When I started at Williams College in 2014, I was looking forward to my classes and activities. But I was most excited about the chance to engage in aggressive, vociferous debate with my peers, professors and visiting speakers.
To me, that’s what college is all about. I value provocative, even offensive, speech because it unsettles me and jars me into challenging my own thinking. Without being made to feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t question certain assumptions or rethink firmly held beliefs.
To promote this kind of engagement at Williams, I joined Uncomfortable Learning, a student-run organization that brings controversial speakers to campus. We hope to help students critically engage with offensive views they’ll encounter in life. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we support or endorse every visitor. For example, Uncomfortable Learning brought Norman Finkelstein to campus last spring. I personally disagree with his arguments about the Israel-Palestine conflict. But hearing him helped me wrestle more deeply with my position’s counter-arguments.
Recently, Uncomfortable Learning invited Suzanne Venker to campus. Venker, a noted anti-feminist, has argued that feminism turns women into victims, devalues motherhood and makes male-female relationships a battleground. Just minutes after I invited people to the event via Facebook, my Uncomfortable Learning partners and I started receiving incendiary attacks. Our peers called us sheltered, privileged men’s right’s activists endorsing hate speech, white supremacy and misogyny. One person accused me of a calculated attack on women at Williams. Another said I had blood on my hands. That post received over 50 likes. I also received a phone call from a private number. The person on the line said, “I used to have respect for you, but now I know you’re a sexist. Go to hell.” Then they hung up.
A few days later, after a torrent of online bullying, our board canceled the event because of security concerns. I worry about the message this sends. To outsiders, it may seem like Williams doesn’t believe in free speech. And it makes our student body seem like we need to be coddled and given “safe spaces” that prevent us from having to face views we find offensive.
This saddens me. I would like to think that Venker could speak at Williams and that our students could take her to task in an aggressive yet respectful Q&A session. But my experience suggests otherwise. Instead of engaging in uncomfortable learning, some of my peers demonize those who support it.
That’s too bad. College is all about uncomfortable learning — reading books that challenge our world views, arguing with our peers and pushing our professors to give us the most compelling counterarguments. When we cancel speakers, it makes it harder for us to have that dialogue.
Sure, we can read Venker’s books online. But being able to ask questions, make comments and put forth criticisms directly is only possible when there is a public platform for contentious discussion. When we say that a speaker should not come because of their views, we’re denying ourselves an opportunity to strengthen our own arguments.