University of Chicago graduate claims that disrupting debates promotes healthy, educational discourse

When I read this op-ed in the Maroon, the University of Chicago student newspaper, I thought it was by a current student of the snowflake variety, but it turned out that the author of “No debate without defiance” was one Matthew Andersson, who got his masters of business administration from our school in 1996.

From this you learn two things: first, that an MBA from Chicago doesn’t guarantee that you can write. More important, you learn that even a student from of our notoriously conservative business school can be an Illiberal Leftist. For Andersson’s piece is a long-winded excuse for the value of students disrupting talks they don’t like. I haven’t seen such a justification before—at least not as explicitly as here.

Andersson’s point is that for several reasons students or protestors have a right to disrupt public lectures in universities. First, universities supposedly have mechanisms to prevent challenging “establishment representatives”, and in fact an invitation to speak constitutes a tacit university endorsement of the speaker’s views:

A university is a highly organized corporate institution that sustains numerous formal barriers to meaningfully challenge establishment representatives, let alone allow students to gain any kind of equal footing in a university-sponsored speaker venue. Universities do indeed, as Bittle said, “sanitize” debate; and perhaps somewhat ironically, tacitly validate and shield visiting speakers.

That of course is bogus; many speakers are invited not by the University itself but by student organizations, and universities have in fact expressed distaste for student invitations of speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos. Colleges, of course, have Republican organizations, libertarian organizations, men’s rights organization, and so on. They can all invite speakers.

The author gives more reasons:

It may seem surprising that students, whether in the college or the professional schools, can be well-informed and more emotionally poised to express their intuitive, instinctive reactions to what are often highly corrupted or compromised guests. There is much wisdom in students that can be thoughtlessly dismissed in university or corporate hierarchies where titles, and perhaps political power, are so faithfully coveted and protected. 

What Andersson is talking about here, of course, is the right to disrupt speech of which he doesn’t approve: speech by those who are “highly corrupted or compromised.” I doubt that he’d be writing the same thing if the speaker was talking about the value of affirmative action or relaxed immigration, or about abortion rights. Would he be writing in support of right-wing students to disrupt talks by these people or to shout the speaker down?

Well, can’t students have their own counter-speeches, have a debate, or demonstrate outside the venue? No, because colleges are, says Andersson, set up to prevent such challenges:

Tucker Carlson suggested that a more civilized, formal debating approach would yield better results. But he knows as well as anyone that the preponderance of institutional college decorum does not allow students to meaningfully challenge speakers, outside of a limited and quickly forgotten comment. In matters of such emotional and ideological weight as national politics, often a disruptive, insistent, and memorable challenge not only vividly communicates an opposing viewpoint, but also galvanizes an audience into more critical thinking and a less guarded response. In these cases, real learning can take place as emotional content is introduced or heightened, and with it, deeper convictions.

Andersson is completely oblivious to reality, or else hasn’t seen these disruptions. There is no promotion of critical thinking, there is no stimulation of the audience’s cogitation, there is no learning. What happens is that students already convinced that they’re right try to prevent speakers from giving their views. There is no chance that the disrupting students will change their mind: they are there not to promote learning, but to prevent the speaker from speaking. And really, does the introduction or heightening of “emotional content” really promote critical thinking? What world is this man living in? In the end, he uses doublespeak to equate disruption of speech with freedom of speech:

[Jack] Chatfield was famous for nearly inciting a riot at speaker events and seminars, while also marshaling his facts in an organized manner. Speakers (or more cautious students or administrators) rarely left an event without memorable inspiration, and more often, with decisive reconsideration of their assumptions.

Sadly, on many college campuses across the country, such methods and freedoms are under constant assault or institutional dampening. With so many behavioral reinforcement factors—grades, degrees, careers, and recommendations—hanging over the heads of students, some healthy defiance is surely one of the most liberating skills any student can learn (and one indicative of leadership). As Frederick Douglass said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Defiance is one thing; disruption another. And here we see disruption characterized as a “freedom”.  Institutions like mine, which explicitly bans such disruptions, are said to be dampening this freedom.

Andersson, of course, has it exactly backwards. There is no freedom of speech if a speaker isn’t allowed to speak, or is constantly interrupted. And I deeply suspect that Andersson only approves of the interruption of certain speech, that which, he thinks, fosters “establishment values.”

