Charles Murray’s visit to campus was not going to be a dull one. Known for his controversial research on race, class and intelligence, his visits stir up controversy on college campuses nationwide. Duke is no different. Students for a Democratic Society and allies staged a silent walkout at the start of his talk.
Being the exceptionally politically correct campus that we are, this planned walkout was met with overwhelming judgments about whether or not it should have happened. Perhaps, however, we should not be so quick to make normative conclusions.
Most acknowledge that yes, the American Enterprise Institute has a right to bring Murray to campus. Yes, students have a right to listen. And lastly, yes, students have the right to walk out. But what does it mean to walk out?
For activists, walking out is a statement. If we sit and listen, it means that we think what Murray is saying is valuable enough to share. We are saying that his claims may perpetuate, as some opponents maintain, the exploitation of human beings, but also that we may gain something from them. We are saying that we trust in the assumed legitimacy of his empirical data and methodology, and we will legitimize it further by listening to him. If we choose to walk out, however, it means that we refuse to consider Murray’s conclusions a matter of debate, and choose instead to protest.
For those who prefer dialogue, however, walking out may rob us of the opportunity to engage with what the speaker has to say. The best counter-arguments come from listening first. By refusing to acknowledge the opposing view, we eliminate opportunities for intellectual engagement.
We cannot condemn either approach—engaging or protesting—just because it stems from goals different than our own. Normative arguments about particular actions have to be contextualized in terms of the goals of those performing the action. In order to achieve our intellectual goals, we use certain methods, and, in order to achieve our activist goals, we use other methods. It may not be courteous to walk out on an intellectual discussion, but when have activist movements ever been polite? Let us not denounce people’s goals simply because they do not align with ours.At the same time, we encourage the clashing of ideas. If the advocates of dialogue and the advocates of protest share the same ultimate goal of racial and class equity, they should work to create a culture of productive discourse. The discussion did not have to happen at the event, but it can happen after. The walkout at the very least rendered the disagreement on campus visible. We now know that people feel strongly about this issue, and we should now ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it? We can let the controversy fade by the end of the week, or we can use this to further discussion. Bring another speaker with an opposing view. Organize a roundtable discussion. For advocates of dialogue and protest alike, discourse can prove only to be beneficial.