At 6:00 p.m. this past Thursday, I was running towards Kravis to grab my notebook for the Heather Mac Donald Athenaeum talk. Of course, I was shocked to find a coalition of students from the Claremont Colleges (including a small number of students from Claremont McKenna) blocking every entrance to the building. As I quickly learned, this was part of a broader effort to silence the Black Lives Matter critic, which also involved a much larger blockade in front of the Athenaeum. The students had pushed aside the metal barriers that were set up to ensure access to the building, linked arms, and decided to protest by shouting rather than engaging in dialogue. And they did so in the name of social justice.
I understand the impetus for protesting Heather Mac Donald’s presentation, and I generally support protest as a form of expression, as do (from what I’ve gathered) Athenaeum Director Priya Junnar, Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin, and President Hiram Chodosh. But the type of protest matters, as do its consequences.
There are two main criticisms of the protest that have been floating around campus over the past few days, both of which I wholeheartedly endorse.
First, my sense is that the CMC community is overwhelmingly dedicated to the notion that although certain viewpoints might be offensive, free speech should be protected. Of course, inviting a speaker to the Athenaeum involves more than free speech; it involves giving the speaker a pulpit. However, an invitation to speak does not constitute an endorsement of the speaker’s viewpoint. At the Athenaeum, CMC protects the right to free speech because the viewpoint on offer is worth our careful consideration and intellectual engagement — in other words, we do so in the hope that we might gain something substantive from engaging with them. In my opinion, Heather Mac Donald’s talk unequivocally falls within this category.
Athenaeum Fellow Sarah Sanbar’s stellar introduction compellingly demonstrates why: “I feel comfortable saying that racism is a systemic problem that trickles down into every aspect of life. I feel so comfortable saying this because I believe it to be true. This makes it very easy to forget that for a significant portion of American society, I am wrong, offensive, and my words stir up racial tensions that they believe do not exist.” In short, Heather Mac Donald presents a viewpoint held by roughly half of America, and this viewpoint is neither tolerated nor discussed on our campuses. Nevertheless, we will undoubtedly encounter it once we graduate, so it makes sense to pause for a moment and attempt to understand it.
Regardless of who invites somebody to present, the invitation involves a value judgment. The question we are asking — whether the speaker is brought to campus by Priya, a research institute, or a member of the student body — is this: “Will they say something that is worth engaging with?” I agree that we should avoid inviting speakers that will merely offend people; racism on its own is not instructive enough to merit an Ath presentation. But we should also guard vigilantly against the “heckler’s veto.”
However, many CMCers have made the case that protecting free speech has an equally important flip-side: students should not be deprived of their choice to engage with an idea, no matter how vigorously their peers might condemn it. I believe that Black Lives Matter, and reading or listening to Heather Mac Donald’s scholarship makes me furious. But that is exactly why I was so excited for her to come to the Athenaeum. I knew my fellow students and I had done our research, and we were itching to attack her claims through pointed questions, empirical facts, and a determined deconstruction of her logic. Of course, she would have the opportunity to respond, but I had faith that we would be able to convince those in attendance that her position is powerfully misguided. If we had been given the chance, I still think we would have won the day.
By challenging Mac Donald during the Q&A, students committed to social justice could have absolutely suggested that her presentation or opinions have racist implications. For example, a student could ask, “Do you believe black culture is different in ways that cause disparities in policing?” She would probably say yes to this. But the follow-up question could have been devastating: “Do you believe black culture is inferior in this way?” I am not sure she would have a coherent response to this — in fact, I think she would have squirmed.
I know that my peers will offer even more robust defenses and counterpoints to these two criticisms in the coming days and I look forward to reading them. However, I worry that we will not discuss the more nuanced implications of this protest as it relates to self-defeating social justice and identity politics.
For example, over 250 people watched Mac Donald’s talk live, and at least 1,400 people had listened to it from the link on CMC’s homepage by Friday morning. As President Chodosh put it in an email to the student body, “In the end, the effort to silence her voice effectively amplified it to a much larger audience.” However, there is one crucial point that he didn’t mention: the Q&A period was cut short, so not only did the protest amplify her voice, but it ensured that her views went unchallenged. In practice, the demonstrators powerfully undermined their own cause.
The protesters did not appear concerned with the outcomes of their advocacy, and this is troubling because those outcomes can be positively nefarious. Protests have consequences, and I worry that the effects of this one will extend beyond undercutting the Black Lives Matter movement.
At one point in the evening, the chants changed from “How do you spell racist? C-M-C!” to “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Like many, I was baffled by this, but as a Lebanese-American, I was also deeply offended. Although opposition to settlement expansion and Israeli control over the Gaza Strip is often informed by real academic arguments, any uninformed observer would, by default, associate any version of the pro-Palestine stance with a group of liberal protesters who refuse to engage in dialogue. The protesters had effectively made the pro-Palestine position into a caricature, undermining the very cause they purported to champion. Worse still, the political opponents of Palestinian sovereignty could now pile on. As I was walking away from the protest, someone who I know to be a very thoughtful ideological conservative — and a good friend — shouted, “Anti-Semites!” I was heartbroken.
Essentially, the protesters co-opted a cause that many of them did not understand, and whether or not they understood it, they were unwilling to engage in the dialogue that such an important topic demands. And this had a tangible and negative impact on the people who were listening.
Another example might help draw out why protesting without considering the consequences is so problematic. During the protest, several of the demonstrators were wearing a keffiyeh over their faces. These scarves are traditionally worn by Arab men in the Middle East, and again, I was surprised and confused when I saw them on Thursday night. At this point, however, my frustration had become genuine curiosity. Towards the end of the protest, I approached an African-American woman with one of these scarves around her neck and said, “Excuse me. I see that you’re wearing a keffiyeh, and I’m Lebanese. I was wondering what exactly makes this different from the cultural appropriation you and many of these students condemn in other contexts?”
At first, she retorted that I was merely trying to undermine the protest, but then she said something much more substantive and interesting. I cannot report her answer verbatim, but her justification was twofold: that the scarf represented intersectionality and solidarity with Arabs, another group which is being oppressed, and that her Lebanese friend gave her the keffiyeh. Of course, I think the logic here is absurd, but before I could point to a counterexample, she noticed that I was wearing a suit and ended our conversation.
I admit that in this case, the negative consequences of the protesters wearing keffiyehs are more difficult to articulate than they were in the pro-Palestine example above. But as an Arab man who sometimes wears a keffiyeh around campus (weather permitting), it just became that much harder for me to do so.
Let me be clear: I’m not objecting to the protestors’ appropriation of Middle Eastern culture or the region’s social justice issues as such. The key is that they ignored the fact that advocacy has real consequences for people other than themselves. First, they undermined the cause of social justice in the context of Black Lives Matter. But in addition, they made it more difficult 1) for anybody to defend or critically engage with the pro-Palestine position on its academic merits, and 2) in subtle ways, for Arabs to live in the United States.
Yes, I am disappointed by the group’s aversion toward free (and difficult) discourse. But what I am particularly incensed with is their ambivalence toward the results of their actions. Isn’t that what meaningful protest is supposed to be chiefly concerned with, after all? To be sure, some of the students may have been protesting merely for the sake of protesting. I’m not sure which would be more demoralizing.
In any case, I will say this: if you purport to advance social justice through protest, you should be concerned with its consequences. The Black Lives Matter movement, achieving Palestinian sovereignty, and living in the United States as an Arab are already uphill battles — if these things matter to you, be careful not to make the climb any steeper.