Dear College: Reject This Tale of Two World Views


National politicians and news media have painted Middlebury as being at the center of an irreconcilable conflict of values. Freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, freedom of academic exploration are on one side — which require that even the most blatantly racist, sexist, and homophobic speakers get an unqualified lecture platform. On the other side is the hope that colleges and universities will not sponsor such dehumanizing ideologies by giving their proponents this kind of unchallenged stage. Erik Bleich, the professor who approved the Legutko speech, reaffirmed this narrative in his Op-Ed, “A Tale of Two Worldviews.” According to Bleich, “we cannot function as an institution of higher learning,” unless each faculty member has the power to give any speaker they want the full, unqualified Middlebury lecture stage. The school cannot take direct action responding to concerns from the community about these talks — or else free speech and freedom of inquiry are done. Under this framework, one worldview or the other must win. There is no room for compromise.

What Bleich does not point out, is that this way of seeing the conflict is itself a worldview. It is a theory, a way of framing the drama. But that theory is constructed. It is not how we have to see the elements at play. 

We can host community events in a smarter way — in a way that doesn’t dehumanize people and cause campus-wide scandal. ”

So the question is, is this framework a useful one? Is it a helpful way of seeing things, that allows us to find effective solutions? Well, let’s look at the results when the college buys into this narrative: a speaker, Ryszard Legutko, is automatically pre-approved for an unchallenged stage and a school sponsorship, regardless of who he is or what he will be talking about. The organizers of this event provide no information about the speaker’s views, not even to the Political Science department, until it comes out the week before the event that the core of this speaker’s philosophy is a position of anti-equality and anti-tolerance (“equality is the new despotism”). Many students and faculty, very understandably, feel threatened by the fact that the school would give these views such an unchallenged platform. Sure, we could “ask tough questions,” but this would not be a true dialogue — Legutko would only evade giving real answers (as he does in the live-stream of the private lecture he gave in RAJ), and would likely get away with false statements he makes to advance his position (e.g. his unchallenged claim, again in the live-stream, that Poland was a pure victim to Germany in World War II, despite the presence of professors who know better). Regardless of the loud presence of these community concerns, the framework prevents Middlebury from doing anything. The framework says that if the school does anything, it would be the symbolic collapse of free speech and inquiry. Tensions rise, until everything explodes into a haze of security concerns and weird secret lectures. Once the cloud of memes settles, everyone here is left exhausted and hurt. 

So then why exactly do we keep using a framework that dooms us to fail? 

I think it’s because we haven’t looked hard enough at exactly what the terms “free speech” and “freedom of inquiry” mean. We have mixed them up with something else. We are using the word “freedom” to mean the power to compel an institution to automatically sponsor any type of community event, regardless of all other concerns. This is what is creating our problem. 

We are using the word “freedom” to mean the power to compel an institution to automatically sponsor a community event”

Take free speech. The thing is, Legukto would still have free speech, with or without a Middlebury sponsorship and an unchallenged Middlebury stage. Freedom of speech guarantees that each and every person is able to openly express themselves. Nowhere, under any definition, does free speech require a private entity, like Middlebury, to automatically provide an unquestioned platform to any speaker who asks. 

And freedom of inquiry? Keegan Callanan, the professor who requested the Legutko talk, has always been free to inquire, research, and publish about Legutko to his heart’s content. He is free to teach whole courses about Legutko’s stances against immigrant and minority rights. He can even get Middlebury grants to go to Poland and drink tea with the guy — and the thing is, he would have all these freedoms with or without the automatic power to get Middlebury to provide Legutko with a sponsorship and open stage. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, freedom of academic inquiry guarantees that professors are not restricted in what they are able to research, publish, and teach. Nowhere, under any definition of freedom of inquiry, is it required that a school automatically host a community event, simply because one professor thinks it’s a good idea.

If this is the case, then we can actually have both. We can have freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. We can study and learn about challenging and controversial issues. And we can host community events in a smarter way — in a way that doesn’t dehumanize people and cause campus-wide scandal. 

What if, instead of automatically pre-approving Legutko for an unchallenged stage, the Political Science department took a look at his arguments beforehand? They could have realized that Legutko’s positions question the humanity of many community members. Recognizing the potential issue, they could ask for input from administration, or even from student leaders. Instead of blindly going with Callahan’s desire to format the event as a speech, the department could make the reasonable proposal — based on the highly controversial and potentially harmful nature of Legutko’s ideology — to host the event in the format of a panel or conversation. This would make sure there is proper contextualization of his views. It would provide a real challenge to Legutko’s assumptions, and an actual stated, scholarly, counterpoint (not just “tough student questions”). It would be excellent academic discourse. Or alternatively, maybe the department could propose a different speaker, one who would bring up the same intellectual issues of anti-tolerance and anti-inequality in Eastern Europe — just maybe not personally embody them. Callahan could accept or reject these offers, maybe propose something in return, until everyone could agree upon an event that is intellectually engaging and that doesn’t cause community chaos. If the sides really can’t come up with an event that fulfills Middlebury’s twin goals of academic inquiry and non-discrimination — then is an event that fails one of Middlebury’s core values really worthy for Middlebury to hold? 

The week before the planned Legutko event, Middlebury hosted an event on a very difficult, deeply offensive, and dehumanizing ideology: the notion, which many in the world believe in, that some people can own and sell other humans. Did we have canceled student protests and Wall Street Journal Op-Eds? No. We had a panel, where different experts shared different points of view, all critically and respectfully engaging with the issue of human trafficking. Free academic inquiry and respectful concern for an issue that could be triggering for many. Beautiful. 

Don’t let talk of irreconcilable values tell you that free speech and automatic and unqualified lecture sponsorship are the same thing. As long as we put just a little more thought into the kind of events we put on and how they are approved, then the crisis disappears. Middlebury, I don’t want to be writing this again next year. Your two goals are not incompatible world-views. Both of them are very, very, much within reach.

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