A Lesson?

By Bettina Matthias, Middlebury Faculty

Earlier last week, a letter made it to my inbox which I was asked to sign. In this letter, members of the faculty voiced their opposition to the idea that President Patton would introduce controversial speaker Dr. Charles Murray before his invited lecture on Thursday, March 2nd. Given the information that the letter contained, pointing to the hugely problematic nature of Dr. Murray’s published positions and his dangerous proximity to White Supremacist thinking, I signed — I did not want a “presidential treatment” for someone with whose reported views I so fundamentally disagree. However, I did not and do not object to his giving a lecture on our campus.

A subsequent conversation with a colleague started me on a journey that, I think, might be worth considering as we are all trying to come to terms with last Thursday’s events. Asked whether I had read any of Dr. Murray’s writings myself before signing the petition, I had to admit that I had not. Strapped for time, I had read tidbits online and found them aggravating enough. And I trusted those who had drafted the letter that they knew what they were writing about. My conversation with my colleague was most uncomfortable — I realized that I had done exactly what we never want anyone in our classroom to do: I had not gone to the sources but had “bought” into what others had prepared for me, activating my “moral barometer” successfully. I went home and did my homework. As I was reading some of Dr. Murray’s most famous writings on women (I had limited time and chose this issue for my quest), I was feeling increasingly vindicated: what I found was indeed hugely objectionable to me, both as a woman and as an academic, just that now, I had substance to back up my objections.

A day later, it became known that President Patton had no intention to do a “presidential introduction” — I had bought into fake news. The day after, students’ protests denied access to many who would have liked to attend Dr. Murray’s lecture and oppose his views by taking on his actual writings and showing their flaws and (academic) shortcomings. Like so many others, I stood outside of McCollough and listened to fractured protest sound bites bleeding out of Wilson Hall onto the lawn. Later, I listened online as Prof. Stanger did a brilliant job doing exactly what should and could have been done by everyone: expose Dr. Murray’s positions where they are exposable, and even get him to admit to having changed his mind on a few occasions.

As a faculty member, as a woman, as an immigrant and as an individual, I understand the significant discontent that befell our students upon Dr. Murray’s visit, in our current national political and social climate of which the protest was surely a result — but to which it has now become a disturbing contributing factor. I am deeply distressed by the fact that we, as a community, have thus missed the first real opportunity after the election to come together and show what we can do and what we stand for as an institution of higher learning. Instead of preparing for this event, individually and in class or groups, and with enough lead time, we split into those who were inside and did not let the speaker speak — and those who stood outside in the cold, not knowing how to voice our concerns since all of a sudden, they became mixed in with actions that we did not want to be identified with. As the subsequent and completely unacceptable violence erupted, whatever form of justifiable protest got dragged down into the mud. This is shameful to me.

My interactions with my colleague were humbling and taught me a most valuable lesson about myself and how essential it is to practice responsible and informed dissent, no matter how much we trust those whose lead we want to follow. Listening to Professor Allison Stanger holding a discussion that must have been as difficult as it was appreciated made me understand what the event could have been, had we come prepared and ready to fight for our views, speaking out against a speaker. It could have made a powerful statement.

Bettina Matthias, Professor of German Director, German School