Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos managed exactly 11 words before the crowd of graduates she was addressing at historically black Bethune-Cookman University erupted in dissent. Students turned their backs to the Secretary, chanting slogans and raising fists. As if this were not embarrassing enough, DeVos suffered the further indignity of supplicating, “Let’s choose hear to each other out,” as the jeers gained momentum. Bethune President Edison Jackson threatened to cancel graduation on the spot, and while this did not stop the protests, it slowed them enough for DeVos to crawl through the remainder of her address. After the incident, Fox News pundit Kimberly Guilfoyle accused American colleges of being “institutions of ignorance.”
This is no surprise, since the state of free expression in higher education is often described in extreme terms. Words like “crisis,” “threat,” and “deathbed” are routinely used to describe speech issues on college campuses. Speaking this month at Georgetown Law School, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that American post-secondary education has become “a shelter for fragile egos.” The accusations are caustic in tone and serious in content. This puts universities in a rather difficult position. Individual instances of bedlam can be cherrypicked, and caricatures of college students as sheltered weaklings are easy to draw. These are the terms of the culture wars, and Harvard is by no means exempt from the struggle.
The most important organization in the free speech debate at Harvard is the Harvard College Open Campus Initiative. According to its Facebook page, HCOCI “exists to encourage a diverse discourse on Harvard's campus, and to push back against ideological forces in academia, and in society more broadly, that hinder open discussion and freedom of speech.” To this end, the club invites controversial speakers to campus for discussions of new ideas.
It is a young organization. It welcomed its first comp class this semester, and it has thus far hosted only three events. The first was a moderated conversation with Professor Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson is fairly controversial for his views on transgender individuals, and sharp, intelligent, questioning turned the event into a success.
After the solid event with Professor Peterson, HCOCI took the bold step of inviting Charles A. Murray ’65 to speak at Harvard. Murray is an extremely controversial figure, considered a racist by many and a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. All things considered, the event went reasonably well. Students organized a protest outside as well as a contemporaneous counterpanel designed to attack Murray’s ideas. Inside the auditorium, protest consisted of a few students silently holding up signs, then leaving to attend the counterpanel. No one was physically assaulted, and Murray was allowed to complete his presentation.
This contrasts sharply with Murray’s treatment at Middlebury College, where he was first driven from the auditorium and then harassed as he tried to escape. In an interview, Murray told me the contrast in treatment owed primarily to Harvard’s “terrific police force,” specifically praising the “ten motorcycle policemen” Harvard had on hand but never needed to use.
In a longer Weekly Standard article, he also attributed Harvard’s success to the fact that “the adults were in charge.” There is something worrying about the creeping sense of authoritarianism here. Murray is right to praise Harvard police officers as tremendous professionals, but free expression should not require an armed escort. New ideas should not be imposed on students under the threat of sanction.
Furthermore, why was this sort of show of force necessary? More simply, why was Murray protested in the first place? He honestly seems to have no idea. In the Weekly Standard, he rambles about “the guys in ski masks,” “PC orthodoxy,” and most opaquely, “the mob.” In our interview, he was emphatic: “I don’t know why I’m being protested!” In his view, the “purported reasons for protesting are bullshit!” Murray went as far as to claim he had never said or written anything “that sounded remotely like a white supremacist.”
The most interesting thing about Charles Murray is not his books or his lectures. It’s his naïveté. Few are the men on earth who can write, “Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence,” and then claim to have never written anything that “sounded remotely like a white supremacist.”
Similarly astonishing is his capacity to cite Nazi race scientists and modern eugenicists, and then be authentically surprised when people get angry. In 1960, Murray burned a cross in Newton, Iowa. Unsurprisingly, Murray was shocked when local black people complained. This is a lifelong pattern of behavior; he is the kind of person who throws stones and hides his hands. A measure of self-awareness would not make Charles Murray a good man, but it would make him a less loathsome one.
It is obvious why students are upset. Labeling women bad at abstract thinking, placing the average IQ of a welfare mother at “around 80,” and claiming black and Hispanic students in elite colleges often “‘don’t belong there’ academically” is more than bad science. Telling a Hispanic student that his or her kind is comparatively unintelligent means insulting not only that student, but all of his or her ancestors and progeny.
