McKibben chastises Middlebury protesters for hurting the cause

Bernie Sanders, Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Middlebury College scholar Bill McKibben has weighed in on the protest that canceled a campus speech almost two weeks ago, saying protesters took “the bait” and turned controversial social scientist Charles Murray into a “martyr to the cause of free speech.”

The environmental activist, who has led demonstrations across the globe to fight climate change, said the Murray protesters should have taken a different approach and used “dignity” and not “rage” if they wanted to be heard.

He suggested they should have walked out of Murray’s speech instead of shouting him down, a move McKibben said hurt the cause of anti-racism, appeared to show intolerance and “gave the bad guys a gift.”

McKibben also chastised the school’s Department of Political Science for co-sponsoring the talk and strongly criticized Murray and his work. For example, McKibben said Murray’s best-known book, “The Bell Curve,” which argues that race plays a factor in intelligence, was “vile” and had been disproven, including by the college’s math department.

McKibben called Murray “a troll” who seeks to provoke fights in order to “discredit academia and multiculturalism.”

McKibben founded 350.org, an environmental organization, with seven Middlebury students in 2007. He has been arrested several times during nonviolent demonstrations across the globe as a form of civil disobedience.

Protesters at Middlebury College decry the appearance of Charles Murray, the author of the controversial book “The Bell Curve.” File photo by Emily Greenberg/VTDigger

He made his comments about the Murray protest in an opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper. The Ripton activist, who is a scholar in residence at Middlebury, said he wasn’t on campus at the time of the speech because his mother was in the hospital.

The students and faculty who didn’t want Murray to come to campus were rightfully angry, McKibben said, but the way the demonstrators responded, he said, didn’t make sense.

The harsh negative reaction the protesters have gotten from those who believe Murray should have been able to speak, he said, was entirely predictable. The protesters should have better anticipated the blowback, he said.

“In America, anyway, shouting someone down ‘reads’ badly to the larger public, every single time,” he wrote. “And it is precisely the job of activists to figure out how things are going to read, lest they do real damage to important causes — damage, as in this case, that will inevitably fall mostly on people with fewer resources than Middlebury students.”

Instead of shouting down Murray, McKibben suggested they should have followed the example of a reverend in Selma, Alabama, who led a boycott and walkout against a controversial speaker but did not block his talk.

After screaming down Murray, pulling fire alarms after he tried to give his talk in another room, and confronting him in the parking lot afterward — where a professor was injured — the result was predictable, according to McKibben: “Murray emerged with new standing, a largely forgotten hack with a renewed lease on public life, indeed now a martyr to the cause of free speech. And anti-racist activism took a hit, the powerful progressive virtue of openness overshadowed by apparent intolerance.”

Professor Allison Stanger, who moderated the event with Murray, suffered a neck injury and was treated at a hospital. An account by Middlebury officials said Stanger also suffered a concussion.

Meanwhile, more than 100 Middlebury educators have signed a statement of principles in support of free speech and critical of the protesters. The professors said their principles “seem to us unassailable in the context of higher education within a free society.”

The principles include:

  • Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected.
  • Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.
  • The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus.

The educators said the protest included “unacceptable acts.” One of their principles said Middlebury students “possess the strength, in head and in heart, to consider and evaluate challenging opinions from every quarter.”

Mark Johnson

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  • Good for McKibben as far as this goes. However, read carefully, he is saying that this thuggery was a bad tactic, which it was, but not that it violated basic principles, which it also did.

    It would be wonderful if his name appeared on the list of signers of the excellent statement of principle posted by some of the Middlebury faculty.Because he is respected by many of the students, his name would make them think. By signing he would also be protecting the right of dissent which has been so important to him – and is essential for all of us.

    • walter carpenter

      “However, read carefully, he is saying that this thuggery was a bad tactic, which it was, but not that it violated basic principles, which it also did.”

      If you read into it, tactics involve principles as well and that McKibben did use the word dignity here in how the protestors should have answered this Murray character. What is missed here, though, and has not been mentioned (or if it has I missed it) the coverage I have read so far is the violation of basic principles of dignity to have this Murray speak in the first place, knowing that it would deliberately insult members of the Middlebury student body, faculty, and staff, especially its minority members.

