(Ben Walker, for Green Amherst Project)– The controversy surrounding last week’s Black Lives Matter series raised a variety of questions about the place and reach of discourse at Amherst College. Like many of our peers, we found the “All Lives Matter” posters distasteful and appropriative. We were less certain how we ought to respond to these posters as students. Some urged additional dialogue at a more appropriate time; others tore down the “All Live Matter” posters but did so at the risk of silencing speech. In community such as ours, we all tend to strongly condemn the suppression of another’s opinion. Very rarely, however, do we consider what constitutes discourse and the kinds of conversations we tolerate. Does discourse extend to the placement of posters, or is it restrained to forums and lecture halls? Can dialogue take the form of action? Moreover, to what extent should we tolerate diverse voices? At what point do we decide to end our debate and act?
These questions are vital for all Amherst students, because dialogue lies at the heart of the liberal-arts model that Amherst embodies. The diverse Amherst community demands – and thrives in – constant dialogue. Discourse between people of different backgrounds broadens all perspectives and sensitizes us to each other’s needs. But this absolute embrace of dialogue often leads to a pluralism that unsettles our hold on what is true and untrue. We are told that we ought to consider all opinions for the validity they may or may not contain; that, as a community of equals, we therefore must hold all of our peer’s opinions in equal standing. We are told that we must accept pluralism even when one’s perspective offends, hurts, or threatens another; that we must remain open to all opinions even when doing so detracts from meaningful dialogue. And should our perceived truths conflict, we must learn to tolerate the other. We instead silence our more fundamental criticisms so that we – and all – may speak. Otherwise, we risk suppressing freedom of speech and heading down that quick slippery slope toward totalitarianism. Toleration, “truths”, dialogue: these are the rules of the game. Adopt the rules – or don’t play at all.
Our community’s obsessive focus on dialogue should concern all student activist groups at Amherst. The success of any campaign depends on a mediation between dialogue, which builds consensus, and action, which wins concrete progress. But activism by definition cannot accept an absolute plurality of opinion. All activists believe on some level in the truth of their cause, at the exclusion of other truths. The core values of activism then empowers action. At a point, circumstances force activists to draw the line, close discussion, and act.
When the Green Amherst Project learned in early September that the Amherst College Republicans had invited Patrick Moore to speak on our campus, we began questioning our own commitment to dialogue as activists. We were certain that Moore, a well-known climate change denier and consultant for energy-intensive corporations, would challenge the robust scientific evidence that substantiates the theory of anthropogenic climate change. As Amherst College’s sole student-led environmental organization, we knew that we had no choice but to respond in protest. But how could we condemn Moore’s denial of scientific fact while remaining open to dialogue? Where would we draw that line?
The Green Amherst Project’s shared concern for free speech limited the range of available responses to Moore’s presentation. We did not want to silence Moore nor did we want to expose ourselves to criticisms that we suppressed speech. We also distanced ourselves from any plan that involved a direct or aggressive confrontation with Patrick Moore. We worried that protestors would shout Moore down and prevent his presentation from continuing. Our other options included protesting outside of the event space. We felt that, in that case, our protest would fail to reach Moore and the organizers of the event. And to be frank, we worried that we would draw more people to our protest than would attend Moore’s lecture.
With these concerns in mind, we decided instead to target the terms of Moore’s presentation itself. Moore’s argument, aside from its basic falsity, advances from the presumption that climate change science is itself debatable. That debate is over. Climate science resoundingly demonstrates the human origins of climate change, be it through the laws of physics, advanced modeling systems, or a deluge of empirical data. Moreover, that the vast majority of the scientific community “believes” in anthropogenic climate change – as if scientific fact were an act of faith – is old news. Moore stands against the 97.2% of scientists who have validated the human origins of climate change, and yet he continues to assert the scientific legitimacy of his own position. Patrick Moore’s opinions on climate change are neither scientific nor supported by scientific fact – this much is true. Rather than engaging with the spurious points of Moore’s argument, we chose to reject the very terms of his proposed debate, and we would do so without silencing his speech. We chose to walk out.
To no-one’s surprise, our chosen form of protest provoked a range of responses from many conservative groups. The Amherst College Republicans, organizers of the event, called protestors “arrogant,” “intolerant,” and questioned their maturity. An article published by Young America’s Foundation shortly after characterized students as “tyrants in training” ” Not to be outdone, Patrick Moore named the hundred or so participants “anti-free-speech-bunch-of-brain-dead-bigots”and, during the walkout itself, compared Amherst College students to “the Taliban.”
As organizers of the walk-out and as members of the Green Amherst Project, we feel that we must respond to such personal attacks. We are hurt by this kind of vitriolic speech and astonished that our fellow students condone the statements of Moore and others. To equate members of the Green Amherst Project and other protestors to a militant fundamentalist political organization like the Taliban is insensitive, inaccurate, and absurd. It is difficult to imagine the Birkenstock-wearing Quakers among us taking up arms in the way that Moore seems to imply. It is far more difficult to draw any correlation between our peaceful student-led protest and the actions of the Taliban.
It is easy to dismiss this exaggerated name-calling without also considering Moore’s response as a consequence of Amherst’s absolute commitment to free speech. We dared to challenge Moore’s “debate” and Moore called us the Taliban, as if on instinct. This is the risk of rejecting absolute, endless plurality. Patrick Moore and others would like to believe that the members of the Green Amherst Project oppose dialogue and therefore oppose free speech. The Green Amherst Project does not oppose dialogue, nor seeks to silence or prevent speech in any way. We embrace differing perspectives for the answers they can provide to difficult questions, and recognize the sharp need for dialogue in our own community and in others. We do not reject speech. We do not oppose freedom. We oppose false contexts that mark untruths as true and political bias as fact. For this reason, the Green Amherst Project believed – and continues to believe – that an organized refusal to engage Moore on his own terms was the only appropriate response we had. Debating the scientific grounding of climate change distracts us from the more urgent and necessary debate: how do we address climate change today? Now is our best – and last – chance to avert a global environmental catastrophe. Will we burn down with our house while we debate whether or not the flames are real? Or will we buckle down, suit up, and put out the fire?
The recent upswing of activism at Amherst forces us all to reconsider our own relation to dialogue. There is no easy compromise between discourse and action; one continues to inform the other. The best we can do as activists, students, and empathetic people is to remain aware of our speech. What we urge now is not more dialogue, nor less: only better.