Murray’s ideas can and should be read as the opening salvo in a larger conflict over whether women and minorities belong in places of prestige. And while words are not themselves violent, it is simplistic to argue they cannot cause harm. Few, for example, can defend the non-physical bullying and cyberbullying of children as harmless. The tangibility of an injury is unrelated to its seriousness. So, when gay, black, Hispanic, Jewish, or transgender students say they are hurt, the only reasonable choice is to believe them.
This is the crux of the issue. As Murray reasonably noted in our interview, universities must be dedicated to “the search for truth.” That search necessarily involves reckoning with dangerous, inflammatory, and mendacious characters. Unique ideas help the College avoid intellectual stagnancy, but a balance must be struck between academic freedom and basic kindness.
HCOCI’s intentions were good, but they missed the mark with Murray. HCOCI billed the event as a discussion of populism and the rise of our current president. It was silly to invite Murray to campus to discuss President Donald Trump, since Murray is academically important only for his ideas about the intellectual elite and societal distribution of intelligence. Beyond this, Murray is nowhere near the forefront of research on the rise of populism in America. Better and kinder thinkers were available to discuss political trends. Even Murray, however, was likely better than the OCI’s third speaker.
WELL, ARE WE?
On September 19, HCOCI jointly hosted an event titled, “Are We Killing Free Speech?”, with the Harvard Libertarian Club and the Ayn Rand Institute. What could have been an opportunity to meaningfully debate free speech issues descended into an embarrassing exercise in propaganda. The evangelizing began with students being coercively added to the Ayn Rand Institute’s mailing list and then having copies of Steve Simpson’s book “Defending Free Speech” foisted on them.
The event was a panel discussion between Steve Simpson, a lawyer with the Ayn Rand Institute, and Bret Weinstein, an ex-biology professor at Evergreen State University. The event began when when HCOCI President Conor Healy ’19 read the University policy on free speech and expression, provoking derisive laughter in the audience.
The subsequent discussion was all quarterbacked by unctuous sycophant and YouTube personality Dave Rubin. The primary issue with the talk was that all three panelists had the same view on essentially every issue. All three men claim to be First Amendment absolutists, and so most of the event was dedicated to each man praising the other in turn. Meaningful disagreement did not functionally exist.
At one point, Simpson, the lawyer, began arguing that demonstrations on public land are an illegitimate form of speech, and therefore, that the government should simply shut down all demonstrations on public property from groups it sees as bad. Ironically, this sort of content-based government discrimination against certain ideas strikes at the core of the First Amendment.
Besides Professor Weinstein asking for clarification, no one in the auditorium bothered to push back at all against Simpson’s repressive concept of allowable expression. Rubin deserves the most blame for this, but HCOCI and the Libertarian Club are complicit. Rubin is a professional yes-man, and his YouTube channel consists largely of softball interviews with prominent conservatives. The guy nods for a living.
“Are We Killing Free Speech?” was a bad moment, but HCOCI deserves another chance. If the organization has been disingenuous in “encouraging a broad discourse on campus,” its self-awareness is its silver lining. Asked about the panel, club president Healy said, “They agreed on far too much. There is no need for disagreement for disagreement’s sake, but when we’re talking about something like this you can do better on that front.”
Healy also expressed misgivings about Simpson’s illiberalism, noting that HCOCI has “done basically two and a half events.” He considers the panel, “basically a half event for us. It’s a learning process, we’re learning each time.” Healy also expressed legitimate concern about students who felt alienated by HCOCI speakers, saying he felt “like shit” the morning Murray arrived on campus because he knew other people would be hurt.
HCOCI’s leadership had other encouraging perspectives. Club treasurer Caden W. Petersmeyer ’19 noted that when deciding on speakers for events, the group does not rush to judgement. Instead, “people think about it, people do research,” and then members make educated decisions on whether a speaker deserves an invitation. Petersmeyer also argued that “Charles Murray’s treatment at Middlebury was unacceptable,” and that this was a major reason the HCOCI decided to invite him. Here Petersmeyer is unconvincing. Harvard has no obligation to clean up Middlebury’s mess, and Charles Murray is a vicious person of limited academic repute.
