All hell broke loose at student protest -- and that's not OK

Students stage anti-Trump protests
Students stage anti-Trump protests

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Story highlights

  • Charles Murray's appearance at Middlebury College sparked protest that turned violent
  • Jay Parini: It's important in Trump era not to use bullying tactics to color tone of talks

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His latest book is "New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Charles Murray came to the campus of Middlebury College (where I've taught for more than 30 years) on Thursday, and his appearance provoked protests that went beyond anything seen here since the 1960s.

All hell broke loose, as hundreds of students turned their backs on Murray, a political scientist with controversial views, and began to chant: "Who is the enemy? White supremacy!" and "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away!" Unable to deliver his talk, the speaker was spirited to another location, where he engaged in a discussion moderated by a member of the government department.
On their way to a waiting car, Murray and the professor escorting him were confronted by protesters. Pushing and shoving quickly degenerated into outright violence, and the professor who moderated the event, Allison Stanger, was injured and taken to a hospital. (She is a good friend of mine, and is, thankfully, OK.)
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    Murray is, of course, co-author of the 1994 book "The Bell Curve" -- a contentious and largely discredited study of intelligence and its variations within American society. Writing in The New Yorker, Stephen Jay Gould -- the late Harvard evolutionary biologist -- wrote that the argument in this book about intelligence and racial difference is "as old as the study of race, and is most surely fallacious."
    After nearly 25 years, Murray's thesis holds very little water, although he remains a hero of sorts among some commentators on the right. Needless to say, he is not much liked on the left.
    Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center lambastes Murray for using "misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of black and Latino communities, women and the poor." They quote him in various contexts, and it's not pleasant reading.
    Despite all of this, Murray does not seem a likely target for protests of the kind that happened at Middlebury.
    He was, in effect, brought out of cold storage for this talk, a relic of the era when the debate over political correctness first began to boil in the mid-'90s. A student group had invited him, and (wisely) the government department at the college decided to co-sponsor the event.
    Two large questions, for me, arise. First, why were the students so upset? And then, why did they behave so badly?
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    I spend most of my weekdays in conversation with students, and I know they're upset by the election of a bigoted man to the White House, someone who consistently derided Mexicans (among others) during his run for the presidency. That he is a self-confessed serial assaulter of women remains a point of agitation for many, even if he insists his account of this behavior was just locker-room talk. His bullying tactics with anyone who opposes him or his ideas have rattled students, who see him as the antithesis of what people in the "academic village" consider appropriate in presidential behavior.
    At Middlebury, like elsewhere on campuses, many students are extremely conscious of assaults to the environment, and -- to them -- Trump represents a huge threat, someone who can undo years of progress.
    You get the idea. They have a lot to upset them.
    But I was nonetheless startled by their rude behavior, their refusal even to hear Charles Murray speak.
    One can perhaps excuse the students on grounds of immaturity. But that's not good enough. They must learn to listen, learn how to object in a proper, well-reasoned way to arguments that seem, after consideration, wrong, even repugnant.
    It is especially important in the Trump era that we don't allow bullying tactics to color the tone of discussions. There are ways to talk about important things and appropriate ways to protest. And some forms of protest only provoke thoughtless reactions and bad feelings.
    Students, and their elders as well, must not lose sight of these distinctions.