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Uncomfortable Posting

Greetings. I’m the faculty president of the Williams’ chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. As there has been a lot of discussion about speakers invited to campus by Uncomfortable Learning, I wanted to briefly post why PBK has decided to co-sponsor their next speakers.

PBK is dedicated to the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. We do not necessarily support the views and opinions of the speakers, but we strongly support the calls made by President Falk,  William McGuire III ’17 and others on the importance and value of having civil discussions. There is a great opportunity in such debate, and we encourage all interested members of the community to come to these and other events and be heard. Many of the positions held by students and faculty on our campus today would not have found receptive audiences in the earlier days of Williams; ideas should be refuted by facts, not silenced.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Socialist.

                     Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

                     Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out 
                     Because I was not a Jew.

                    Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for
                    me. — Martin Niemoller

Steven Miller (sjm1@williams.edu), Associate Professor of Mathematics

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#1 Comment By ephalum On October 30, 2015 @ 10:16 am

Kudos to Phi Beta Kappa, this is an excellent decision. I’m glad to see that the leadership at Williams is committed to the free exchange of ideas (which I never doubted, but unfortunately the disinvitation allowed for media spin of a campus climate via what appears to be a wholly unfair depiction). And we can all rightfully be proud of Williams’ response to this situation, one which not every liberal arts college would share.

I will offer one minor critique of this post — PLEASE refrain from using that wonderful, but sadly overused, quote, for such disproportionate purposes. It’s great that we are supporting all voices being heard on campus. But let’s not pretend that on its worst day Williams was ever headed down the slippery slope towards fascism … that’s just a WEE bit hyberbolic. Haven’t y’all heard of Godwin’s Law???

#2 Comment By pc On October 30, 2015 @ 12:55 pm

PLEASE refrain from using that wonderful, but sadly overused, quote, for such disproportionate purposes- Amen.

Terrible attempt at a false correlation…

#3 Comment By Steven Miller On October 30, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

Thanks for your comments and critique. I thought long and hard about including that poem. I (obviously) decided to do so in the end, in part because I am not sure how familiar it is to all the readers on the site, and in part because the loss of freedom can be a slow process, and it’s important to be aware in the early stages when corrective action is relatively easy. The dialogue was non-civil before; I’m glad to see it has improved, and look forward to this event from Uncomfortable Learning, as well as many other events from other groups on campus.

That said, as a Star Trek fan I’m happy to conclude with a different quote which expresses the same sentiment. It’s from Star Trek The Next Generation, Season 4, Episode 21, The Drumhead (Apr 27, 1991).

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: You know, there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today…


#4 Comment By ephalum On October 30, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

I much, MUCH prefer the Picard quote as a coda! Make it so.

#5 Comment By Steven Miller On October 30, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

I will admit I was terrified about this post. Namely, I half expected to be flamed for considering TNG ‘Star Trek’. While I am old enough to have seen The Motion Picture (as well as Episode IV) in the theatres, I have only seen the original trek in re-runs; I love your response.

In all seriousness, though, the point is to have good, constructive dialogue in a safe environment. Uncomfortable Learning has brought speakers in the past with whom I have strongly disagreed, and I have gone and argued with the speakers. I have marched with my young children in ‘Take Back The Night’ events on campus. I plan on attending with an open mind, and holding all speakers accountable to the truth as best as I can. I hope you will join me in active dialogue there, and if you or others are aware of other events on campus where we can assist in facilitating a dialogue please let us know.

#6 Comment By John C. Drew, Ph.D. On October 30, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

I think it is time to bring Niemoller’s quote up-to-date:

First they came for the young white men, and I did not speak out because I was not a young white man.

Then they came for the young white male assistant professors in political science, and I did not speak out because I was not a young white male assistant professor in political science.

Then they came for the young white assistant professors in all the non-math fields, and I did not speak out because I was not a young white assistant professor in non-math fields.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me, a male math professor with tenure.

#7 Comment By ephalum On October 30, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

Professor Miller, your attitude is exactly the one we need at Williams. I hope that most students will share it, and exercise their right to counteract speakers in a constructive way, while recognizing the value in at least hearing all viewpoints on campus.

As for Professor Drew, yes, an excellent point — when is the white man ever going to catch a break in America? I can’t think of ANY white males who have managed to achieve any degree of success in this country. I guess “the man” (women and minorities, apparently) has succeeded yet again in keeping them down! I mean, heck, we even have a few non-white-male federal judges, CEOs, Presidents of universities, and Senators now — when will the horrors cease??

#8 Comment By Steven Miller On October 30, 2015 @ 11:06 pm

For me, I view the original poem (as well as Picard’s modernization, or is it futurization) as a reminder that we must all stand together. When any of us are attacked, or divided off, we are all diminished. As we all have enormous demands on our time, I think it’s best to leave it at this, and let’s move forward and have good, civil dialogue.

I’d also like to repeat that I am happy to work with any group to encourage civil dialogue on issues, and am happy to help others with their choice of speakers and causes.

#9 Comment By a student On November 2, 2015 @ 9:05 pm

Professor Miller,

Your post reminded me that histories of the Holocaust are constantly operationalized in political discourse, usually to forward particular ideologies and to demonize whatever political opponent is convenient. You probably know that this practice is usually disrespectful, misleading, and painful to say the least.

In this case, it seems like you’re using the history of this genocide vilify a group of students who objected to the content of a misogynistic speaker’s body of work and questioned the priorities of those who chose to invite her to speak at Williams.

I’d like to be clear: I respect your right to include this poem in your article.

But to me, this is disgraceful. It hurts me to know that the violence my people endured would be trivialized in this way.

I wish you had thought twice about linking a group of student activists to the nazis, especially as you are an apparently respected professor and a leader on campus.

A Williams student

#10 Comment By Steven Miller On November 2, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

Thank you for your comments. I am sorry you view this poem as disrespectful. I am also Jewish, but I believe these words speak to all of us (note the poem ends not with the death of the Jews, but with those who were silent).

I have been on campuses where there have been Palestinian Rights protests and marches, advancing suicide bombing as a legitimate negotiating tactic; I have peacefully counter-protested their words, but not their right to speak them. The inspiration for my post was not the views of the speaker, but the hostile and threatening remarks directed at the organizers.

Again, I hope we can have civil discussions and again encourage people to read the excellent editorial by President Falk. I know from first-hand experience how hard it is to support the right of people to utter certain statements, but the solution needs to be to beat them with facts, not intimidation and threats.

#11 Comment By John C. Drew, Ph.D. On November 3, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

Here is a link to a hilarious undercover video by Project Veritas which catches staff/faculty from Oberlin and Vassar responding to a girl who pretends that she has been “triggered” by copies of the U.S. Constitution.

See, https://www.projectveritas.com/posts/news/hidden-camera-captures-college-officials-disparaging-and-shredding-constitution

I would love to have the Project Veritas folks work with conservative students at Williams to do a set of videos like this one.

#12 Comment By Steven Miller On November 3, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

Thank you for the comment. I am happy to have conversations on types of speakers to bring to campus on another thread. As the current issue is already heated, I will confine my responses to (in my mind) the most important point: the imperative for an institution of higher learning to be a place where ideas can be respectfully discussed and debated, with individuals free of intimidation. What motivated me was the uncivil treatment following Uncomfortable Learning’s first proposed speaker of the year.