Most famous current Williams undergraduate? Almost certainly Zach Wood ’18 for his role as president of Uncomfortable Learning. This Newsweek article tells his story in the context of broader trends on campus.
Until it was squashed by administrative decree, Williams College sophomore Zachary Wood headed up an on-campus lecture series called “Uncomfortable Learning.” Wood, an African-American who grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., is a self-described liberal, devoted to learning and books. He liked inviting controversial speakers, usually from the political right, to challenge young progressives cloistered in a collegiate utopia at one of the nation’s great small liberal arts institutions.
Last year, though, Wood encountered the limits of free speech at Williams. First, he invited Suzanne Venker, an anti-feminist author and lecturer. After a campus and social media outcry, Wood’s fellow “Uncomfortable Learning” leaders disinvited her and then, to avoid further shaming on social media, resigned from the organization.
Wood then formed a club of one and invited an even more confrontational speaker, British-American writer John Derbyshire, whose contributions to the racial discourse include a snide white dad’s version of “the talk” black men give their sons about police. After suggesting that blacks are more “antisocial” than whites, he wrote that a small percentage “is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us,” while “around half will go along [with violence] passively if the five percent take leadership in some event.”
An hour after Wood advertised Derbyshire’s speech with a Facebook post, he was swarmed. On Facebook, someone wrote that Wood deserved the “oil and whip”—a reference to a punishment for slaves. Others accused him of providing a space on campus for “hate speech” and began debating how to file a complaint against him. When Wood replied to one critic, “So you would never bring a speaker on the far right, like Venker and Derbyshire? I value the work I do with UL,” someone retorted, “I’d rather sell crack first.”
A few days passed, the outrage kept building, and the university president disinvited Derbyshire.
Wood believes students need to hear provocateurs like Derbyshire in order to formulate their own thoughts and challenges. “What is hate speech to begin with?” he asks. “It’s what people don’t like to hear. Trump has the support of a considerable portion of the American electorate. With someone like him running for president, speaking on national television every day, saying controversial things about the most important issues of our time, it is imperative that we confront offensive views and afford college students the opportunity to learn how to engage constructively with people they vehemently disagree with. Shielding students from microaggressions does not improve their ability to argue effectively; it coddles them. At a time like this, uncomfortable learning is vital.”