44 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Disruption does not foster learning or understanding. Speakers need to be allowed to speak and civil discourse welcomed.
    Protesting should not disrupt that for which universities exist:learning. The late president Notre Dame in another generation allowed protests but did not allow them to stop students from attending class.
    ChicagoMed, at a medical review conference, had an intern thrown out for standingandquestioning. There should be a space in morbidity/mortality conferences for all there to be asked for opinions,of quizzed.Belittling is common for junior docs.

    today we are so divided in our partisan beliefs that there seems no way to have discussion or dialog or debate.
    There were ways to dispose of those who proposed things in opposition to accepted belief.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Having worked in both a corporation and a university, I can assuredly state that universities are neither “corporations” nor “highly organized”. Not sure why this MBA graduate would evwr characterize a university as a corporation. They just aren’t.

    • Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      These are often also the same people who insist that governments are like or are corporations as well. I have often asked why they seem to think that a creature as complicated socially as we would have so few different forms of organization. No answer.

      • Taz
        Posted January 13, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        This also applies to idea of referring to students as “customers”. No, they’re students – it’s a well understood role. After all, we’ve all been one at times.

        • Pat
          Posted January 15, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

          College students are customers. Customers purchase goods or services. Student are purchasing educational services which come with restrictive agreements, among those to comply with certain codes of conduct. Students are customers and students. (In my opinion)

    • bobkillian
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      The US has had two* Presidents with MBA degrees: Herbert Hoover and George Dubya Bush. Both of them ended their term of office with disastrous financial collapses. Hmmmm.

      *Donald Trump used to claim he had an MBA from Wharton til the truth came out.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 14, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Something he just skated through as usual, then. Jeez, such a lie would have drummed anyone else out of the race…

  3. Rob
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    It is not necessary that all viewpoints be represented in the one hour period allotted to any one speaker. (To demand all viewpoints be expressed by all parties in the allotted speaking time is rediculous.)

    Let the speaker have his one hour to make his point. Then, others can write, speak, debate, protest, as long and as effectively as it takes to make their counter-argument.

  4. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Oh, my gob. So if “disruptive, insistent, and memorable challenge … galvanizes an audience into more critical thinking…” then surely screaming and throwing blood on the stage will cause students to clearly weigh all the issues and come to well reasoned decisions. The speaker will surely also see the reasoning, apologize for being such a dick, and join in.

    • Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Hmmmm… I assume that Anderson, sporting his MBA degree, must have acquired a job somewhere in the corporate world. And to not be a total hypocrite he must also apply his “”discourse interruption philosophy” in that realm. I must say, he certainly would stand out in any business meeting when he backed his own views by shouting down anyone else speaking from a differing perspective. Come again, I cannot imagine this idiot would hold any such corporate position for a single day.

  5. Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Freedom of speak is of course also pointless without the freedom to hear controversial views.

    A related common argument from the same “freeze peach” corner is aleo that there’s freedom of speech, yes, but there are also consequences.

    These people must be wilfully obtuse, literal, or lawyering, since you had technically the freedom of speech in every tyranny — just inconveniently your writing, or perhaps yourself might just get consigned to flames, and nobody can hear, or read what you have to say.

    Rather than argue fundamentals, or process, of which he and others are clearly incapable of, he better explain the limitations on the freedom of expression and information — the content that should be ruled out.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      A big yes to your first paragraph, and the rest as well.

      People who have made an effort to go and hear a speaker are unlikely to consider dispassionately the simple-minded slogans repeatedly shouted by a disrupter which prevent them from hearing the speaker.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I think what you have here is a student without a clue. Would not know freedom of speech if he fell over a dictionary.

  7. Geoff Toscano
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Umm, healthy, educational discourse is promoted by the debate, not by disrupting the debate.

    Did I miss something?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      +1.

  8. Cate Plys
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Did this guy really go to college? It doesn’t sound like it. I went to Northwestern undergrad and University of Chicago for grad school. At both, I attended plenty of events with Q and A’s in which students got to make their points quite well. More importantly, I saw plenty of protests re speakers. Guess what? The protests got plenty of publicity–and so probably got the opposing students’ viewpoint across even better than anything from the event itself. And those protests were outside the event, or on campus beforehand, and did not disrupt the actual event.

    I agree with Jerry that the op-ed is also quite poorly written. The writer lauds an old professor named Jack Chatfield who

    “was famous for nearly inciting a riot at speaker events and seminars, while also marshaling his facts in an organized manner. Speakers (or more cautious students or administrators) rarely left an event without memorable inspiration, and more often, with decisive reconsideration of their assumptions.”

    But what exactly was Chatfield doing? Was he participating in a Q and A and strongly challenging speakers with actual facts? That would be great! Or was he standing up and screaming imprecations so the speaker could not speak? Can’t tell from this op-ed. But the latter would be utterly useless in fostering discussion or understanding of any topic.

    Re the writer’s claim that universities make sure there are no speakers on campus that the university doesn’t like: Jerry makes a great point that in fact, many speakers are invited not by the university, but by student groups. Lots and lots of speakers are invited by student groups, in fact. If this is not the case at any particular university, that is the fault of the students themselves. But at any university I’m familiar with, there is a huge number and diversity of student groups, all inviting speakers. By definition, since the student groups often oppose each other, there is no way for all the speakers to toe a university line, whatever it may be.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I was also puzzled by the writer’s sneering dismissal of Q&A. It’s been a long time since I was at university, but I’ve been to controversial talks given by controversial speakers and the audience always waits eagerly for the questions from the audience. Sometimes a Big Dog known to be at odds with the topic stands behind the mike and you can feel the tension and excitement ripple through the room.

      Hell, the best part of innocuous speeches is sometimes the Q&A. A real powder keg of a talk? No such thing as a ” limited and completely forgotten comment” from the floor. Unless, of course, the opposition has the mental and rhetorical skills of wet noodles, and are thus forced to form an unruly mob.

  9. Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I take comfort in the thought that, though I am now middle-aged, I don’t have the fear previous generations had that they would find themselves unemployable because companies would prefer recent graduates.

    Who the hell would employ these people?

  10. ploubere
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    If disruption is a learning experience, then by extension students should be allowed to disrupt their classes as well whenever the instructor covers a topic they don’t like. Let’s see how that works as an educational experience.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I think disruption constitutes a valid exercise of First Amendment rights only where those doing the disrupting have been cut off from the usual means for voicing protest — as was frequently the case, for example, when protesters during the Civil Rights movement in the American South were refused permits to assemble and were arrested for lawful picketing. This is to say, disruption is justified where the circumstances warranting civil disobedience have been met.

    Back then, it wasn’t spoiled kids clamoring that they’re being made to feel intellectually unsafe; it was heroes and patriots risking life and limb.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Yes, there either needs to be real oppression which has been backed by violence — or actual violence being called for or taking place on the stage. At least, when I try to imagine what would justify shutting down the discussion, that’s the criteria.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry – Can we assume you’re cool with a student — the class valedictorian, let’s say — rising and giving the raised-fist salute during a commencement address given by the Dean’s running-dog capitalist crony. 🙂

    • Posted January 13, 2017 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      If you’re talking about me, I did not interrupt a commencement address. When they announced my valedictorian status from the stage at my commencement (I wasn’t allowed to speak), I simply rose silently and gave a clenched fist in protest against the Republican flunky that the administration had chosen to speak instead of our choice–Charles Evers. I then sat down and quietly listened to the rest of commencement. I did not interrupt anybody, but rose (as I was asked to) when my award was announced. The clenched fist was of course my idea.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 14, 2017 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        I was actually just pullin’ your leg a bit. But when you recounted this incident in an earlier post, it left a vivid image in my mind’s eye (and never mind that that image probably bears little resemblance to the incident itself).

        In any event, given that you students were denied your commencement-speaker-of-choice, and that you personally were denied the valedictorian’s customary speaking slot, then (per my comment immediately above) I think a bit of civil disobedience (albeit something short of a full-blown disruption) would have been warranted by the circumstances.

  13. Jay
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Meanwhile the Chicago Review of Books has determined they will not review ANY simon & Schuster books through 2017. The reason? The company had the nerve to publish a new book by Milo Yiannopoulos. Horrors! Something must be done!

    Amazing how the book business thinks of themselves as pro free speech. Guess it fits in with the massive national temper tantrum.

  14. Posted January 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Not allowing others to speak if you disagree with them is obviously the best way to promote reasoned discourse. Ha!!

    I’m sure speakers are announced in advance. Students who question the value of what the speaker has to say can read, research, etc. before the event and develop cogent, clearly reasoned questions and/or statements. Students (at least back in the dark ages when I was one) had a great many opportunities to ask questions of the speaker, meet afterwards or later for discussions, write for newspapers, keep journals, write papers.

