A quick talk about cancelled talk

Ho-hum, another day, another disinvited speaker.

Something about the account (excerpted below) stuck in my craw, and I’ll get to why in a minute. But first, let’s catch up with the facts.

Middlebury College has canceled a campus speech by conservative Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko in response to planned protests by liberal activists.

A professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University and a member of the European Parliament, Legutko was scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Vermont college’s Alexander Hamilton Forum, delivering a lecture entitled “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies.” A member of the anti-Communist Polish resistance during the Cold War, Legutko warns that western democracy is also susceptible to creep towards totalitarianism.

Why? Well, he doesn’t pay much respect to the proper current pieites, of course. It’s all too common a story today – an institution allegedly devoted to free thought and higher learning refusing to let its students learn something new and think for themselves. The excuse they use will be familiar as well to anyone who follows current affairs and is familiar with the Orwellian inversion of words and reality:

“Inquiry, equity, and agency cannot be fostered in the same space that accepts and even elevates homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic discourse,” they demand. “Bigotry of any kind should not be considered a form of inquiry.”

I don’t know about any of that, and neither do the would-be protesters to Prof. Legutko’s presentation, since he was never permitted to give it. What I do know is that stopping other people’s ears to anything that doesn’t come from one’s own mouth is actual bigotry, and it seems much more likely that such would-be tyrants have, shall we say, ulterior motives for shutting down a speech about how tyranny might arise in the West.

In fact, at first the college held firm, until, mere hours before the event, word came from on high, citing the normal problems with “ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff, and community members.”

“This decision was not taken lightly. It was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.”

In other words, these jokers learned exactly the lesson they were meant to learn from the incident involving Charles Murray’s talk there two years prior. The hecklers didn’t even need to veto this one. And the next time, things will go down even smoother… until the day when things suddenly go down very hard indeed, and everyone wonders how and why such a thing could happen – and then comes to the exact wrong answers because of all the times they’ve been ignoring people like Prof. Legutko.

In any case, a story like this is so common that anyone hearing it is likely to shrug and move on… which gets us to the thing I noticed, that bothered me so, and that I’m going to share with you. See if you can spot the difference in comparison to the lead quote up top:

Middlebury College has canceled a campus speech by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko in response to planned protests by activists.

If it were written that way, would people still be upset? Would they bemoan that an institution of higher learning would let its pursuit of knowledge and debate be thwarted by mere foot-stamping… or would they absolutely need to know first more about the viewpoints of the professor and the foot-stampers before they decided if it was good or bad?

THAT’S what sticks in my craw right now. Not just the intellectual ghetto and the last-minute cancellation (done of course so that no alternative venue could be arranged), but that even in the reporting of it, it must be specified that the speaker was conservative and the activists liberals. The point isn’t just that such things only run one way – it’s that they should not run at all, regardless of which nouns get what adjectives.

Eventually you’d have to get around to saying what the talk was about and why the activists were in a snit, of course… but I think that pointing out the specifics in the lead sentence just accepts an unhealthy premise: namely that it’s wrong based on the identities of the parties involved. That just gets our side – remember, the side that’s supposed to stand for personal and intellectual freedom and the marketplace of ideas – to subconsciously think in the other side’s terms of Good Group vs. Bad Group. Without those details, you encourage the reader to actually try to think about WHY this is wrong, and thus have more of an informed opinion, instead of relying on pre-digested conclusions based on labels. Its wrongness doesn’t depend on the point of view of the speaker or the protesters.

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