      • Dan DeCoteau

        Under your opinion as applied to McKibben, you should not be allowed to post here because some of us don’t like what you say. There is no dignity in that type of reasoning whoever says or writes it. There is no dignity in thuggery period! If you believe that a speaker is going to offend your sensibilities you have the option of not attending as did the students who were there to silence free speech. Speech in and of itself does not have to be liked or accepted by everyone. That is what America is all about.

        • Scott Greene

          And some speech can not find such a willing or prominent venue. Thankfully.

          • Dan DeCoteau

            People who are easily offended should not read, see a movie, watch TV, go to a concert or pay outlandish tuition and expect to be pleased all the time. Just stay inside and be safe!

        • David Bell

          “Speech in and of itself does not have to be liked or accepted by everyone.”

          Including protest speech, another thing people have the option of doing.

          • Dan DeCoteau

            Protest yes, mob no! Shouting someone down isn’t a protest, That’s fascism no different than book burning and political imprisonment. Colleges are supposed to be for studying different ideas to create critical thinking. If the left continues to be so intolerant of conflicting ideas they only help us conservatives. Keep it up if you wish!

          • David Bell

            “Shouting someone down isn’t a protest,”

            Actually, it is a protest.

            “That’s fascism no different than book burning and political imprisonment.”

            Please take a look at the definition of fascism before using it:

            https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fascism

            And the fact you thinking shouting at someone is the equivalent to imprisoning them is just sad.

      • Pete Andersen

        if they were so insulted, maybe they shouldn’t have gone…
        (or worked themselves into an f-bomb screaming, car attacking mob)
        hard to deny that a lot more people now know about Murray’s (20+ year old) book and arguments than they did before. I think that counts as hurting the cause.

      • John Briggs

        And yet, Walter Carpenter, presenting students with unfamiliar or offensive idea is a responsibility of a university. Such ideas are not a “deliberate insult” to students; rather, they are an alert, and provide an opportunity for students to learn how best to counter them.

        We live in a tumultuous society with scant tolerance for differences. Middlebury’s privileged students have chosen a school noticeably lacking in diversity (3.6 % black this year; one of the highest tuitions among private colleges), and those who suppressed Murray’s speech evidence a familiar disdain, an intolerance, for the unfamiliar. They have learned nothing about Murray, even as they high-five each other for demonstrating self-righteous virtue. A mob is a mob, no matter how expensive the sweaters.

        • It is not the responsibility of a university to familiarize students with every form of wrong idea that has ever been debunked, however. If this particular wrong idea was worthy of such an analysis, the appropriate venue within a university for a critical analysis of Murray’s long-discredited work is in a classroom, not with the author himself on a stage. How could that possibly be constructive? It only serves to humiliate the author, and does the students no good, since the author clearly isn’t interested in a sincere debate on the topic.

          • Skyler Bailey

            1) How do you know the author is not interested in a debate on the topic? It seems to me that an author of a controversial book should fully expect to have to explain or defend his work in a college setting.

            2) If a student group wants to invite a speaker, and the speaker accepts, and the event will include a Q&A session, then the college supporting that student group and allowing the event to create some thoughtful discussion of a particular subject (see McKibben’s description of the math department using it as a teachable moment regarding the use and abuse of statistical analysis), that is far removed from “familiarizing the students with every wrong idea that has ever been debunked.” Is not learning to debunk wrong ideas (rather than merely crying to the nearest authority-figure that they hurt one’s feelings and should be banned) not only an integral part of the purpose of a university as a learning institution, but also a vital aspect of a civic education in a republican democracy?

            Suppose that right-wing ideologues, or all those with wrong ideas are wholly ignored by colleges and universities, and so their arguments and hypotheses are never questioned, tested, or debunked in any reasoned way, and they are only shouted down by leftist ideologues…does that not leave your average person looking to such views as a form of rebellion against the very authority-figures that ban them? Does that not leave those views with just as much apparent validity (in the absence of any reasoned examination) as any other view? How is that constructive?

          • Professor Murray’s ideas have been thoroughly debunked in the academy. These are not new ideas being presented for fresh analysis: they are old, discredited ideas being offered up as new and valid.

            I agree that they should be debated, but the debate should be between the students who advocate them and the students who reject them, not between Murray and the students who reject his ideas. He has continued to push his ideas (e.g. that poverty is caused by low intelligence) even many years after they have been shown to be incorrect. He is a propagandist, not a scholar.

