The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A conservative speaker was uninvited from campus. And then re-invited.

After an outcry from offended students at Williams College, a student group disinvited a speaker who writes that feminism has failed — and then reinvited her Friday.

A student club, unaffiliated with the college, brings in speakers whose opinions they think will be controversial on campus. It’s called Uncomfortable Learning, and the goal is to jar students into challenging their own thinking, to prompt some debates.

Uncomfortable, all right.

When Zach Wood, a sophomore from Anacostia, promoted a talk by Suzanne Venker online, the backlash was so intense that some of the other organizers felt it was too risky to bring her to the small liberal arts college in the Berkshires. They canceled the event.

That set off a national debate over whether college campuses are places where intellectual inquiry has been smothered by political correctness, where conservative opinions are so unwelcome they are shunned, and students are offered “safe spaces” to comfort one another and avoid hearing a speaker with whom they disagree.

Venker — who points to federal data that suggests that in the decades since the feminist movement took off, even as women become more free, more powerful and better educated, they have become less happy —  went to Fox News.

“The anger that they are taught to harbor against both men and society is so deeply rooted,” Venker said of feminists, “… they can’t handle hearing anything but what they’ve been taught to believe.

“… It should tell you something if you’re afraid to engage or hear an alternative view. It should speak volumes about propaganda. People aren’t thinking critically — what colleges are supposed to be for. They’re just being fed propaganda and not allowed to question it.”

Wood — who describes himself as liberal — felt vilified on campus for inviting her, and off campus when the group uninvited her.

When another member of the club quit he was able to make the decision to invite her back because he felt it was the right thing to do, he said.

He has not gotten a response from Venker.

When he originally posted the event, he got questions on social media such as, ” … is this an event about why feminism is bad hosted by men? Hosted by … men? Eek. That’s Awkward.”

He also got this: “When you bring a misogynistic, white supremacist men’s rights activist to campus in the name of ‘dialogue’ and ‘the other side,’ you are not only causing actual mental, social, psychological, and physical harm to students, but you are also—paying—for the continued dispersal of violent ideologies that kill our black and brown (trans) femme sisters. You are giving those who spout violence the money that so desperately needs to be funneled to black and brown (trans) femme communities, to people who are leading the revolution, who are surviving in the streets, who are dying in the streets. Know, you are dipping your hands in their blood, Zach Wood.”

He explained in a piece online that the event had been canceled because of the extreme backlash from other students, that he disagreed with Venker’s views but thought bringing in challenging ideas was important.

He said others in the club were more upset about the reaction and felt they couldn’t ensure safety or any kind of meaningful exchange of ideas if protesters were disruptive, so they decided to cancel it.

“I didn’t like the backlash,” he said, “suggesting that I was trying to harm people, that I was trying to attack people, that I was trying to degrade people, bringing someone to campus for the purpose of dehumanizing them. … it was very, very unsettling, tough for us. But still I was opposed to canceling it, for the fundamental reason that in life you’re going to face things that are offensive to you. You’ll have to face things.

“If someone feels that hearing her speak would cause them harm, they don’t have to come.”

He said he tried to explain this to one of the protesters, but “she would listen for a few seconds and then start shouting again.”

Some of the students who had protested Venker’s invitation most vehemently said their views have been completely distorted (and that they have been compared to the Islamic State, Stalin and Hitler.)

They didn’t ask for her to be uninvited or censored or to have her Web site blocked, several said. Gerardo Pelayo García, a senior, said they planned to go to the talk and challenge her afterward during a Q&A.

They disagreed with the idea of inviting her. “We just thought she wans’t particularly academic or intellectual,” Sam Alterman, a sophomore, said. “There’s a certain level of credibility when you give her an opportunity to speak here. The lack of evidence in the views she espouses,” makes her a poor choice, he argued. Uncomfortable Learning brought in a speaker who questioned climate change recently, he said, and laughed.

“A lot of what Suzanne Venker says directly attacks the humanity of people,” he said, particularly in the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. To bring someone with those opinions to a college, where many young people are exploring their sexual identities, is hurtful, he said.

“There are many ways to facilitate conversations about uncomfortable topics without bringing in someone whose views are offensive to marginalized people,” said Emily O’Brien, a junior.

“Hopefully in the next week we will be doing a healing workshop.”

Some students were still so upset about Venker’s ideas that they gathered in the student center Friday to write about feminism. They wanted to give people an opportunity to come together, O’Brien said.

But many students were more concerned about the idea that free speech might be being stifled, said Marcus Christian, president of the College Council.

They have had controversial speakers in the past, a college spokesman said. Students protested when the college honored then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg several years ago, because they disagreed with policing tactics he advocated, and playwright Eve Ensler for not including transgender characters. Speakers have not been uninvited, she said, and a wide range of views are welcome.

Christian said he has heard from many on campus who “would like to have a discussion on how we treat questions and thoughts that don’t necessarily sit well with us, that aren’t preaching to the choir.”

Indeed, the student paper, the Record, seemed to be grappling with that. They wrote an editorial that their board had been unable to agree about this issue.

…Though Venker’s speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others’ identities. Venker’s appearance would have been an invasion of that space.
The purpose of Uncomfortable Learning, however, is to confront problems outside the purple bubble and introduce students to opinions that they would not otherwise hear on campus. …
It is important that Uncomfortable Learning pushes the envelope of campus discourse, but they must consider the potential damage of introducing harmful thoughts into the safe space that is so vital to the College’s ability to nurture and educate.

The editor-in-chief followed up with a letter Friday, which read, in part, “Although it was not our intent, I understand and accept that our editorial, as written, does advocate for limited free speech, and that was a mistake.”

As for Venker, she said after the event was canceled, “They did me a favor.”

She made national news, and the speech which she had intended to deliver was published in full by Fox News.

“My speech is out there in a much larger way than it would have been if I had just gone to the school. I’m pleased about having a platform to tell parents and people about what’s going on on college campuses,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, a spokesman for Venker said she would not accept the invitation Wood issued Friday. The speech has already been published, so students can read it — and she doesn’t have time to write another at the moment.

Uncomfortable Learning will continue at Williams, though: Next month, KC Johnson, who is co-writing a book about misplaced alarm over campus rape, is slated to speak about sexual assault policies.

“We’re confident,” Wood said, “that it will be a good event.”