What's the Jesuit approach to protesting controversial speakers?

Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt. The college says it has initiated an independent investigation into the protest in which the author of a book discussing racial differences in intelligence was shouted down during the guest lecture and a professor was injured. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File)Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt. The college says it has initiated an independent investigation into the protest in which the author of a book discussing racial differences in intelligence was shouted down during the guest lecture and a professor was injured. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File)

In early March, Charles Murray, invited by a group of conservative students at Middlebury College to speak about his book, Coming Apart, was shouted off stage and harassed as he left campus. Mr. Murray is a target of protesters because of his controversial book, The Bell Curve, which published in 1994 and was widely discredited for advancing a hereditary theory of intelligence. The confrontation left Professor Allison Stranger, who tried to shield Mr. Murray from the hecklers, in a neck brace. To its credit, the college did everything within its power to allow Mr. Murray to express his views and to give dissenters the chance to challenge him. But for a small subset of protesters, reasoned debate was not an option; the mere presence of a man they stridently characterized as a “racist, sexist, anti-gay” white nationalist was seen as “an intense act of aggression.”

The incident at Middlebury joins a litany of protests against conservative speakers at colleges and universities. Most of these demonstrations do not end in violence. But, as Professor Stanger wrote in an op-ed article, “All violence is a breakdown of communication.” And today, more Americans seem less interested in communicating with people they disagree with. This is true not only among elite collegians beholden to the language of safe spaces and trigger warnings but also among Republican state legislators who seek to increase penalties for protesters in order to create politically safe spaces for themselves.


How might we break down these barriers to communication in order to foster the dialogue that a liberal arts education—and democracy—require? One could argue that in the “marketplace of ideas,” ignorant or hateful speech will inevitably lose out to speech that is true and just. But those who demand safe spaces are not wrong when they say that the marketplace has rarely been perfectly “free” but rather has been monopolized by the privileged and powerful.

Presupposing another’s good intentions does not mean papering over real disagreements.

What is needed, then, is a case for civility and engagement across the lines of ideology, race and class grounded not just in freedom or tolerance but charity. In the Jesuit tradition, the shorthand term for that grounding is “the Presupposition.” St. Ignatius writes in the Spiritual Exercises, “it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor's statement than to condemn it.” Presupposing another’s good intentions does not mean papering over real disagreements. It does mean that in any situation one’s opponent is more than the sum of his or her beliefs.

“Check your privilege” is a common refrain in the discourse of identity politics today. Those demanding ideologically “safe spaces” surely realize what a privilege it is to live in a country where difference and injustice can be overcome without resorting to violence. But it is a privilege we risk losing if we are unwilling to see our fellow citizens as worthy of our consideration.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kester Ratcliff
1 year 10 months ago

I appreciate what you're trying to do here: steer a middle course between polarised camps, try to bring the 'modules' of the social network into contact again, which is quite fairly a part of practising pastoral accompaniment. I get it, I appreciate the intention, but I think you're partially mistaken and taking it a bit too far this week.

There is a real difference between bona fide disagreements within a range where both sides are at least trying to be reasonable and basically respectful to everyone they're talking about, maybe angry, maybe distrustful, but still fundamentally respecting the humanity of their discourse's subjects, and then there is the kind of discourse which is fundamentally disrespectful to the otherness of the Other, which is exclusionary for no good reason, and which is by its very nature a preparation for violence, 'violence' in the broadest ethical sense.

This difference is the basis of the distinction in eucharistic theology between embracing beloved sinners including ourselves and welcoming people who though unworthy are open and willing to participate in the healing work of Grace in their hearts and lives, and the kind of sins which really mean the person is unwilling to participate in what the sign means.

As Metropolitan John Zizoulas writes in Otherness and Communion:

"The Eucharist does not only affirm and sanctify communion; it sanctifies otherness as well. It is the place where difference ceases to be divisive and becomes good. Communion in the Eucharist does not destroy but affirms diversity and otherness.

Whenever this does not happen, the Eucharist is distorted and even invalidated even if all the other requirements for a “valid” Eucharist are satisfied. A Eucharist which excludes in one way or another those of a different race, sex, age or profession is a false Eucharist. The Eucharist must include all these, for it us there that otherness of a natural or social kind can be transcended. A Church which does not celebrate the Eucharist in this inclusive way loses her catholicity.

But are there no limits to otherness in eucharistic communion? Is the Eucharist not a “closed” community in some sense? Do we not have such a thing as exclusion from eucharistic communion? These questions can only be answered in the affirmative. There is indeed exclusion from communion in the Eucharist, and the “doors” of the synaxis are indeed shut at some point in the Liturgy. How are we to understand this exclusion of the other?

Eucharistic communion permits only one kind of exclusion: the exclusion of exclusion: all those things that involve rejection and division, which in principle distort Trinitarian faith. Heresy involves a distorted faith that has inevitable practical consequences concerning communion and otherness. Schism is also an act of exclusion; when schism occurs, the eucharistic community becomes exclusive. In the case of both heresy and schism, we cannot pretend that we have communion with the other when in fact we have not."