          • Skyler Bailey

            Did you read the Bell Curve? That’s not exactly the thesis of the book.

          • David Bell

            His thesis is that blacks and latinos come from genetically inferior stock.

          • No, of course not. He’s very careful to try to make it sound rational, but if you actually listen to what he _says_ about it, it’s very clear where he’s coming from. He’s said exactly that, that poverty is the result of low intelligence.

          • I read The Bell Curve and found errors in the application of statistics that should embarrass an undergraduate. Others in the field noted that the datasets involved were cherrypicked. The thing was debunked within a week, essays collected into 2 books.

            The debate was had, Murray took a drubbing. But outside the parameters of actual intellectual debate, his book continues to sell because it serves a political purpose; the 2 books debunking it have not.

          • Skyler Bailey

            All of this is true, but fundamentally I think the most glaring issue with the work is that it is based on some assumptions that just aren’t valid. The controversial aspect of the book regarding race and intelligence is, I believe, actually Murray (without realizing it) addressing a problem in his argument that was created by those false assumptions.That said, his main argument may be somewhat interesting from a sociological standpoint, though the book itself does very little to argue in its favor.

    • He wrote what he wanted to; he doesn’t have to write what you want him to.

  • patricia jedlicka

    Unless I missed it, Mr McKibben says nothing about the battery and injury on the middle aged female faculty member. So the thuggery is not acceptable because it ‘hurt the cause,’ more than, it was really an act of violence where someone got hurt. Guess she was just collateral damage. Wow.

    • billmckibben

      you did miss it.

      • patricia jedlicka

        The article here mentions it. You did not, according to the article. I did not bother to go to the links to see if you actually spoke out against the violent action of the protesters against the faculty member because I am no longer interested in hearing about you or the students at Middlebury. Good luck to you in the future.

  • Mary Martin

    Bill should teach a class on non-violent civil disobedience to the students. Let them learn how it’s done instead of berating them.

    • billmckibben

      I taught “Social Movements:Theory and Practice” this past term. Good fun.

  • John Briggs

    I hope Mckibben signs the statement of principles. His objections to the suppression of speech, as reported here, seem less principled than tactical–how the violence looks and how it may benefit Murray. It would be preferable to have faculty at Middlebury who repudiate the use of force in the “virtuous” suppression of speech they find “wrong.”

  • It’s a bit much to say that the thuggery was the protest. I’ve been to plenty of protests, and there is always some jerk who wants to get violent. It doesn’t mean that all the protesters support that violence; indeed, typically the violent jerk isn’t even interested in the protest itself, except as a cover for violence. So it’s simply not accurate to refer to the violence as being part of the “tactics of the protest.”

    Aside from that, just why does Murray deserve a protected platform for speech? Why is his freedom of speech more important than the freedom of speech of the students who shouted him down? There isn’t any serious debate over Murray’s ideas. Anybody who cares about academic rigor understands that his conclusions aren’t supported by his research. So the only reason for him to speak is to assert a view which is not sustained by the Academy itself.

    I certainly support the Middlebury Republicans right to bring someone like Murray in to speak; what I don’t understand is why anybody is shocked that he was shouted down. How is one supposed to respond to this sort of thing? With all due respect to Mr. McKibben, his way of arguing has not been a success. We are above 400. Maybe social pressure on malfeasant speakers is more effective than arguing with them point by point.

    • Nachman Avruch

      Because “shouting people down” isn’t free speech. We’re not talking constitutional First Amendment speech, as I’m sure you know. We’re talking about an academic principle of the free exchange of ideas; if an exchange is impossible because of the behavior of one side or the other, then the principle of free exchange is violated. If the students and other protesters object to his ideas (as most, including I, do) then they should counter it with ideas – with questions, with criticism, not with screaming and chanting slogans that don’t even apply to Murray.

      And the contingent of protesters who violently assaulted the speaker and his escort may not have been a perfectly representative sample of the student demonstrators, but they can’t disavow it just because they didn’t personally participate. Many spoke in support afterwards; some, including the student paper, strangely and incredibly attempted to claim it was the escort and speaker who assaulted students.

