Defamiliarizing Discourse

The Editorial Board calls for more diverse on-campus speakers and considers how to draw the line between challenging and violent speech, arguing that speaker events must be opportunities to engage in thoughtful discourse rather than internalize uncontested ideas.

Between the Point/Counterpoint series, LitFest, the Presidential Scholars Program, and innumerable weekly events, Amherst students have access to a wealth of visiting speakers on campus. Indeed, it feels as though one can’t go a week without being bombarded by fliers in a GroupMe chat or Valentine Dining Hall for at least one talk, often by impressively big names in government and academia.

Though we are extremely privileged as an institution to be able to bring these outside perspectives to our campus on such a regular basis, the Editorial Board feels that we need greater diversity in the types of speakers we bring onto this campus. The vast majority of speakers the administration brings are figureheads whose talks often feel surface-level or highly predictable, and allow little room for students to critically discuss or debate with the speakers. Beyond our typical candidate pool — which mainly encompasses Capitol Hill Democrats and professors from peer institutions — there are guests who could turn the worn-out speaker format into a truly provocative and stimulating event on campus.

This reflection is crucial in the context of impending school-wide budget cuts, which will likely limit the number of speaker opportunities in the next academic year. Now, we need to seriously think about the sorts of speakers and outside perspectives we want to bring to our campus, and how we want to engage in dialogue with those speakers when they do come.

While there's some truth in the claim that the lack of speaker diversity reflects Amherst’s strictly progressive politics, there are plenty of differing opinions about issues within our majority left-leaning campus: last year’s Point/Counterpoint debate between Kwame Anthony Appiah and Adolph Reed Jr. over the extent to which race can be reduced to a function of class is a stellar example. Amherst could do more to highlight these points of friction among left-leaning intellectuals.  Furthermore, although political diversity is important, speakers do not have to always be brought in to discuss important societal and global issues. We can just as easily bring in more light-hearted speakers who would rather discuss, say, the philosophy of love and marriage.

That being said, there is absolutely space to bring in speakers who do not share progressive viewpoints. The question that arises here, however, is how we as a student body should engage with those speakers, and where and how we should draw the line between violent and merely oppositional speech.

Stanford Law School made headlines nationwide last week after students protested and shouted down a conservative judge brought onto campus by a student group. A school official criticized the student body and apologized to the speaker for the students’ betrayal of his right to free speech, while many students argued that they had a right to protect their campus from the presence of a judge whose past court decisions have limited the rights of  women, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals.

Before we invite any speaker to campus, controversial or not, there are several questions we should ask of the process. What constitutes hate speech from a speaker? How much should a speaker’s past history factor into their present role as speaker? Should students be allowed to protest speakers or even shut down events that they believe will have a harmful impact on our community? What is the goal of our bringing a speaker in the first place — to endorse their beliefs or generate dialogue?

These are not questions the Editorial Board can or should answer alone. Instead, we call for the student body to reflect on our values as a campus community, and consider how we can implement more diverse voices while preventing real harm to members of our community. Certain formats that are not widely used, currently, may be more conducive to productive engagement with ideologically-challenging speakers: organizing for a debate between a conservative and liberal speaker, for instance, is better than letting the former take the podium unquestioned. Or, we as a student body need to commit ourselves to challenging speakers — something that is currently disappointingly far from the norm. After all, when we bring a speaker onto this campus, we don’t just give them a platform to speak: we bring them into our universe of discourse.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 1).