By Elliot Kaufman
Friday, May 26, 2017
Evergreen State College, a small liberal-arts school in Washington State, has long had an interesting tradition. Each year, there is a “Day of Absence” on which students and faculty members of color meet off campus to hold solidarity-building activities, leaving the remaining community members to recognize the absence — and thus the value — of their peers. Later there is a “Day of Presence,” with similar activities but for the entire campus community.
But this year, the event changed. On the April 12 Day of Absence, minority students and faculty remained on campus, while whites were asked to leave. According to the local student newspaper, the decision reflected concerns following the 2016 election that students of color no longer felt comfortable on campus. This was to be their chance to reassert their right to belong on campus . . . by asking everyone else of a particular skin color to leave.
One liberal biology professor, Bret Weinstein, took issue with this change. Weinstein wrote a powerful e-mail to his colleagues on March 15. Deeply respectful and generous in tone, he made a simple point:
There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles . . . and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.
You may take this letter as a formal protest of this year’s structure, and you may assume I will be on campus on the Day of Absence.
For this fundamentally liberal argument and act of protest, Professor Weinstein has been pilloried. More than that, those words — words forming as reasonable a dissent as any — incited a mob on Tuesday. Students occupied and barricaded the campus library, and accosted Weinstein outside his classroom. As you can see in this video, the mob surrounded him, yelled at him, swore at him, and openly admitted they did not want to allow him to respond.
In the video, Weinstein nobly seeks to engage in “dialectic” with the student protesters, hoping to use “disagreement to discover the truth.” For a professor of biology, this is rather impressive stuff. But he misjudges the mob. “We don’t care what terms you want to speak on,” one student explains to supportive cheers. “This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms — on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.”
The mob vindicates Professor Weinstein’s argument. It does not want to reason. It wants to show its force, show what it can do to anyone who dares to dissent. It does not want to have to contend with Professor Weinstein’s basic point: “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — should never be based on skin color.” Instead, the mob calls for the professor to resign or be fired. The mob wants him gone. It believes that people who disagree with it should not have a place in the university.
And the mob may succeed. Perhaps students will make campus so hostile for Weinstein that, after 15 years of teaching at Evergreen, he’ll have no choice but to leave.
According to Seattle’s KING television station, as many as 200 students joined the demonstrations on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking over the school. Weinstein, who held his Thursday class in an off-campus park, says that the police told him he was no longer safe on campus.
In any other context, this is known as intimidation. Campus radicals are trying to intimidate Professor Weinstein and every other professor with a conscience. Because if the mob can come for a man like him, an anti-racist who speaks the language of “consciousness” and “oppression” fluently — because it is his own — it can come for anyone.
Now the onus is on Evergreen State. Will its students remain silent and allow a minority of their peers to drown them out with sheer volume and aggression? Will its faculty abandon one of their own to the wolves? Will its administration do nothing? Or will they all stand with Professor Weinstein and let the nation know that the regressive Left does not speak for them? Will they stand on principle, knowing that if good-faith disagreement finds itself unwelcome in the university, it will soon find itself unwelcome in the society?
Raw and emotional, two students were doing just that, standing alongside their professor in the face of a sneering, yelling, and self-righteous mob. They are the real heroes here, but they should not be the only ones.