A Tale of Two Worldviews

By ERIK BLEICH

For the second time in just over two years, a controversial visitor has divided our campus.

As chair of the political science department, I have heard strong arguments both to retain and to rescind co-sponsorship of these types of talks. I believe that these arguments are so passionate because they pit core values against one another. Even more importantly, I believe the frustrations of both sides are rooted in a deeper divide. Advocates hold fundamentally different worldviews, which makes it virtually impossible for them to resolve their differences through reasoned discussion.

On the one hand, some people have a liberal individualist perspective. These folks often lean on the writings of John Stuart Mill to advocate a wide open terrain of debate. They believe that every person’s viewpoint has equal value in the marketplace of ideas. Short of direct incitement to violence, your speech, my speech, his speech and her speech are straightforward inputs into the public sphere that deserve to be considered. Statements should be evaluated on their merits. The best ideas should win the day. This may not transpire in every instance, but the firm protections for free speech, freedom of inquiry and academic freedom are the bedrock for a system of pluralistic individual freedom that has sustained liberal democracies for decades if not centuries.

On the other hand, the starting point for others is a critical theory perspective. From this viewpoint, all is not equal in the world. Some people and some ideas have more power than others. Marginalized groups have structural disadvantages within liberal democracies and within established institutions like Middlebury College. Given these facts, some voices should be elevated in order to create a more equitable playing field that fosters liberation and limits domination. Policies should be developed to reduce the engrained tilt in the playing field that perpetuates the power of the powerful. Black and brown people, LGBTQ and trans people, women, Muslims and those from all status minority groups should be listened to especially closely when they identify practices that inflict harm and demand respect. Not to do so simply entrenches the power differentials that have marked liberal democracies for decades if not centuries.

I have deliberately tried to cast each worldview in terms recognizable from within, but viewed as fatally flawed from without. For me, this reveals the essence of the challenge we face. At its sharpest edge, this juxtaposition leads to questions like, “How can you devalue my point of view in important discussions just because I am white/straight/cis/male?” Or, “How can you uphold status quo principles of freedom that cause actual harm to vulnerable people?” This list of intense and emotion-laden questions could go on.

Identifying this problem can be a first step in reflecting on how to deal with it. There is some good news here. In most discussions when passions are not running high, people tend to recognize elements of truth in both worldviews. This past fall, I taught a political science seminar called “Free Speech versus Racist Speech in the United States and Europe.” Among the fifteen students in that class, over two-thirds were on campus during the Charles Murray affair. I was concerned that camps would quickly crystallize and that these worldviews would prove fatal to our discussions. That was not the case at all. Every single student came in with an open mind, and recognized that each perspective may contain, in the words of John Stuart Mill, a “portion of the truth.” I nearly jumped for joy at the end of each class.

There is also less good news here. Some absolutists are unwilling to give an inch of ground. For them, the liberal individualist or critical theory perspectives are completely correct, and to acknowledge the claims of the other side is the first step down a slippery slope to tyranny or perpetual oppression. I am not that concerned with this. There will always be true believers. They often amplify the strongest versions of each worldview in ways that can clarify the debate and the stakes for the rest of us.

For the vast majority, the biggest challenge is to figure out how to handle the inevitable tensions in moments of acute incompatibility between our values, such as when invitations are issued to speakers whose writings have been inimical to the well-being of marginalized groups. There is no avoiding this confrontation between wanting to protect academic freedom, freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech, versus wanting to make sure that our institutional structures do not perpetuate the harms inherent in providing a platform to people associated with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry.

In these circumstances, it seems to me that we have two choices. We can either identify our personal cardinal value and press for it to win the day. When push comes to shove, you may decide that it is worth standing up for freedom of speech even if marginalized communities tell you to your face that it harms them. Or you may stick up for the vulnerable, even if involves undermining a critical principle of freedom in a way that risks being used against minority communities in the future. This is largely what we experienced during the Charles Murray and Ryszard Legutko visits, at least among those willing to speak publicly.

Yet, there is another option, and I think a far better one. As individuals, or, ideally, as a community, we can reaffirm our strong attachment to both values. We have to uphold the freedom of our faculty colleagues to invite or co-sponsor speakers they feel will contribute to important intellectual discussions. Without that academic freedom, we cannot function as an institution of higher learning. We must also acknowledge that some speakers inflict pain on members of marginalized communities through the symbolic power of the platform that we provide them. We need to develop better strategies and policies for this reality, recognizing that the solutions for this challenge are nowhere near as straightforward as simply letting the speaker speak.

This week, in my role as chair of the political science department, I defended the right of my colleague to invite speakers he deems valuable to our intellectual life. That is a key component of academic freedom at any institution of higher education. I also organized—with the help of colleagues and staff, and in response to activism by students representing marginalized groups—a panel discussion designed to identify some of the weaknesses of the argumentation and the problematic nature of our visitor’s statements and party affiliation. I have connected with students and listened to their concerns. And I am thinking hard about what other steps we can take as a department to promote the value of inclusivity that is so critical to our department and to our college community.

I know that this solution is not a complete solution. It may mitigate it, but it does not fully resolve the tension between our values. In particular, it won’t satisfy those committed to a critical theory perspective. But reaffirming my commitment to these twin values is a first step, and finding ways to demonstrate and intensify our commitment to inclusivity is a next step. It is only through recognizing the tensions between the two worldviews that we can understand why these situations are so complicated. And it is only through a firm commitment to both values that we can find our way forward.

Erik Bleich is Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of Political Science.

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