In fairness, HCOCI is not the only organization at Harvard misjudging invitations. The Institute of Politics, for example, has given fellowships to Trump castoffs Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski has a long history of sexually inappropriate and intimidating behavior toward female reporters. Sean Spicer is a worldwide celebrity because of his willingness to tell easily verifiable lies to the American people. It is more than incongruous for a university with “Veritas” as its motto to invite such a weak-willed fabulist. Harvard is on unsteady ground indeed when it pontificates about freedoms of press.
The balance between academic speech and basic kindness can be a tricky one to strike. Given the fact that HCOCI has been in the national media spotlight for some months now, it is odd that, according to club president Healy, the administration has provided no oversight of HCOCI. In fact, he claims, “they have never offered any input, positive or negative in terms of what we’ve chosen to do.” Charles Murray, then, is wrong: When Harvard invites speakers to campus, the adults are not in charge. There is little evidence that HCOCI has actual malice toward anyone, but they make crucial decisions with no guidance from the administration. Disaster could strike.
Milo Yiannopoulos could be one such a disaster. In an interview with The Crimson, Yiannopoulos argued that “in the rarified air of abstract political discourse, conservatives lose,” since they lack the “balls,” “spunk,” and “stomach” for the fight. Yiannopoulos, on the other hand, says that he comes to college campuses and “sets them on fire. Literally in some cases.”
Yiannopolous argued that outing DACA recipients was a “good idea,” and claimed one of the biggest threats to free speech was “human resources departments staffed by angry single women in their forties, who just want someone to hurt because life has hurt them.” He labeled his nationwide tour the “Dangerous Faggot Tour,” and in the interview I referenced it as the “Dangerous, you know, tour.” This rewording vexed Yiannopolous, who proceeded to call me a “bitch” and “monkey” for refusing to say “faggot.”
Yiannopolous is more than a polemicist; he bullies and abuses other people and then argues his critics are brainwashed. HCOCI’s decision to avoid inviting him is therefore encouraging. Healy argued Milo would be a “misuse of our resources” because he lacked “a suite of ideas to offer in the way other people do.” This is precisely the sort of critical balance HCOCI should be striking, and it is good to see them get it right.
Georgetown distinguished scholar in residence Sanford J. Ungar ’66, who also teaches a coveted Harvard freshman seminar on free speech, argued that a lot of contentious speaking events on college campuses are like “shadowboxing.” Conservatives and liberals spar without direct contact, goading each other into violence. Ungar elaborated: “everyone knows they will be protested, everyone knows in some cases there will be violence, everyone knows in some cases there will be vast expenditures.”
Ungar argued that, drama aside, it is unclear that “people actually want to hear some of these speakers.” This is a critical cause of the issues on campus. Conservative groups have an incentive to bait the opposition by inviting sickening people like Yiannopolous, and liberal groups have an incentive to ignore and condemn conservative speakers regardless of their seriousness and legitimacy. Harvard students should be proud of our comparative success in these sorts of issues.
It is certainly unfortunate that Betsy DeVos was yelled at on her visit to Bethune Cookman. I hope her feelings were not hurt, but historically black colleges and universities were founded as a response to segregation. So, when DeVos clumsily referred to them as “pioneers” of “school choice,” she should have known she was not making friends. DeVos’s fetishistic obsession with school choice gutted Michigan public schools. This, as well as the prevailing sentiment that she is unqualified, have won her little support. There is little in her record to suggest DeVos has the necessary wherewithal to be evil, but despite this the Bethune students were broadly in the right. She made her bed and she lies in it. These are the wages of a free society.
Despite all of DeVos’s failures, Harvard students treated her fairly this month. She was laughed at and silently protested, but she was also listened to and tolerated. She was yelled at, but only after the event was over and she was walking off of stage. This is what should be aimed for—lively but relatively non-disruptive protest, as well as open-mindedness. Holding up a bed sheet with “Our Students are Not For Sale” written on it does not violate anyone’s freedom of expression.
There is nothing inimical to free speech about waiting until someone finishes talking and then stating a contrary opinion. Heated, polarized, and aggressive debates are good for countries and universities. At the same time, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Harvard should be accepting of fresh thinkers and ideas, but should balance that interest against the quite valid perspectives of students. Both sides will have to give some ground.
Kiran O. Hampton ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House.