Epstein lecture walkout highlights Vassar’s flagging commitment to thorough discourse

The Fossil Fuels Divestment Campaign is a central and controversial topic at Vassar College. To the campaign’s credit, its participants have reached a number of milestones, such as the passage of a VSA resolution in support of divesting from fossil fuels. Yet, notably—outside of VSA Council meetings—there has been a lack of organized discussion between proponents and opponents of divestment. As such, it would seem that the recent lecture given by Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress, which directly addressed the national divestment movement of which the Vassar campaign is a component, would have been a fair starting point for a wider, inclusive conversation on the matter.

Yet vocal members of the Vassar divestment campaign chose to remove themselves from that conversation, when a student abruptly interrupted the lecturer and led a walkout. You can see a portion of the student’s speech by typing “Vassar College students interrupt [sic] Alex Epstein speech” into Google or YouTube to watch the namesake video. In addition to the disrespect shown to the lecturer as well as those community members and students who chose to stay, the walkout illustrates an increasingly common phenomenon among the more controversial subjects on campus: a general lack of respect for dissenting opinions and a propensity to mock the individuals who hold those opinions or want to engage with those opinions seriously.

It is of growing concern to us that Vassar College, while a bastion of tolerance based on class, gender, and race, has become increasingly politically and philosophically intolerant. This is a strange trend, considering that Vassar’s dedication to expanding critical thought is spearheaded by faculty members drawn from among the best of their respective fields. Yet as the walkout has indicated, there is an increasingly radical nature to the Vassarion political culture that inspires some on campus to act in a way that demonized and ridicules those who hold different views.

In the student’s own words, “For those of you who prefer a friendly and intelligent discussion on divestment, fossil fuels, and sustainability, stand up now and follow me to the Joss MPR…” There is a presumption in these words that both denote contempt for Epstein’s views and strikes at the head of the freedoms that protect all on campus. For without free speech, free expression, freedom of thought—core values that protect everyone—the result is a grand chill over the very exercise Vassar is designed to perform: the creation of intellectually curious individuals. The actions of those who participated in walking out denied the agency of their peers by deciding for them that any discussion in Rockefeller 200 with Epstein was not “intelligent.” This is a phenomenon that is by no means new, as there have been many similar incidents in the past. However, they appear to be happening more often and with greater frequency, and we are not alone in having fears that Vassar may truly become a place of intellectual intolerance.

What must be remembered is that all Vassar students—ourselves included—are but neophytes in their field. We attend Vassar to learn, and key to that learning is the rational evaluation of dissonant voices. By no means did members of the remaining audience universally agree with Epstein’s positions. Rather, audience members listened, challenged, were challenged, and hopefully subsequently matured in their views or helped Epstein mature his own. Members of the Vassar Divestment Campaign had that opportunity, and could have contributed to the discussion or simply observed the proceedings. But for one to instead launch a diatribe against Epstein and to then ceremoniously leave is not to merely reject his views, but to insinuate that he has no right to express those views, cheapening the intellectual curiosity of those who remained. It is the height of arrogance and intellectual intolerance, and pays insult to the very freedoms of expression, thought and speech that are relied on to promote alternative views.

We both come from different traditions, and have differing perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of divestment. However, both of us agree that regardless of your views, respect for the freedom of others to embrace and engage with differing positions is a fundamental right of Vassar College, and one should not act to disrupt the rightful expression of those positions.

 

—Alaric Chinn ‘13 is a Science, Technology and Society major. He is Chair of the Judicial Board. Dan Salton ‘10 was Chair of the Judicial Board in the 2009-2010 academic year.

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