      • Shouting people down is certainly free speech. It’s just free speech you don’t approve of. I don’t like it very much either, but privileging a latter-day presentation of Murray’s theories as “the free exchange of ideas” is just silly.

        Remember that every form of propaganda can be described as “the free exchange of ideas.” How do we deal with propaganda? We recognize it for what it is (hopefully!) and reject it. We do not get into a debate with the propagandist.

        The key element of an interesting debate is that the participants in the debate be willing to hear each other out, and to consider the possibility that they are wrong. In this case, I think it unlikely that Murray was willing to hear anyone out, and if he is still talking about his theories after all this time, he clearly hasn’t heard any of the criticism that has been heaped upon them. And so the protestors quite rightly rejected Murray’s offer of propaganda.

        If you think that this is never acceptable, I would point out to you that there are many topics that I think we would both agree are definitely not appropriate subject matter for a speech at Middlebury College. The virtues of human trafficking, for example. Whether or not women should be considered chattel, as they once were. Whether beheading or torture is preferable as a form of capital punishment. Can you honestly say that if a speaker were to present any of these views, it would be inappropriate for that person to be shouted down?

        As for the students who claim that the attack on Professor Stanger was justified, well, one hopes that they will be disabused of this notion. I certainly agree with you that attacking Professor Stanger and Mr. Murray was not an acceptable way of protesting Murray’s talk. Perhaps we can also agree that she should never have been put in that position.

        • Skyler Bailey

          The protesters did not reject his “offer of propaganda.” They would have done that by simply not attending. They rather rejected his offer on others’ behalf. They decided that others were not intelligent enough to “recognize it” or to “reject it” for themselves, even if all of the flaws with it were explained.

          If the purpose of higher education is to determine which ideas are and are not acceptable, presume the students too stupid to think for themselves or to understand the arguments, and to thus shield them from those ideas deemed unacceptable, then the students are wasting their money and higher education is doing more harm than good.

          • David Bell

            No, they simply protested. Please stop pretending no one has the right to protest racist, bigoted, or blatantly false ideas.

          • Skyler Bailey

            I would agree with you had their protest been limited to the actions Dr. McKibben described in his piece; had the students not assaulted the faculty, had they remained outside of the lecture hall, or done something constructive rather than screaming profanities and pulling fire alarms to prevent the speaker from speaking at all. Protest is a right – Thuggery (Mckibben’s word, remember), shutting down school-sanctioned events, and assault are not.

          • I believe that we have all already agreed that violence was not an appropriate response to Murray’s appearance.

          • I take it then that you would argue that if a leader of the KKK were to be invited to speak at Middlebury, Middlebury would be obligated, as an institute of higher learning, to host that event? What about a person advocating a return to legalized slavery, or a return to treating women as legal chattel and revoking suffrage? These are all ideas. Is it wrong for Middlebury to refuse to host speakers who espouse these ideas?

            If it is not wrong, then it is not wrong for a significant portion of the student body to be outraged when an advocate of craniometry is invited to speak.

          • Skyler Bailey

            Strawmen aside, everything in your argument presumes that the students would be too stupid to notice that anything was wrong with what the KKK was saying – that they must be shielded from that viewpoint lest they somehow fall prey to it. I think it is far more valuable a thing that they have the ability to recognize strengths and weaknesses in their own viewpoints, as well as the viewpoints of others, rather than never confronting any of it, and never having to do any critical thinking. For some reason, you don’t trust them to do any critical thinking, or to thereby reach any rational conclusion. I will say it again: If the purpose of higher education is to ensure the lack of critical thinking skills because of some presumption of stupidity, then it is money wasted.

          • No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying is that it would be totally inappropriate to invite someone from the KKK to speak at Middlebury about the KKK. It’s not that the students need to be shielded from such a person: it’s that such an invitation would be patently offensive.

            Also, a “straw man” is when I rephrase an argument you have made so that it’s a different argument that’s easier to refute. What I did is a reductio ad absurdum. The point of such an argument is to explore the limits of a continuum. If it’s true that at some points on the continuum, one truth holds, but at other points on the continuum a different truth holds, then we can explore where on the continuum the transition occurs.

