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Friday, Dec 8, 2023

The Importance of Being Wrong

On April 20, 2017, Professor Bert Johnson wrote in to this paper with an apology. This doesn’t happen frequently; we were surprised and moved. Professor Johnson, chair of the Political Science Department, wrote that he regretted the manner in which department co-sponsorship was issued to Charles Murray’s speech on campus. “The short amount of time between when the event became public and when it occurred gave all of us scant opportunity to listen to and understand alternative points of view. Most importantly, and to my deep regret, it contributed to a feeling of voicelessness that many already experience on this campus, and it contributed to the very real pain that many people – particularly people of color – have felt as a result of this event.”

Professor Johnson’s apology is, in many ways, the impetus for this week’s editorial. As an editorial board, we would like to thank Professor Johnson for his honesty, candor and courage not in retracting his decision, but in showing vulnerability and conceding that his actions may have caused pain in others. Professor Johnson didn’t base his apology in upholding lofty abstract principles, but rather in the fact that he hurt people on this campus. He represents an admirable desire to resist the urge to over-intellectualize issues and instead choose to recognize the pain one can cause, particularly in our small Middlebury community.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always very good at doing that. Why should we be? Many members of the Middlebury community got here by succeeding; by sounding smart, by developing transcripts that supposedly “prove” we know things. We argue to win, not to listen. As students, we’re pretty collectively insecure about admitting when we don’t know things, and we don’t make room for others to make mistakes. There’s pressure in classrooms, in forums and even in dining hall conversations to prove not only our intellectualism but also that we are “woke” in a kind of verbal posturing that places excessive value on certain kinds of speech, and excludes those who don’t have the vocabulary to discuss issues of race, gender, class and so on.

For this, we commend Professor Johnson’s humility and his ability to see that offering an apology does not discredit him; rather, it reveals his willingness to put the weight of a reconsidered issue above ego. It reveals not only his humanity but his ability to recognize the humanity in others. In the wake of contentious events like the March 2 protest and the election of Donald Trump, we’ve seen members of our community go on the defensive and assume the worst in others. We leave little room for nuance, and group people in categories of right or wrong, with us or against us. We misread ignorance as coming from a place of malevolence rather than lack of experience, and create spaces where people of other opinions do not feel safe to express themselves, make mistakes and, most importantly, learn. March 2 happened as it did largely as a result of a specific culture we have developed on this campus. It was a symptom of various issues here, and it will not go away unless we, collectively as a Middlebury community, decide to change the way in which we navigate our differences.

Conversations about the intersections of identity and free speech will continue. Professors: you have a responsibility to create fair spaces in which to address these issues if they come up, ones in which one set of ideas (or a means of expressing those ideas) is not inherently privileged. If you don’t know how to do that, admit that you don’t know how. We as a student body need our professors to demonstrate to us that it is okay, inevitable and necessary to be confused and even wrong. By doing so, you can uphold the lofty ideals of academic institutions espoused throughout the Charles Murray debate as more than an intellectual value, but a pedagogical practice. You can show us that college is a place for the airing of all views that need to be challenged. Administrators: you have a responsibility to create an environment in which students and faculty are not incentivized to put ego and title above listening. You set the institutional example. You, too, can embody the idea that apologies are examples of strength, not weakness.

Many students on our editorial board recalled their professors expressing a sense of loss or confusion after the 2016 presidential election, an inability to manage discussion or even process what was happening, whether in a classroom setting or otherwise. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is what can make the wounds of this community heal. This is a small college. For students, it’s more than a place of learning; it’s a 24-hour home. We all feel a sense of responsibility for what happens here. We’re going to need to have some hard conversations in the near future, conversations that will take immense emotional labor and vulnerability. These conversations can’t and won’t happen unless we, as committed members of the Middlebury community, are ready to listen, empathize and learn.