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Monday, February 27, 2017

Sticks and Stones and Tigers For Liberty

Life of Wendts.
When Manfred and Jonah Wendt came to Trinity University in the fall of 2015 I'm not sure we knew what we were getting. We knew the twins would be a magnitude of two, but the seismic ripples they have created in student culture are exponentially higher. Those Wendt twins quickly connected with other right-wing, conservative students. And they started making noise.

We should thank them.

As I have written a number of times, I fully support free speech on college campuses. Ideas, even outlandish and kooky ones, are simply ideas. In order to avoid echo chambers of one-dimensional thought, students need others to push back on their ideas. Eventually, one-sided discussions from the left or right are not educational nor instructive.

Of course campuses are not values free. Most, if not all, espouse values of civility and respect. While campus climates should foster a variety of ideas they are under no obligation to bring in outside speakers who use our students to espouse or incite hate and violence. We would never allow a KKK rally on campus nor an Anti-Semitic speaker. We get to choose. But for the most part, we need to foster conversations and allow speakers with whom we disagree. Someone's presence generally can't really be "harmful." More likely, it is uncomfortable at best, and offensive at worst.

Students also have a choice. They can protest or they can boycott a speaker to undercut that person's legitimacy. Or, they can turn out en masse to challenge and outwit that person. One excellent example of this was the speaker, Ryan Anderson. No not that Ryan Anderson. No, that one either. This Ryan Anderson. Reportedly our rainbow-clad students came out in droves to argue, challenge, and disavow his facts and opinions on GLBTQ issues. THAT is what college is about. No speaker, no push-back. No push-back, no democracy.

It is happening again as Tigers for Liberty is sponsoring Dinesh D'Souza, who comes with his own baggage. But his message is connecting with some of our students. Others are raising issues, again, about whether or not we should allow this speaker. Just asking the question - to other students and to administrators - is an educational experience. Does the presence of a speaker mean the University endorses that speaker? If so, we would have few of interest. We had Michael Moore here once. We had Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Marc Lamont Hill, Tim Wise, and Colin Powell too. Who is palatable to have and who isn't? We have speakers with strong opinions related to Palestine and Israel. This often rankles people who view the other side with deep distrust.

Deciding what to do about the speaker is another educational opportunity. Thanks to Tigers For Liberty, there are additional opportunities to learn. Is that group being used by off-campus groups, like Young America's Foundation? Is student government funding appropriate? Are they funding various viewpoints?

While we have had other conservative groups in the past, such as College Republicans, no group has gotten as much traction and attention as Tigers for Liberty. The Wendts and their group have a knack for offending. It's not just their views. Sometimes their event planning is sloppy. Sometimes they can be tone-deaf. And even they can't really believe having Milo to campus last year was a good idea. (Yes, that Milo... that one... yup, that one.)

Life would be simpler without Tigers For Liberty. I mean, it was. Many would say it was better. But what they deliver is an organization for others to push against, and challenge, and practice with. Our students need these educational experiences to prepare for life after Trinity. And conservative students have every right to be here. They work to keep the community honest by offering alternative viewpoints to a left-leaning environment.

Like many of our students, they bring their own charm. They are bright, witty, self-deprecating, and thoughtful. Not to mention brave. They have their own legitimate issues with how they are treated on campus too. It isn't easy speaking up sometimes. But that's what college discourse is all about. It isn't about free-speech zones (should be the whole campus), time-place-and-manner policies, hate-speech codes, and safe spaces. The last thing we need is to keep driving hate into the shadows. When we do, it doesn't go away. It just hides.

The best way to oppose ideas and words are with other ideas and words. And the best way to do that is to practice, especially with worthy adversaries. Thanks to Tigers for Liberty students now have them. NOW we're talking. And we should be.


flacius1551 said...

I think it's odd to present a defense of free speech that makes no reference to power and hierarchy and money. It's pretty clear that the far Right in the US has an agenda that causes them to see college campuses as a place to plant their ideas, and they do that by offering money, speakers, etc. They then complain that they are being marginalized when someone objects to their ideas. Free speech has consequences. It's weird to me that you chose to present this as an issue in freedom of speech when for some reason, the most powerful players in this interaction (students funded by agents provocateurs) are whining that their right to speak is being infringed upon. The real people who need their right to speak defended are those who are objecting, who are now being called "snowflakes." If the conservative students are so convinced that free speech is important then they should stop complaining when their speech has an impact, even if it's not the one they'd prefer.