            You seem to be rejecting my claim that there are some guest speakers that Middlebury clearly would not invite. But I think any reasonable person would agree that it’s true: there are definitely speakers that Middlebury would not allow to speak at the College. That being the case, I am merely exploring whether or not Murray should have been one such speaker. My claim is that he should have been.

            If you disagree, you have two choices: either to show that he is serious, and not a propagandist promoting outdated theories, or else to claim that there is no speaker that Middlebury would not be willing to invite. If you wish to make the former claim, it’s immaterial, because you’ve already agreed in principle that he could be. If you wish to make the latter, I think you are engaging in directed reasoning; you might want to chat with the faculty at Middlebury about this, if you are in a position to do so.

          • Skyler Bailey

            It seems I have not made my position sufficiently clear. I am quite certain that there are many people that no student group at Middlebury would want to invite to speak. I would even expect that there might be some speakers that a student group would want to invite that Middlebury College would be unwilling to host. Middlebury College, being a private institution, is within its rights to make that determination. However, when a speaker is invited by a student group, with the support of the college, a mob of students and faculty are not within their rights to prevent the speaker from speaking no matter how righteous they think they may be, even if no assault is committed. The college is correct to punish such behavior.

            Whether or not Charles Murray’s work is correct is beside the point, as far as I am concerned. The primary issue is that it is not up to you, or me, or a mob of self-proclaimed warriors for the downtrodden to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t. Those who disagree with Charles Murray’s methods or findings had every opportunity to engage that in civil discourse, or even to exercise a right of peaceful protest outside of the lecture hall (as Dr. McKibben described), but shutting down civil discourse sanctioned by the college for educational purposes is not a right of a group of students and faculty, solely because they disagree with what the speaker had to say.

  • Sandy Rhodes

    What does the community and college convey by not prosecuting the thugs to the full extent of the law? Go on Main Street and beat someone up and you will be prosecuted. Why is it different when that happens on a campus of higher learning? Doesn’t that berate the foundation of that institute? Middlebury College would have been wise to have had no less than a minimal amount of law enforcement present for a speaker that was known to be controversial. Shame on the college for not protecting its students, teachers, and values.
    The college should learn from this: there are people who attend protests that may not be supporters of the cause, but are present to incite violence and destruction. Events are an outlet for their desires for misbehavior.

  • Pam Ladds
  • Sandy Rhodes

    Hopefully the college has learned that not all folks who attend protests are there to support the cause. They come to perpetrate the violence and destruction they feed on. Protests are their opportunity to hurt and create mayhem. Their actions then incite those around them who have little self-control or are bullies.
    Middlebury College would have been wise to bring in law enforcement for a speaker who is so controversial. Go beat someone up on Main Street and you get yourself arrested. When it happens on the grounds of higher learning, why aren’t the repercussions the same? What message has been sent to the part of the student body that tends toward independence and rebelliousness?
    My guess is the students who went to hear what Murray had to say are no less convinced about his message due to the shouting and violence. McKibben’s point on walking out as a form of protest would have been wiser move. Shouting is often a manifestation of anger, and anger produces negative results. Then the angry mob environment incites violent individuals to create violence and destruction.
    Shame on Middlebury College for not protecting its student body, teachers, and values. They shouldn’t have sat on their laurels by assuming that nothing could go wrong. Especially today, when there is so much social and political strife.

  • sandybettis

    Hate speech is never okay.

    • rosemariejackowski

      Right, hate speech is never okay, but it is legal.

  • Skyler Bailey

    McKibben seems not to see anything wrong with what happened, but only with how it “reads.” The protesters who assaulted their own (democrat) professor didn’t do anything wrong because they assaulted someone, but because it makes their political ideology look bad. He seems to think it is perfectly okay to use force to silence those with whom he disagrees, but that it is unwise ONLY because it cannot (yet) be done with impunity.

  • Dan DeCoteau

    What good does it do for the discussion to filter out comments that someone at Vermont Digger doesn’t like. I’ve seen a noticeable drop in comments either because of the Disqus format or because of the Digger censors. Also, the vote down arrow does not work so there is no conclusive way to judge how the comments are received by readers. Personally, I do not like someone censoring my posts as long as it conforms to the stated rules. I’m sure I’m not alone in that thought.

  • Doug Eisler

    “gave the bad guys a gift.” That’s part of the problem right there; calling someone with different views than you a bad guy.

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