Why is Heather MacDonald Still Talking? A Case Study in Lazy White Campus Speakers

Joel:

We both love the First Amendment, you as a journalist, me as a hate studies and religious scholar, and probably both of us as people who sometimes like to share unpopular opinions.

Which is why I remind you that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Heather MacDonald’s right to spout racist nonsense at a private college. It guarantees her the right to create a platform and to use it to speak, not to stand on someone else’s platform, without government interference.  She can write (another) manuscript about how police officers are mistreated (Her newest, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, is a new screed on an old theme for her. She released Are Cops Racist? How the War against the Police Harms Black Americans in 2003. From the subtitles, you might get the impression that she really cares people of color.), but no one has to publish it. She can stand in a public space and say just about anything she likes, but no one has to offer her an invitation into the space that they own.  That Claremont McKenna College chose to invite her is a stain on them.

This does not mean, though, that, if she is invited, she should be shouted down. Like you, I’m a believer that more speech, not censorship, is the answer to hateful speech. I love to see students responding to deplorable words and ideas by arguing for something better, and I actively work with students who are opposing hate speech on campus in efforts to do just that.  Turning MacDonald’s race baiting, fear mongering, and flirtations with fascism into an opportunity to develop new research, argumentation, and presentation is a great way for students to practice skills we desperately need in the public sphere.

But what happens when students have already done that? When the burden of doing that work falls so heavily (again) on people of color? How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?

The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether the college has the right to invite her; they do. But in doing so, they make clear to their students that 1) creating a campus where students can learn free from racism does not matter and 2) faulty logic, lousy data, lazy research, and a thesis in defense of the status quo somehow comprise “scholarship” worth listening to.

Both of those issues are important. Claremont McKenna shouldn’t have invited MacDonald because she had to make a lousy argument in order to draw her wrong, racist conclusion.

HM

Above, a flyer advertising a speech by MacDonald. Professional tip for campus speakers: If your argument is factual, informed, honest, accurate, logical, and intellectually rigorous, it’s never going to end up being racist.

Consider it this way: Should a black student have to hear an argument that we know is measurably incorrect and that foments further hostility toward black people? How can anyone argue against teaching about white privilege while simultaneously teaching stereotypes of black people? (Answer: Because they are racist and also unbothered by facts.) How does permitting speech that isolates and alienates people who have historically been shut out of higher ed further the mission of higher education? When you are a black student at a predominantly white institution, why should you have to rally against what is clearly a lousy argument? The fact that you even have to do this bullshit work is a bit racist. A second-class white intellectual gets a platform to blow racist hot air, and you have to be the one to call her out? Even when white allies join the fight, it places black people, once again, as the source of the trouble. Why should any student have to listen to an argument that vilifies black people? What harms are caused when such arguments appear on campus with the stamp of university approval? (When such arguments appear on the public sidewalks, the story is different. And there, we are pretty much okay with counterpicketers shouting people down.)

But the racism is only part of my problem with MacDonald. The other part is my problem with universities inviting lazy thinkers to campus. MacDonald is a right-wing intellectual star, but that’s because the conservative galaxy is so generally dim. She seems to me to be one of what Elspeth Reeves, writing about the alt-right, calls “a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them.”

MacDonald’s ideas are of little value, and campuses should not invest precious resources—and absorb opportunity costs—in creating a platform for them. In responding to the protest on campus, Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh appealed to the idea that campuses should be places where challenging ideas can be freely exchanged [Italics mine]:

[T]he breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively.

This is a rather generous view of MacDonald’s writing.

College students deserve better opportunities to engage across lines of difference. And if there is no one out there who can draw the same racist conclusions that MacDonald draws using a better argument, maybe it means that colleges, which should value argumentation, don’t really need to invite racists to campus.

 

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