I have no issue with *students* saying what they want to say on campus, but let's not kid ourselves that that's what's going on here. It's sort of like when the Kochs fund a campaign. It reduces everyone's freedom, rather than enhancing it, because their money always makes them the most powerful speaker in the room. They can afford to go on and on until everyone else is exhausted.

Rosey said...

After they make a campus police report for harassment, you thank them? Seriously?

David Tuttle said...

Thanks for reading and commenting flacius 1551. While there may be issues at play here that involve these students being used by groups, that wasn't really my focus. It was and continues to be that all of these issues, even the fall-out, responses, and discussion, create a rich educational experience. It is the process more than the outcome that has my attention. Trust me, I don't need to be sold on greed, money, power, and privilege. I'm with you.

David Tuttle said...

Rosey, you are certainly persistent. In the last twelve hours you have moved between Facebook, Twitter, and now on the blog. You have identified yourself as a Trinity parent. You clearly think the brothers need to be more thick-skinned and shouldn't have gone to the media. You are not alone in those thoughts. They are noted. I am thanking them in this post for creating lots of conversation on campus. The post was weeks in the making and preceded this specific incident. No matter. My point is the same. This is what a good learning environment looks like. Thanks for all of your input.

Unknown said...

Hey Dean Tuttle! Dunno if you remember me. I think your response to this situation is thoughtful and makes sense with Trinity's, and any university's, mandate to be a marketplace of ideas. It seems like the situation has escalated and I was wondering if you'd seen this SA Current article and if you are able to respond on your blog.


David said...

Thanks! I see you as unknown, so email me at if you wish. Thanks for asking about the Current article. I am not sure the reporter understood the point, and this important piece was left off: "When we do, it doesn't go away. It just hides." When we muzzle discussion and banish harmful and hateful ideas we can't push back, nor do we know who to push back against. Haters didn't just parachute in for the 2016 election. They were there the whole time. Now we at least know who they are because of their funny red hats.

Denise Walters said...

Dean Tuttle, These two students are not simply advocates of differing views from the "mainstream" at Trinity. In fact, I find little in their writing or actions that expresses a coherent or well-expressed line of argumentation relative to a conservative viewpoint. Their primary interest seems to be provoking emotion, which is the seed of strong negative reactions. Such provocation has nothing to do with raising the level of discourse among those with opposing views.

The speakers that these students and others in their organizations have chosen to bring on campus, and I'm embarrassed as an alumna to know they are welcome there, are purveyors of hatred and conspiracy theories no reasonable person would entertain. To wit, Dinesh D'Souza, an upcoming speaker wrote,

"The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.... The cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the non-profit sector and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world. — Dinesh D'Souza, quoted in "How the left caused 9/11, by Dinesh D’Souza"

Milo Yiannopoulos, recently editor of the alt-right Breitbart, was kicked off Twitter in perpetuity for "inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others". The work of Breitbart is to foster white supremacy and tear at any semblance of equality in this country.

These speakers, and the boys working to bring them to campus, aren't interested in an exchange of ideas. They are interested in promoting discord, peddling false information, and generating attention for themselves. Such actions are hardly worth a platform at a university in the name of "diverse thought" and "respect," let alone a call for "civility" from Trinity students who understand the difference between a solid critique of political philosophies and plain hate-mongering, deliberate misinformation, and conspiracy theories unchecked by rational thought and intellect.

Respect must be mutual and founded upon a basis of facts. To say otherwise is to normalize the ridiculous, to ask intelligent people to entertain stupidity, and to demean the value of higher education.

Denise Boehm, Trinity Class of 1987

flacius1551 said...

When they have destroyed the atmosphere for conversation on campus with their hate campaign, what kind of educational experience will be left? You're inviting the destruction of the campus public sphere and you're defending it on free speech grounds. One wonder what your limit would be.

David Tuttle said...

It's a high bar. I do appreciate your commenting. Thanks!

David Tuttle said...

Denise, well said. I am less interested in the content and more the process for the exchange. I can't help it if there are few decent conservative speakers to bring in. I do agree that they need to be vetted as credible. But even that creates a slippery slope. Once you start deciding who you bring in based on whether or not you agree it gets tricky. As I said in my embedded post about Milo, he would have been a good place to draw the line. In the end, I'm just not sure what we are afraid of with these speakers. Finally, my post isn't just about speakers, but also about diversity of opinions. These things happen not just in lectures, but in the classroom, in the dining hall, and in student government meetings. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Denise Walters said...

