It was a brisk Wednesday afternoon when I left my lecture at the Whitney Humanities Center to begin the 10-minute trek to Mory’s. There, myself and a few other students would come face-to-face with controversial journalist and Yale alumna, Heather Mac Donald ’78.
Inviting contentious figures to give speeches and chat with students is very common at Yale and across all college campuses. However, university officials and administrators everywhere are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the intellectual benefit of such invitations, largely due to student backlash. This is especially the case when the person invited is, at first glance, discriminatory against historically marginalized groups. Although university officials ought to proceed with caution when choosing guest speakers, I believe there is substantial value in the controversy.
The nature of the meeting with Mac Donald was not to debate her own opinions, but rather to have a discussion focused on the humanities. Yet, as I walked across campus, I wondered if my decision to accept the invitation to lunch with her was the right choice to make. After all, it wasn’t just about disagreeing with Mac Donald’s beliefs, but rather what she represents. She personifies controversy; in her articles, she has written that affirmative action places underperforming students of color in schools that are too difficult for them. And although part of me wanted to meet with her in the name of compromise, the other part of me doubted coming face-to-face with controversy would be productive.
I know that all too often, people like Mac Donald use free speech as a shield to spread hateful views. The part of me that detests controversy knows firsthand how detrimental engaging with these views can be to one’s identity. This is the crux of the argument against controversial speakers and free speech, especially when dealing with class and race. Topics like affirmative action and social justice — subjects that Mac Donald is no stranger to — point the finger at specific groups that have remained the subject of racism throughout history. Just because a speech is eloquently wrapped up in academic jargon doesn’t change its inherently discriminatory meaning. How many articles, how many speeches and how much time will be given to this controversy until we say enough is enough? Until we silence those who champion the hatred and prejudice that has been alive for generations, even if it is just an opinion?
But this is where I stop myself, take a step back and wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if by silencing the prejudice, we will eventually stop it, or, if smothering its voice will allow it to grow in quiet places. A controversial belief may be hard to cope with, but I think I’d prefer someone who openly takes a stance on these issues as opposed to someone who does so in private — or even worse, someone who has no opinion at all.
Like it or not, controversial figures who come to campus bring mixed crowds. Students will come who agree, vehemently disagree, are moderate and who are just interested in the spectacle. Maybe the guest speaker is not open to change, but that does not mean our classmates will also be uncompromising. At Yale, we have this rare chance to interact with people from all walks of life who are sitting down to learn together. With this privilege comes the opportunity to expand our own minds and the minds of others around us. Yes, controversy has its side effects, but its power in bringing together different people to discuss difficult topics is worth the risk. These are discussions that we must have.
If it weren’t for my meeting with Mac Donald, I might not have gotten the chance to learn and hear from the remarkable 52-year-old veteran turned Yale student who was also in attendance. Similarly, in January 2019, Mac Donald was invited to campus for a Yale Political Union debate on college admissions and policies. The News reported that students appreciated the intriguing and respectful argument. Unlike overcrowded lectures or speeches, civil debates and small discussions allow for an interactive audience. I think that this is the best and most effective solution to the inevitable contention, allowing everyone the chance to be heard.
As for the controversial figures of the world: let them come, but let their invitation be contingent upon their commitment to debate and discussion. Let their minds be open to change, and if that’s too much, at least to listening.
ZAPORAH PRICE is a first year in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .