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, 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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