    Students: take time to research what the speaker promotes that you think you are against. Respond in a clear, intelligent manner. You might find people paying attention to your thoughts then.

  15. J.Baldwin
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Even if it were true that shouting down speakers, while being careful to signal your emotional state, led to critical thinking and learning, it would still be a violation of the fundamental human right to speech.

  16. Christopher Bonds
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read all the quotes from Mr. Andersson, but what I did read I found shockingly obtuse and unthinking, and much else besides. It’s clear that hecklers and interrupters do absolutely nothing to advance dialogue. Anyway, a lecture is not intended to serve the same purpose as either dialogue or debate.

    If you interrupt speakers at lectures and do not let them speak, you are expressing your arrogance and closed-mindedness, not initiating an exchange of ideas. There is no “wisdom” being generated by such behavior.

    If Mr. Andersson really wants to discuss and debate ideas, let him organize a debate or a panel discussion with persons with whom he disagrees. That is the proper public forum to accomplish what he seems to want to accompish.

    He is not an advocate for free speech. He is advocating the repression of free speech.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      If you interrupt speakers at lectures and don’t let them speak, you inevitably make them look good in comparison. It’s not only a free speech problem: the tactic backfires.

  17. Posted January 13, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “In these cases, real learning can take place as emotional content is introduced…” I’d say that ‘real learning’ is inversely proportional to ’emotional content.’

  18. DrBrydon
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    The B School? ‘Nuff said.

  19. Darren Garrison
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious–was the paper named the Maroon _before_ “maroon” meant “moron”? Or is it self-depreciating?

    • Lurker111
      Posted January 13, 2017 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      After reading this piece, this was the first thing that came to mind:

    • Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      It’s been used as the name of one or another Chicago student newspaper since 1892.

      /@

  20. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    MBA – isn’t that the degree you get when you can’t get a proper degree?

    [/snark]

    cr

  21. eric
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I think the most appropriate response for such an article would have been for the paper to accept it, and then in the print run block out every single word after the title. Because hey, he’s saying that that sort of behavior is acceptable and even promotes thinking, right?

    It may seem surprising that students, whether in the college or the professional schools, can be well-informed and more emotionally poised to express their intuitive, instinctive reactions to what are often highly corrupted or compromised guests.

    Anyone “emotionally poised to express their reactions” should be able to make their point in the Q&A. It the people who can’t ask good questions or engage the speaker constructively – or those who don’t want to – that resort to disruption.

    [Carlson] knows as well as anyone that the preponderance of institutional college decorum does not allow students to meaningfully challenge speakers, outside of a limited and quickly forgotten comment.

    This is bullflop not only because Q&A is meaningful, but because the University or the student group doing the inviting is free to set the rules of engagement. A student group could happily and easily set up an invitation for someone to come and debate one of the students who opposed the speaker’s position.

    With so many behavioral reinforcement factors—grades, degrees, careers, and recommendations—hanging over the heads of students, some healthy defiance is surely one of the most liberating skills any student can learn (and one indicative of leadership).

    I watched quite a number of protests at Berkeley, as well as fairly aggressive (‘shout-over’) debates in Sproul Plaza. I do recommend anyone going there to attend such an event, just to have the experience. But as far as I can tell, nobody really learned any professional or life skills from them. The events certainly didn’t get better-run or more effective over time, so whatever the participants might have been learning, they weren’t learning how to stage a more effective protest.

  22. Diane G.
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    How does someone in this day and age forget that today’s students are eminently equipped to raise a viral shitstorm via social media, should their protests find any traction whatsoever?; the sort of disruption that reaches an order of magnitude more people than any given college lecture ever does. So even if there were any truth to this kid’s contention that schools shut down Q & A sessions, there’s still no need to be a jerk during the speech.

  23. Posted January 14, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Are there not almost always question/answer periods at the end of talks/debates? Wouldn’t this be the proper time to express ones thoughts and opinions?
    If you truly wish to make the point that the opposing argument is in error, don’t you need to hear it first?

    • Posted January 16, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      Agreed Phil. However, what I have observed over the decades is that a good Q & A needs a good moderator – someone who can cut off a questioner who is pompously making their own uninvited lecture, or keep the presenter on target and to the point with responses, etc.


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