Hi Dean Tuttle. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Perhaps I'm parsing your comment too closely, but you say speakers should be vetted as credible. Then you say, "Once you start deciding who you bring in based on whether or not you agree it gets tricky." I want to be clear that my issue is not speakers with whom I disagree. For instance, I've never agreed with George Will, but at least in years past I've found him very capable of presenting a cogent argument based on his viewpoint, and I respect that and have learned from it.

I read the Communist Manifesto at Trinity in Mary Ellen Ross's Religion and Social Issues Class in 1986. From psychological, sociological, and economical perspectives, I disagree with it. But it's a brilliantly thought-out philosophy I'm glad I've read and discussed. The list goes on and on, and I would welcome speakers on any number of topics.

I'm glad you think it would have been good to draw the line at Milo. He is a great example of someone who should be unwelcome in an academic setting. Dinesh has more education, but what he says and writes has no credibility and shouldn't make it past peer review at the Acme College of Plumbing. Anyway... I have heard your message.

I think we would both agree that a college student, or anyone for that matter, has freedom of speech and should not be threatened or harmed for expressing it. The expression may bring accolades or social dissent, rejection, or derision of the opinion. That is life. On a college campus such as Trinity, I would hope those reactions would be expressed without personal insults, threats, or harm. Certainly it seems the reactions to the twins from other students was civil. Civil does not equate to friendly.

But even on the alumni page yesterday, I had several men make a range of comments that ranged from trollish to outright name calling. I tried to respond with humor. It didn't go well. I realize I can't express an opinion while being female without risking that, but it's sad when you know that these people went to a good school and might have learned better. So, I understand your call for civility.

Academic rigor should be the test for speakers. Unfortunately, the Tiger Liberty students seem to have a different agenda, and I am not proud that Trinity accommodates speakers without academic or factual integrity with space and services, regardles of remuneration. I appreciate the time you took to respond. Denise Boehm

Larry Crane said...

Dean Tuttle,

Thank you for your articulate letter and responses. Some of the commenters don’t seem to get the message, however.

As University of Chicago’s president Robert Zimmer wrote "Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society."

One of your critics sees the “far right” as using their money to induce campuses to plant “their ideas.” Since the professoriate is largely liberal and has far more influence over students than any single speaker, the social criticism has largely been the opposite of this critic. One Columbia professor even wrote an article about how lonely it was to be a conservative faculty member.

Another critic believes in the exploration of alternative views, but only if they fit her bounds. She lists her credentials as reading both George Will and The Communist Manifesto as if those were equivalents. She likes Michael Moore, but not Dinesh D’Souza, even though they are both polemicists. In other words, it’s okay to have moderate differences of opinion, but students should not hear those on the fringes if we don’t agree with them. Why? Can not a thinking student understand the falsities of some trains of thought? Trinity students are smart enough to evaluate fringe views as well as those toward the middle. They will not be infected.

Do the Wendt brother seem to be agent provocateurs? Of course, and even they would agree. The student response was one of proclaiming their moral superiority by defacing flyers announcing the upcoming speaker they disagreed with. That response was ineffective, however, and played right into the Wendt’s hands, making the national news where Trinity was accused of intolerance of conservative thought.

Students should either ignore the Wendt’s and those who are their counterparts on the far left or listen to both Moore and D’Souza and evaluate them critically.

Larry Crane
Trinity Class of 1964

Denise Walters said...

In Larry Crane's post in which he critiques my perspective, I would like to correct a few of the mistakes and assumptions he made about my words, specifically in his paragraph beginning with "Another critic believes in the exploration of alternative views, but only if they fit her bounds..."

The bounds I suggested around speakers with alternative views have nothing to do with my personal agreement with or tolerance for the speaker. I said clearly several times in my first and second posts that there needs to be proof of academical rigor in content based on facts rather than propaganda with no factual base. That's a pretty low bar.

As for listing a couple of things I've read that I disagree with, those were examples, not credentials or rocks upon which I've built my outlook, and they were prefaced with "for instance." It is specious to try to create a portrait of my background and beliefs based on such an incomplete knowledge of the subject.

