Friday, May 06, 2016


I hadn't noticed it at the time, but the story of Ray Kelly's cancelled lecture at Brown University in October 2013 got me thinking. This was an extreme case of the sort of protests that have been seen in various forms by social justice activists on university campuses. Most cases I'm aware of are merely disruptive; the protesters are voicing their disapproval by making it difficult for the speaker to speak. In this case, they succeeded in preventing the speaker from speaking.

I'm among those who think this sort of behavior is unbecoming of university students.** In this case, they prevented the statement and defense of a policy to which they are opposed. It was to be made by someone who is exceedingly qualified to mount such a defense, i.e., a top-ranking enforcer of the said policy. In a democracy, it seems to me, you would want universities to provide a "safe space" for discussion of policies that are actually governing practices. That someone like Kelly would be willing to contribute to that discussion should have been valued, not denounced.

As Christina Paxson, president of Brown, wrote afterwards, “The conduct of disruptive members of the audience is indefensible and an affront both to civil democratic society and to the University’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views.” There was, to my mind rightly, some discussion of reviewing the "policy of allowing all members of the community, as opposed to only individuals with Brown IDs, into the event."

The more recent protests gives this idea scope. What students seem to lack these days is a sense of decorum, a respect for the modicum of order that allows a free intellectual discussion to happen. In the course of a speech there can, of course, be booing and hissing just as well as clapping and laughter. An audience is not expected to just sit quietly and passively and listen. But there is a point at which individuals can be said to be "out of order" and at this point rules of decorum can be appealed to. First there would be a warning, and thereafter the disruptive person would simply be asked to leave.

Now, what if they say, "Hell no! We won't go!"

This is where requiring university IDs becomes an important mechanism for avoiding the need to use force. Upon being given the warning, the audience member could be asked to prove that they have the right to be in the room. Once this right is established they have identified themselves by name, and can now be subject to disciplinary action, including expulsion, for not complying with the rules of decorum of the university.*** These rules, it should be noted, are an integral part of the right to be in the room. They stipulate the responsibilities that go with the right, and amount to respecting the rights of the others in the room to hear what the speaker has to say.

It would be possible to extend the same rights and responsibilities to guests, for whom a host or student would be personally responsible. If a disruptive person can find no one in the room to vouch for them, they would be immediately evicted. If someone did vouch for them, that student would now be responsible for the behavior of the guest. This means that in practice only unaccompanied non-students who draw attention to themselves by being disruptive would ever need to be forcibly removed. The authority to do this would derive from trespassing laws.

In the case of the Brown protests, I think the campus police did the right thing by not forcibly ejecting anyone. The procedure should have been to ID the protesters and ask them to leave if they didn't identify themselves, arresting them for trespassing only if they refuse. Students who provide ID would be noted (and perhaps filmed) and would be at risk of being expelled (depending on their behavior*).

In my view, speakers who have been invited, either by the university, a department, or a student organization, should be treated with respect. They should be treated as effectively guests of the president of the university, and the audience (including protesters) are answerable to that president for failures to maintain decorum.

Indeed, I sometimes think that protests should not be allowed on the day of the speech itself, since this is simply rude and inhospitable. To "demonstrate" to someone who has been invited to speak on your campus that they are "not welcome" there is incoherent. The offended students should be directing their protest at those who extended the invitation and the president who approved the event. This can be done on any other day, before or after the event. There's no need to be rude.

But to actually disrupt or prevent the event is more than rude; it is indecent, or, more formally, it is indecorous. It is, as Christina Paxson rightly put it back in 2013, "an affront both to civil democratic society and to the University’s core values". Students who do such things do not belong at a university. Once the invitation has been approved, extended and accepted, there can be all kinds of discussion within the community. But the speaker must now be allowed to speak. That's the only right and proper way to proceed.


[A video about the situation at Brown here.]

*The punishment should be commensurate with the behavior and take account of its actual effects. If the disruption actually succeeds in preventing the event from going forward, the students who have been identified as disruptive should face severe punishment, like suspension. A student that merely erupts in anger and leaves the room, might get off with a warning—if it's a first time offense, etc. In any case, all this would be sorted out by the usual disciplinary processes after the event. The students should be maintaining decorum for its own sake, of course. But also under this sort of threat.

**I think Fran Lebowitz is also among us. It was interesting to hear her call Ray Kelly a friend in this talk (she also uses the word "decorum" earlier in the talk.) It's also interesting that she was speaking at Claremont McKenna, conceivably to some of the same students that were responsible for this unseemly display. If the students at Oregon figured out how to avoid disruption through apperception, the organizers of the Lebowitz Q&A were also onto something with the simple notion of not giving the audience a microphone. Instead, all the questions needed to be understood and restated by Lebowitz, which is literally to say she had to respect the question. That's also a way of assuring decorum.

***Ohio State appears to have gotten this exactly right.


Jotham said...

I teach 13-14 year olds, and this post straightens something up for me. The general theme that teachers harp on at my level is Respect. i.e. "Kevin, you are not showing respect to your peers by your talking..." etc. I've never been happy with that theme. I'm not sure why exactly. Maybe it's because it lends itself to passive aggression on the part of the teacher. Your post suggests a shift in thinking from Respect to Enquiry. If behaviour in the classroom opposes the climate of enquiry, then it has no place being there, and is a matter for discipline. Thus a range of behaviours, from purposeful derailing of discourse to simply arriving 'late, loud and laughing' can be addressed.

Thomas said...

I agree. As with so many of the issues that interest me, I find myself drawn to the epistemological dimension rather than the sometimes more obvious ethical dimension. In this case, we're talking about the conditions under which inquiry is possible, as you rightly put it, not just the conditions under which people feel respected. I sometimes want to ask the students how they expect to be able to learn anything under the rhetorical conditions they seem to be proposing. It may be true, however, that that simply isn't the most pressing issue for them. They don't see the university as an organization of knowledge, but of power.

Presskorn said...

Hmmm... I wonder what you think of even larger disruptions of "enquiry", e.g. (towards which I was quite enthusiastic)?

A nitty-gritty and somewhat irrelevant PS: Epistemologically, at it were, it also strikes me as wrong to interpret the Brown incident as evidence speaking in favour of the Plato-old-man-conservative "hypothesis" that "[w]hat students seem to lack these days is a sense of decorum..." It seems to me that the very protest was *deliberately aimed* at transgressing decorum - thereby actually displaying an acute (even if inverted) "sense of decorum". (Deliberately negating a norm – e.g. wearing excessive make-up as man or giving a toast at wedding before the groom but without being the toastmaster – requires intimate knowledge of the norms in question and even a “sense” of their “force”.)

Thomas said...

I think there is something "transcendental" about my criticism. The institution of a lecture should have almost logical force. A lecture, of course, requires an audience, and the audience must observe decorum. If doesn't do this, it undermines the conditions of the possibility of the lecture, which means it is no longer an audience. What I'm suggesting is that the institution should be conceived of as bigger, and the conditions deeper, so that the protesters don't just undermine themselves as members of an audience (which you're right to say is their declared aim) but also as members of the university.

Think of the act of calling in a bomb threat or pulling the fire alarm (also tactics that are used in these sorts of protests). It can have the same effect, but are crimes because of the disruption of police and firefighters. We might say that the acts are more "cowardly" because they are anonymous. But the courage of the Brown protesters is not very impressive if no disciplinary actions are taken against them. I'm just asking them to put their enrollment where their mouths are.

In a certain sense, disruption of a lecture is a desperate act. It's that sense of desperation that I'm trying to formalize.