Promoting the value of community with those who we have differences with is certainly good, but when those differences have already hardened into an unwillingness to genuinely participate in such a universal community and the views expressed embody the intention to exclude, discriminate and ultimately murder others, then 'including' them while they are in that state would not really achieve inclusion or promote community.

Speakers whose message is fundamentally about creating an enemy group, stripping them of the perception of their human dignity, dehumanising them and preparing for violence, should be absolutely excluded from public platforming.

It's almost a bit ironic that the Church seems to have come full circle from an excessive tendency to exclude difference (the era of the Index), to an excessive tendency to include expressions of intent to exclude others with no just cause.

The "no platforming" of palingenetic ultranationalist populist-authoritarian speakers is not just a "liberal" or even an "anarchist" response. Actually it is commanded in paragraph 33 of the Mit Brennender Sorge 1937, where such views were declared and defined to be Anathema everywhere and forever. The judgement and declaration of Anathema includes excommunicando vitandi - excommunication with total social shunning and ostracism, which is ethically obligatory for all Christians and people of good will. That clearly includes no-platforming.

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago

This may be a new low for the editors of America

Charles Murray is one of the most decent human being in the United States and is a one of the more moral persons that I know. So why do the editors feature a photo that says "No Eugenics" being held by a student wearing a cross? When he is anything but a proponent of eugenics. And why do they say his book is discredited? Have they read it or the other two books that have made Murray one of the most insightful persons in the country?

I suspect not. I suggest the editors and authors of America read Charles Murray to understand why he is hated by the white liberal left. He exposed their racism and how they have caused the dysfunctionality within Black America with their policies.

His book "Losing Ground" was the basis for Welfare Reform in the mid 90's and "Coming Apart" highlighted the problem with modern US social and cultural patterns on success and family stability. For daring to say the "Emperor has no clothes" he is excoriated by liberals.

As far as the "Bell Curve", only one chapter dealt with race and here is a discussion of the book by Charles Murray after 20 years. http://www.aei.org/publication/bell-curve-20-years-later-qa-charles-mur… so I suggest at a minimum, all the editors read this before writing anything again on Charles Murray. The real problem is elsewhere and they refuse to address it.

Richard Booth
1 year 9 months ago

Upon first hearing negative racist comments about, then actually reading "The Bell Curve," it was clear to me that the author was misunderstood because readers did not know anything about basic statistics. All manner of accusations about which race is brighter than another were put forth by overly sensitive and data-ignoring critics. However, when discussing group differences, variances were often utilized rather than means, even though means were used as well. The two statistics have very different meanings and both must be examined in context. There was no racist dimension in the work. The conclusions and predictions were data-based, not opinion- or attitude-based.

Vince Killoran
1 year 10 months ago

This is an engaging essay and takes a novel (to me, at least!) perspective. What about an approach informed by the Jesuit understanding of education? The "heckler's veto" is counter to a liberal arts education.

Joseph J Dunn
1 year 10 months ago

From Professor Stanger's OpEd:
"...as the campus uproar about Dr. Murray’s visit built, I was genuinely surprised and troubled to learn that some of my faculty colleagues had rendered judgment on Dr. Murray’s work and character without ever having read anything he has written. It wasn’t just students: Some professors protested his appearance as well."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that to be effective, nonviolent protest must always be preceded by careful research of the actions or behaviors being protested, to assure the accuracy of the protest; organization, including training protesters never to use violence even if police or counter-protesters do; and prayerful reflection before the protest. He did not condone protesting 'ideas' or 'opinions' or books, only unjust actions. Maybe it is time for our colleges to revisit Dr. King's work.

Vincent Gaglione
1 year 9 months ago

Perhaps the nostrum to be followed by all, without all the discourse in many of the comments here, is America's comments policy: "Be brief, be charitable, and stay on topic." Mr. Murray's opinions, theories and works over time have produced much controversy and far too little consensus from the scientific community. In another era he will be relegated to the dustbin of phrenology. In the meantime protestors and supporters alike need to follow the America comments policy nostrum. It would go a long way to protecting both the open university and the freedom of speech and eliminate interpersonal violence.

J Cosgrove
1 year 9 months ago

Mr. Murray's opinions, theories and works over time have produced much controversy and far too little consensus from the scientific community. In another era he will be relegated to the dustbin of phrenology.

I am not sure this is charitable. Mr. Murray is one of the moral persons I know whose research is impeccable. His ideas if implemented will do more for the black community in the United States than anyone I know including anyone with a SJ after their name (one exception is Fr. Spitzer and I am sure there are a few other Jesuits). My guess is that you have not read anything by Mr. Murray nor have the editors and authors of America or else they would not have published this editorial with the photo from Middlebury and mis describe his works..

J Cosgrove
1 year 9 months ago

For an example of Jesuit policy towards campus speakers see the article on Marquette and Angela Davis. (http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/marquette-hosts-radical-angela-davis/…) Davis is an avowed communist whose adherents killed over a 100 million in the 20th century. Could you imagine Marquette accepting any conservative speaker associated with a movement that caused even a hundred deaths of people. I cannot think of any but there are probably some.


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019