and style that can affect how a listener responds. And, then, there is the overall reaction to the speaker qua speaker. That cannot be ignored. But, there is more involved than that.
Consider this example. Suppose a former convicted rapist is on a speaking tour on campuses to demonstrate that he has reformed and he offers suggestions for how campuses can be more sensitive to the needs of students (particularly women students). (In the interest of fairness, this is not a hypothetical.) Should one listen to the new message of the reformed rapist or should one object to his even being on camp us and projecting himself as an authority of issues of consent, relationships and sexual conduct? Even if this convicted rapist's speech is innocuous or even filled with excellent ideas, it is hard to separate the man from the words and deeds.
And so it is with Dr. Murray. Perhaps his speech was not at all offensive -- as written on pieces of paper. Let's take that as true and let's even assume it was delivered without intonations and inferences that could be interpreted as offensive. Must we ignore who Dr. Murray is, the writings he has espoused in the past and the comments he has made in a wide range of settings that are problematic to minorities?
To be sure, I am not sure the students were making the distinction I am making between the person and the person's words. But surely, as we reflect on America today, we need to look not just at the words written but the person delivering those words. Can we detect bias and built in assumptions? Can we hold a person to his or her own history? Can we truly remove people from context and give them a fresh start as if their past were non-existent?
We are not talking here about repentance here or redemption. This isn't religion here. That is not what Dr. Murray was speaking about either. He needed a platform and he almost got one at Middlebury. When you give someone a platform, you are inviting both their present and their past. Would that we could so easily discard those parts of ourselves that are offensive. We carry our baggage with us -- for better or worse.
What the study now cited all over the place notes is that Dr. Murray's written words were not conservative and not worthy of protest. No -- that is not the conclusion I draw from the study. Instead, I think students were protesting within a larger context -- it was the speaker to whom they were objecting. No study can deny them that right, even if the words to be spoken were truly middle of the road.
Stated simply, who we are matters. It matters buckets.
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