While people can certainly twist the words you make public, they hardly support Mr. Crane's following arguments which he tries to strengthen by stating that I like Michael Moore but not Dinesh D'Souza. I never mentioned Michael Moore in any way, but Mr. Crane stated I like Michael Moore apropos of nothing, going so far as to extrapolate from his sui-generis assumption what he THINKS I'm thinking, stating, "In other words, it’s okay to have moderate differences of opinion, but students should not hear those on the fringes if we don’t agree with them."

I say bring on those with whom we disagree if they can meet a bar of intellectual rigor rather than something based on their visceral reactions that they then create arguments out of. As for students, they commented on the subject matter of the flyers that became their personal property the moment the twins slid them under their door. Some students wrote on them, as is their first amendment right, that they didn't agree with the flyers and did not want them, and returned them. No threats, no abuse. Civil. Then these boys went to the news to complain they'd been "harrassed" by something on their door they didn't like. Their lack of ability/refusal to see the irony of being offended is something they should work on with their professors. It will increase their credibility and ability to message effectively. Or they have no interest in that and claim harrassment where non exists for attention.

Lastly, Mr. Crane is not alone in the types of false arguments, unproven assumptions, pure conjecture, and willingness to put words in my mouth that several, unfortunately all male, commenters have made about my post, especially on the alumni page.

Mr. Crane is somewhat more articulate, but these men have taken my clearly stated argument and rather than say why they disagree in a civil way, take my words, add their own, and create a whole new entity for their use that doesn't reflect my opinions or thoughts in the least.

This aggression from others has extended to calling me gender-based epithets in some cases. Regardless of whether they used epithets, in every male argument has been needless provocation that did nothing to illuminate or expand the conversation. I thought our education would have brought us to a higher level of cognition, personal integrity, and respect. I'm sorry to see that is not at all the case. At least not on the whole, as some wonderful men and women have joined the conversation in intellectually honest ways. A woman I disagreed with was very respectful, sticking to the subject, telling me why she disagrees, and accepting our differences. She may not represent all women in her civility, but I was grateful to talk to her and hear what she had to say.

I will not engage further with trolls or anyone who misstates my original post, attributes things to me I never said, and most importantly, doesn't address the issue as the issue, preferring to provoke or undermine.

Denise Boehm

Larry Crane said...

I only take the Dean’s blog space to render a partial apology to Denise Walters.

She is correct in pointing out my error in attributing Dean Tuttle’s note of Roger Moore’s speech at Trinity as acceptable to Walters along with her mention of Dinesh D’Souza as unacceptable. Furthermore, I used the incorrect word “credentials” to define her use of George Will and The Communist manifesto as examples of her review of alternative viewpoints. She clearly is amenable to evaluating alternative viewpoints.

We do agree that the Wendt brothers are agent provocateurs more interested in publicity than a true exchange of viewpoints. We also agree that it was the right of disagreeing students to return annotated flyers, but I merely pointed out their actions were both ineffective and were turned into political theater by the brothers.

Unfortunately, somewhat because of my errors listed above, she then lumps me into a group of men that have been offensive in a misogynistic way by her account. I am sorry and disgusted she has been harassed in that manner on other social media. I only had a partial disagreement of opinion – a different matter.

Tuttle outlined the difficulty a university administration has in deciding who speaks at the institution and who does not. He agreed “that they need to be vetted as credible. But even that creates a slippery slope. Once you start deciding who you bring in based on whether or not you agree it gets tricky.” Walters would add that a degree of “academic rigor” by a proposed speaker should be used in the decision making. I certainly understand her point but agree more with Dean Tuttle that the criteria may be more loosely defined. Many universities around the country are banning speakers whose views have the genuine academic rigor or life experience to make them legitimate expositors of their opinions, but may be unpopular to the student body or faculty, who then bans the speaker from campus or harasses them. Tuttle, Walters, and I would all agree that this is wrong and a bad reflection on an institution claiming critical thinking, although Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Middlebury, and many others would disagree.

Who decides who speaks and what informs their decision? Who defines what “academic rigor” means? Is it those in whose work we can at least detect a train of logical thought or simply those who we agree with? Like Tuttle, I find the process problematic and, thus, would allow a little more leeway, preferring to let alternative views be heard, even if it means some nutcases get through. Trinity students have the capability of appropriate evaluation of any ideas they hear. That’s what education is all about.

Walters and I probably agree more than disagree. Fortunately for both of us, it’s academic deans that are forced into the decision-making process. The rest of us are free to critique without the responsibility of making an unpopular decision.

Larry Crane

David Tuttle said...

Thank you Larry. I should be so gracious!