Two weeks ago, The Wesleyan Argus found itself facing a barrage of demands, threats, and harassment. At issue was the Argus’ publication of an op-ed that expressed reservations about the strategic viability of the “Black Lives Matter” racial justice movement. The author, Bryan Stascavage, contended that more steps should be taken by BLM supporters to discourage what he saw as militant or violence-based tactics against law enforcement officials.
The piece itself can be found here, and is worth a read if you have the chance. I have little doubt that many of our readers will disagree with some of Stascavage’s claims, as I myself do.
But the pros and cons of Stascavage’s column are not the topic of discussion here. What begs our attention as Haverfordians is the manner in which college students reacted to a viewpoint in opposition to their own. In Wesleyan’s case, the response didn’t take the form of a counter-editorial.
Instead, over 150 wonderfully open-minded protesters replied to Stascavage with the following declaration:
Right on, guys. What better way to voice your disagreements over a single article than a boycott of the entire newspaper? Excellent choice in selecting a time-tested, proven way to win an on-campus argument—not by engaging those of the opposite viewpoint, but by silencing them.
But wait—it gets better. Notice the clause about “recycling” issues of the Argus. These activists quite literally meant rounding up the physical copies of the newspaper and destroying them. A later, less eco-friendly revision of petition simply called for the “theft and destruction” of said newspapers. Book burning in 2015? How lovely.
Let’s give the petitioners the benefit of the doubt and assume that (hopefully) most of them did not support confiscating and destroying a newspaper. The rest of their demands are still questionable at best. Take their charge that their newspaper fails to create a “safe space,” for instance. They appear to believe that it is somehow a newspaper’s duty and obligation to do so—and that is exactly where they are wrong.
The best writing publications produce hard-hitting, intellectually stimulating material. Sometimes that means investigating and exposing a perceived wrong. Other times, it means printing a provocative opinion that people will respond to in one way or another. There are, of course, ways to do that respectfully, and that is why publications such as The Clerk seek to hold themselves to high ethical standards. Indeed, there are ways to approach sensitive issues with understanding.
But short of material that is blatantly disrespectful, libelous, or violence-inciting, we cannot possibly expect newspapers like The Argus to refrain from publishing certain viewpoints. Much less should we ever condone doing so through threats or coercion, which violate every principle of civil liberties we know.
The recent developments at Wesleyan offer our Haverford community an opportunity to warily watch a phenomenon that has been steadily gaining traction within American academia. We ourselves were guilty of it two years ago, when a small number of Haverfordians drove a commencement speaker out of town. The Birgeneau case was disturbingly comparable to the current situation at Wesleyan, in which a small percentage of the population issued a list of outrageous demands to a person with whom they disagreed—with the added condition that they would not be allowed to present their viewpoints if they failed to comply. And just like Wesleyan, we all paid the price in the national embarrassment that followed.
I would hope it to be understandable why I and many of my colleagues in journalism are troubled over the fate that The Argus faces. But I approach this issue not just as a journalist, but as a Haverfordian. Wesleyan is a liberal arts institution similar to ours, and one that prides itself in providing a nurturing environment for people of all backgrounds and viewpoints. In upholding the Honor Code, we continually strive do the same.
It might seem unfathomable, then, that something similar would again happen here in the Bi-Co. But as recently as September, Bryn Mawr students were demanding that the Swarthmore Phoenix take down an article that presented an unfavorable (and in Bryn Mawr’s defense, fairly biased) view of their college’s “Hell Week.” Though the events centered around The Argus are hundreds of miles away, the danger of such practices becoming mainstream are much closer than we think.
There may come a time when we face a situation akin to that of Wesleyan. Perhaps it will center around an article published by one of our newspapers or magazines; perhaps it will take the form of another commencement speaker. Perhaps a simple comment made by a Haverford student or professor will prompt our outrage. We cannot possibly predict the kinds of controversies that our community will face in the future. But when that time comes, we would do well to ensure that we never compromise Haverford’s commitment to respectful dialogue.