The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Williams College students invited Suzanne Venker, a writer and longtime critic of feminism, to speak Tuesday night, but changed their minds and took back the invite for her talk, "One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails." . . .
The students who run the series decided to cancel the event, co-president Zach Wood explained, after its Facebook page began to attract acerbic comments and "things got a little out of hand."
The Williams Record reports further here. Event organizer Zach Wood posted a brief essay after canceling the event due to "the vehement reactions of students diametrically opposed to bringing Venker, a staunch antifeminist, to campus."
Somewhat ironically, Venker had been invited to participate in Williams' "Uncomfortable Learning" speaker series, which was created precisely for the purpose of exposing Williams students to perspectives that contrast with those they regularly hear on campus.
Venker commented on the disinvitation at FoxNews.com:
Funny, 'uncomfortable' is the exact word I used in the opening remarks of the speech I'd prepared-before I even knew the title of the speaking series. Here's the exact paragraph:
My goal for you all, my purpose in being here today, is to inspire you to think for yourselves. Do not be swayed by groupthink no matter what your friends, your family or the culture believe. Do not be afraid to ask yourself questions that may make you uncomfortable. And do not be afraid of the answers.
From there I had planned to talk about feminism, but from a different perspective than the one students are used to hearing. I was going to tell them why feminism fails. (Hint: because it denies the existence of biology and teaches that equality means sameness, which is a losing proposition when it comes to planning a life-particularly if that life includes marriage and family.)
Despite the fortuitous match between my message and the 'Uncomfortable Learning Speakers Series,' my talk was cancelled by the group several days prior to the event.
I don't know enough about Venker to know whether her talk would have been particularly enlightening. But judging from the reaction of some Williams students to the mere prospect that she would speak on campus, it's quite clear that enlightenment is something Williams desperately needs. Don't think so? Then read the Williams Record editorial on Venker's disinvitation:
While we at the Record believe Venker's views are wrong, offensive and unacceptable, it is difficult to determine whether or not there would have been enough educational value in her lecture to justify an appearance, given that her presence on campus would have hurt students who face sexist and homophobic stereotypes.
Though Venker's speech is legally protected, the College, as a private institution, has its own set of rules about what discourse is acceptable. In general, the College should not allow speech that challenges fundamental human rights and devalues people based on identity markers, like being a woman. Much of what Venker has said online, in her books and in interviews falls into this category. While free speech is important and there are problems with deeming speech unacceptable, students must not be unduly exposed to harmful stereotypes in order to live and learn here without suffering emotional injury. It is possible that some speech is too harmful to invite to campus. The College should be a safe space for students, a place where people respect others' identities. Venker's appearance would have been an invasion of that space. . . .
The potential value and harm of inviting Venker to speak are difficult to quantify. Weighing the two against each other is an even more complicated calculus, and we at the Record could not come to a unified consensus on this calculation. It is important that Uncomfortable Learning pushes the envelope of campus discourse, but they must consider the potential damage of introducing harmful thoughts into the safe space that is so vital to the College's ability to nurture and educate.
And to think Williams was once considered one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation.