Evergreen mob shows even minor dissent will get you ostracized

It’s tempting to dismiss some of the more outlandish movements that take hold on college campuses. Most, after all, have no staying power and soon peter out. They deserve our attention all the same. Ideas can outlast the moment, take root, and gain acceptance over time.

The American norms we take for granted, including support for free speech, are being undermined on campuses across the country. Now the problems roiling other campuses have found their way to our state. The Evergreen State College in Olympia is shut down today for a security threat that comes on the heels of protests and racial tensions.

Dared to disagree
Evergreen has long held a Day of Absence event, taking inspiration from the 1965 Daniel Turner Ward play of the same name that depicts “what happens in a fictional Southern town one day when all of the black people suddenly disappear.” This year some wanted to flip the script and instead asked white students, faculty and staff to stay off campus that day, to “affirm the belonging” of minority students.

A white professor, Bret Weinstein, disagreed with the idea in an e-mail to colleagues. He wrote:

“There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles (the theme of the Douglas Turner Ward play Day of Absence, as well as the recent Women’s Day walkout), and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

Weinstein went on to say that he would be on campus on the Day of Absence and added, “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.”

Video hard to watch
That stance earned the professor the ire of protesting students, who have called him a racist and demanded his firing. A large crowd surrounded him in a hallway in a confrontation that quickly devolved into angry shouting.

The video of that confrontation must be watched to be believed. The issues may change, but the mob mentality is the same across the decades. The anger is always self-justifying.

Rational argument is not merely avoided but actually outright rejected. Weinstein tried gamely to tell the students how he approaches the issue and why he feels they’re hurting their own cause, but they wouldn’t hear it. Not hearing it seems like the point; “social justice” demands it. The shouting soon drowned him out.

Dissenting voices must be silenced.

The messenger matters – or not
Campus police told Weinstein last week to stay away from Evergreen for a few days; they couldn’t guarantee his or his students’ safety. He taught his class in an Olympia park instead.

That this situation could happen to Weinstein says a lot. He’s a liberal, Bernie Sanders-voting professor at a famously left-wing college. He’s someone who, as a student, left Penn during his freshman year over what he felt was a racist incident.

What he’s not, though, is a pushover. The student groups making demands at Evergreen expect to be kowtowed to, and he wouldn’t. For suggesting that asking people to leave a public, academic space because of their skin color is wrong, they want Weinstein to lose his job.

Jonathan Haidt is right in his advice to professors: “Do not assume that being politically progressive will protect you…Whatever your politics, you are eventually going to say or do something that will be interpreted incorrectly and ungenerously. Your intentions don’t matter.”

Administration’s response leaves a lot to be desired
I disagree with the protesting students; I believe in Weinstein’s 1st Amendment rights specifically and broad free speech and assembly rights on campus generally. Asking students who are trying to get an education to stay off campus is itself wrong, let alone basing it on skin color.

But students are allowed to test, and they’re allowed to be wrong. If only we could fast-forward 20 years and ask the students’ future selves if they think their actions against Weinstein were fair and just. I’m sure that over time, many will change their minds.

Less forgivable is the response from Evergreen’s leadership. President George Bridges rightly said Weinstein has the right to speak his mind and is not in danger of losing his job. What he didn’t say says so much more.

Bridges didn’t say that asking one group to stay off campus, based on skin color, is wrong. Instead he emphasized that the school administration never tried to enforce the students’ demands and that staying off campus was “voluntary.” He also immediately capitulated to a number of other demands.

The president went so far as to praise the students’ “courage.” We have defined that word down, haven’t we? Charging up Iwo Jima takes courage. Marching from Selma to Montgomery takes courage. Joining a mob to surround a teacher who had the temerity to say he disagrees with you and shouting him down is not courage.

Bridges himself has faced protestors’ fury. To turn around and call that courage…well, some people might take a swift kick to the head and say thank you.

The inevitable backlash
Professor Weinstein is not cowering and is not cowed, despite what the unreasonable protestors want. He’s taking on the culture of intimidation and sticking to his principles. He wrote an op-ed for yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, and his interview with Dave Rubin is worth watching.

Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg), himself a college professor at Central, is aghast at Evergreen’s handling of the protests. He filed a bill, knowing it has no chance of passing, to end state funding for the school. He calls it a “figurative shot across the bow.”

Evergreen is a public, taxpayer-funded space. Just because it is a left-leaning college campus doesn’t mean it should tolerate these actions. It is no more right to ask one race to stay away from campus for a day than it would be to ask people with certain skin tones to avoid a park or a city hall for a day.

Staying off campus may have been “voluntary,” as the administration stressed, but in practice it required “extreme coercion,” as Weinstein put it. If you don’t think that’s coercive, the mob at his classroom door says otherwise.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.