Why Williams College students disinvited critic of feminism

Story highlights

  • Williams College students withdrew an invitation to a speaker who is critical of feminism
  • John McWhorter: Students should be encouraged to see the value of debate even on issues they may think are settled

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Last week, a student group at Williams College withdrew its invitation to conservative author Suzanne Venker to give a talk about (criticizing, actually) feminism. Despite the group's talk series being titled "Uncomfortable Learning," an outcry from various students convinced the group that it would be uncivil to give Venker a public forum. In a typical example of the rhetoric now standard, the organizers were accused of "dipping your hands in the blood" of marginalized people.

Here we saw the increasingly influential notion on college campuses that the school should be a "safe space" from ideas that students say make them uncomfortable. After the Williams episode came the usual charge that students are being childish in refusing to hear unpleasant things. However, this take on the matter misses what's really going on. The reality is less ridiculous, and therefore, knottier, than that students are just having hissy fits. And a lot of it is educators' fault.
John McWhorter
Are undergraduates opposing speakers like Venker simply whining, "I don't wanna hear that!"? Some, sure; there are also some who, I suspect, seek to show that they are enlightened and moral by "performing" a willfully uncooperative kind of indignation. However, it is hasty to apply that characterization to the entire body of students now adopting the "safe space" ideology, and it doesn't correspond to what most of them actually say. Quite a few of the students in question are more sophisticated than we are taught to think.
    Students who indignantly refuse to hear what a speaker has to say may well be operating upon a basic and, in itself, reasonable proposition. They are assuming that the issue in question has been conclusively decided upon in a lengthy, bygone general discussion. Under that analysis, further dwelling upon the issue can only qualify, in any intellectual or moral sense, as abusive, as in denying basic human rights, devaluing categories of people and recreationally airing harmful stereotypes.

    Is everything up for debate?

    And before we jump to insist that absolutely any issue should be up for discussion, we must remember that none of us actually believe that. There are issues no one would consider worthy of "debate." Who among us would consider it worth students' time to devote class discussion to, or listen to a speaker defend, the proposition that women should not vote, or that there was nothing wrong with the Holocaust, or that genocide serves a purpose in a Hegelian sense?
    So, no, everything is not up for debate -- or, at least, it would be a shameful waste of time to pretend it was. Where today's safe space idea goes wrong is in overextending this classification, to issues that do still merit open discussion from all sides.
    For one, as John Stuart Mill classically noted, often, repeated debate over an issue found unpleasant by many refreshes and re-airs the arguments against it as well as for it. For example, these days, few things have been more useful in the fight for same-sex marriage than how feeble the arguments against it are. Surely this is more constructive than people in favor of same-sex marriage indignantly waving away all opposition as too immoral to be worth consideration.
    Or, Venker characterizes feminism as having made women think of men as "the enemy," and urges women to depend financially on their husbands, enjoying the benefit of the "freedom" from the grind of full-time work that men typically endure. My bet is on views like this holding ever less influence as we move ahead -- but they can't be addressed if quarantined from high-profile exposure.
    However, the safe space idea is also predicated upon what I see as a genuine naivete. For example, a person who shuts down any discussion of racial preferences often believes that any serious questions about the issue come either from ignorance of how racism works, or a heartless lack of concern about inequality and opportunity. Either way, such a person genuinely considers the issue to be as much a decided one as the case against women's suffrage or genocide.
    They don't know of the work of writers such as Richard Kahlenberg, Larry Purdy, Richard Sander, Carol Swain and others making constructive suggestions in contrast to the traditional approach to racial preferences. Not that anyone would agree with all, or even any, of the arguments of writers of this kind -- however, few could comfortably dismiss them as clueless cranks. They are part of what remains a legitimate, humane debate.
    Yes, if the "con" person actually is ignorant -- say, of how inequality affects one's chances to get into top schools regardless of intelligence or diligence -- rather than heartless, one might suppose the "pro" person might commit themselves to educating the "con" one. But a common idea is, "It isn't my job to educate her." And let's face it: Those who think the issue has been decided beyond any reasonable doubt have a right to see rehashing the "obvious" as a waste of their precious time.

    Universities' fault?

    Therefore, those who refuse to hear any criticism of racial preferences, or assume that anyone who is a Republican is a suspicious character, or assume that any opinions rightward of Mother Jones about controversial and delicate issues such as sex, religion, race and social welfare qualify as conversational plutonium are not babies. They are underinformed -- and a lot of that is universities' fault.
    The simple fact is that these students lack awareness of complexity when it comes to these matters. All of us seek to make sense of as much of what we take in as possible. Life is busy and complicated; we need short cuts. That means that we want as many issues to be as easy as possible, so that we can save our mental energy for the stuff that takes work. Naturally, then, we will find it welcome to classify an issue as an easy score, especially given the sense of validation and group membership that this approach lends.
    Note that here, I am describing not just an undergraduate but, on some level, all of us as busy people. And as such, universities need to do more to usher students into understanding that any issue worth discussing requires more mental work than it might seem. That is, the easy score is a lucky break, not the norm.
    We call it part of an education to understand the complexities of life. But an education that largely engages this complexity in the high-flying abstract -- "What is justice?" "How shall a person choose their path?" "Does there exist a universal morality?" -- is incomplete. It leads directly to things like this latest rash of disinvitations to speakers who have anything to say beyond rehashing what most people enjoy hearing -- i.e., rallying rather than teaching.
    Universities, then, have a responsibility to combat the idea that the campus must be a "safe space" from unpleasant ideas. However, a mere observation that the campus should foster free inquiry is ineffective in a climate where students have all reason to suppose that on the sensitive issues most of interest, there is nothing to inquire about.
    Rather, the university should indeed be a safe space from ideas reasonable people can consider amply decided upon. However, the set of these ideas is not as large as the modern undergraduate has often been led to believe, and professors should commit themselves to not pretending otherwise. We must firmly maintain discussion from both sides about urgent issues of our moment, and speak out clearly and firmly against all misimpressions of such discussions as aimless hate-mongering.
    The university should be a "safe space" for constructive discussion of the kind that instructs students in how to separate the head from the heart, in contrast to the wilderness of the world beyond and online.