Upon entering the room where Professor Amy Wax was scheduled to speak, the first thing many people noticed were brightly colored signs with a single word written on it: racist. Some students brought these signs in anticipation of a heated lecture, in part due to hype created both by middbeat and by other students on campus.
Amy Wax’s work is undoubtedly controversial. Her conservative approach to issues of race and sex conflicts with the opinions of the majority of the student body and some of her findings were insulting to many students who come from the discussed communities. By dodging questions and interrupting students, she exacerbated existing tensions. Nevertheless, we failed as a student body to combat this controversy with grace.
By preparing to attack rather than to engage, we failed to truly listen to what she was saying. And even if what she was saying was as offensive as we expected, without careful consideration of her evidence, we were unable to deconstruct her argument to our full capacity. It is hard to remain collected when presented with some of her findings and to check emotions when someone hits so personally, but the ability to rationally respond to people with whom we disagree is a life skill that we are often not challenged to develop at a politically homogenous school. There will always be people who present opinions you find offensive. Rejecting such voices on our campus does not mean they go away; it just means they are not exposed to thoughtful opposition. Over the course of the semester, we’ve engaged in dialogue about what voices are and are not welcome here. In this instance, unlike with Chance the Rapper’s controversial lyrics, we were able to engage directly, creating a dialogue that allowed us to pressure our guest on what we found offensive, rather than merely listening to what we objected to, as at the concert.
Though Wax was often condescending and dismissive of even the most thoughtful comments, we should have taken the higher ground. As a community of curious and engaged people, we missed an opportunity to intelligently critique a heavily researched academic presentation. By resorting to name calling, we trivialized our collective knowledge. As frustrating as her refrain that we did not have the data to support our findings was, it is true that data cannot be combated simply with trying to humiliate her. A room of impassioned Middlebury students from a variety of academic background has tremendous potential to deconstruct a presentation that was clearly missing pieces, including a complete analysis of all variables like the socio-political factors that could also inform her findings.
It is difficult to refute a speaker like Wax, who has decades of research under her belt, and this creates a volatile environment in which some of the well-reasoned voices may remain unheard. In a situation that is as obviously charged as Amy Wax’s lecture, someone must step in and ensure certain voices are heard and some questions are actually answered. We saw this from Professor Dry, who called on a colleague he knew would have a thoughtful response, but we could have used more guidance in this discussion. Faculty sponsors should be more accountable for the direction of these lectures and, if it is heading in a direction of animosity, help guide the conversation. It still, however, falls on audience members to respond appropriately.
The solidarity felt in a room where some community members felt directly disrespected was powerful. Imagine how much stronger it would feel if we came out having taken the high road, emphasizing the contrast between her dismissive attitude and a civil, respectful, yet firm tone from our end.