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Cultivating a 'new American mind'

Yesterday, we opposed Duke’s decision to allow Charles Murray to speak on campus, echoing concerns voiced during the Middlebury College student protests in response to Murray’s visit to the school. By protesting the inappropriate invitation, these students joined the ranks of liberal college students across the nation who are labelled victims of “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” by conservative opinion columnists. Due to such think pieces, liberal college students are charged with chilling conservative voices on campus, holding their hands over their ears to mute valid ideas and robbing others on campus of an exposure to the “real world.” However, protests like those at Berkeley and at Middlebury are not symptomatic of some soft and vulnerable class of college students who cannot learn and engage with contrary material. They are evidence of the opposite.

Actually, hurling such accusations at students blinds us to the implications of different speakers since we choose to defend these speakers as part of a larger defense of free speech rather than recognize that all speech is free but not all speech is deserving. That some, the extremity of Middlebury excepted, choose to protest certain speakers on account of the emotional and mental harms they pose as well as the philosophical harms they present and perpetuate seems an entirely acceptable philosophical posture. We should be loathe to see these protests straw manned as a crowd of students blindly waving away any speakers they disagree with. In reality, it is not because we refuse to engage with speakers like Charles Murray that we protest, like the Duke students who staged a walk-out on Murray the last time he visited. This protest occurred because these students read and understood his work and found it utterly reprehensible and undeserving of the symbolic platform that is a speaking engagement at a university campus.

A conversation with Charles Murray simultaneously validates his pseudo-scientific ideas that exist on the fringes of academia and acceptable discourse and invalidates the experiences and struggles of minority groups on campus. We reject those like Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos to protect those whose mental and emotional health would be harmed, but we also reject them on an academic and intellectual level. As members of the Duke community, we function as gatekeepers of the University, holding a right to judge certain hateful and disruptive speech as unworthy.

Ultimately, we are doing no disservice to ourselves or to our fellow students by pushing against the invitations of such speakers to campus. Contrary to conservative belief, by actively opposing such seemingly-veiled instances of hate speech on campus, we are better preparing ourselves for the real world than we would by taking no action at all. As the Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Catholic University Ferentz Lafargue writes, “To be sure, the real world is full of anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and racism. The question is: Do we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or do we prepare them to change it? When students refuse to accept discrimination on college campuses, they’re learning important lessons about how to fight it everywhere.” We are not coddling the American mind. We are cultivating a new American mind that is prepared to not only recognize but also actively protest speech that poses threats to the well being of our peers. If we are still viewed as being coddled for identifying, exposing and rejecting socially poisonous postures, so be it.

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