ZOE ROHRICH, FEATURES EDITOR | TUESDAY, MAY 2, 2017
Free speech has become a hotly contested topic among colleges across the country, sparking a national evaluation of how much political diversity should be present on American campuses. Bard College is no exception, with a similar controversy currently underway within its community.
Last Wednesday, the conservative commentator Ann Coulter announced that she would cancel her planned speech at the University of California Berkeley due to the loss of conservative sponsorship, as well as for personal safety reasons. In a message to The New York Times, Coulter responded, “It’s a sad day for free speech.”Similarly, the invitation of the right-wing Gateway Pundit’s Lucian Wintrich to Bard College by Roger Berkowitz, academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center, has sparked controversy among students and faculty as well. The justification for this event, which will be held in the form of a panel, is to inspire an open discourse between those who disagree.
In response to the controversy, Bard professor and journalist Ian Buruma said, “I’m personally very much against not allowing people to speak on the campus because most people disagree with him or her. We should always listen to what people have to say and banning people from a campus because they have controversial unpopular opinions, I think, is a big mistake. You don’t have to agree with a person, but you can still listen to them.”
Junior Kevin Barbosa, Speaker of the Student Body-Elect, and co-panelist with Wintrich, said he believes this event counts more as an example of academic freedom and should be used for a study on political performance that he thinks is unique to the Trump administration. “He’s not a person that I agree with in any way, shape or form, but it’s also something that’s in Washington, and in the Oval Office, so I personally want to engage with that as a method of preparing myself, and modeling with the rest of the student body, to the extent that I can, what might be effective avenues of combat with someone like him.”
The controversy surrounding Wintrich’s visit lies in the belief that this dialogue between those who hold dissimilar political opinions can occur more organically, and that the college does not need to invite controversial figures like Wintrich to campus to spark debate.
Junior Lexi Parra, after months of discussing strategy in how to counter and protest Wintrich’s invitation, said that it became clear that solely hosting reactionary protests, or events attempting to occupy the space of the panel would, “play into the ‘liberal snowflake’ narrative,” an idea that suggests liberal arts students are fragile and uncomfortable with any ideas contradictory to their own worldview. Parra says she and a group of other students, as part of a semester-long tutorial called “Scholars at Risk,” are fighting for the rights and free speech of scholars in exile. When discussing the idea of a counter panel to the Wintrich event, Parra said, “We thought, this is the real fight, both nationally and globally, for free speech, so why don’t we center on that to show the absurdity of Wintrich’s claims?”
Free speech on liberal arts college campuses remains the issue at large. In talking with both faculty and students on the presence of difference in political opinion, the overall response was that even encountering a Trump supporter on Bard’s campus is a rare occurrence.
Abby Avital, a sophomore at Bard, shared her opinion on the political climate at Bard and the impression students have of Trump voters and conservatives.
“Ridicule is present,” she said. “Even if I’m not talking directly to a Trump supporter, and I’m talking about them, it’s always with an air of absolute shock. Truthfully, I don’t know anyone on this campus that voted for Trump definitively. I’ve heard stuff about athletes, but everything has been from a secondary source.”
This general feeling that Trump supporters are clustered among the athletic community seems to be widespread, even amongst athletes themselves. Junior Austin Clark, a member of both the basketball and track teams, believes that the conversations that happen within the athletic community are different than those that take place within the greater campus.
“I don’t want to say the conversations aren’t deep, but they’re lighter. I’ve talked about politics with people from lacrosse and the soccer team, and it’s like, if someone says something controversial, no one’s ganging up on them,” Clark said. He also says this is true of conversations about President Trump.
Basketball and baseball team member Caleb LaRosa takes issue with the way in which a conservative student’s beliefs can be antagonized. He established a distinction between voting for Trump and supporting everything the president has said and done. “No Trump supporter is going to, regardless of their beliefs, tell you all that [Trump’s] history with locker-room talk is a good thing. They aren’t going to support that. Any time that I’ve talked to anyone who’s a Trump supporter, it’s more about [Trump’s] ability to build, and his aggressive nature that they think is needed after some more quiet years on the offensive end of things.”
Clark said that liberal or conservative values or opinions are more complex than he thinks some people may believe. He also says it’s common to equate being conservative with support of Trump. “That also means that you could have some type of phobia — xenophobia, transphobia…one of those things where you feel like ‘conservative’ means that you hate other people.”
Meanwhile, other students have varying relationships with how politics should be talked about amongst those who disagree. Senior Amy Chabassier said, “Talking with someone who has different views requires you to really understand what you think, which is definitely hard. It’s so much easier to talk to people who have the same ideas as you, because you don’t have to think as much about why you feel that way.”
In an interview with Bard Watch, president of the college Leon Botstein discussed the importance of engagement with people who think differently. “My thought is that I think we all have to spend more time than we have before talking to people who approach us with some suspicion and mistrust…and we need to find a way to exhibit empathy for the people who disagree with us.”
The overall consensus at Bard seems to be that discourse matters between those who hold different political opinions. “I think that the conversation at Bard demands a lot of patience and listening, which I think we can learn a lot from,” junior Julia Tinneny said. “There should certainly be conversation. Bard students, myself included, have definitely contributed to a divide. Republicans are pissed off that people think they’re stupid, or deplorable. It’s upsetting, and I get it. Rhetoric matters a lot. Discourse changes people.”
In talking with various Bard professors about ways in which free speech exists on liberal arts campuses, some say they believe dialogue can happen by stepping into the towns and organizations outside of the liberal arts institution to talk with people from the surrounding community. Lexi Parra agreed.
“Why is Professor Berkowitz not hosting a community dinner with conservative workers or Red Hook residents and students or the Student Labor Dialogue to push our ‘liberal bubbles?’” she said. “While those events will take building relationships, I believe talking to people around us — whom we could have a connection with — versus encouraging the phenomena of alt-right public figures, is where the discourse should be headed towards.”
The ideal participants of this conversation seems to be the next topic for debate, as some within the Hannah Arendt Center believe that it should be stimulated by highly-contested figures like Lucian Wintrich, while others believe that debate can happen on a more local level, between students, as well as between institutions and residents of the surrounding towns. Though opinions differ, most members of the Bard community seem to agree that some sort of ongoing conversation is critical.
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Zoe Rohrich is current Features Editor and rising Editor-in-Chief of Bard Watch.