Three and a half days after a horde of angry students descended on his classroom berating him and calling for him to be fired, Professor Bret Weinstein found himself in a Seattle television studio being interviewed by Tucker Carlson.
Those three and a half days were traumatic for Professor Weinstein, his students and the rest of the campus. Weinstein was warned by the College’s police chief to stay away from campus because the orders given to her by the College’s president made it impossible for the police to protect him. She feared for his safety so he opted to teach in a city park. Protesting students held the campus’s senior administrative team hostage, even refusing to permit the president to go to the restroom unescorted. Protesting students hurled vile epithets at anyone who disagreed with them and one faculty member foully berated her colleagues in public for not supporting the protestors to the degree she thought they should.
The student protestors made Weinstein the center of much of the attention because they were upset that two months earlier he sent out an email offering a divergent opinion on the proposed structure of a campus event dealing with race relations. The extreme nature of the protests, virtually all of which were captured on video and posted to YouTube, coupled with the opprobrium Weinstein received for speaking his mind, led to people all across the political spectrum and all across the country to support Weinstein and condemn both the protestors and the campus administration.
While images of the protest went viral on social media, the mainstream press was slow to react. Weinstein, concerned for his safety and that of his students, troubled by the way campus culture had devolved into something akin to a scene from Lord of the Flies, and distressed by the constant call for his firing, looked to bring the story to a larger audience.
And then the call came from Tucker Carlson asking if he would appear on his show as part of a story that was going to be run on the Evergreen situation. Weinstein agreed and the campus rhetoric against him increased exponentially.
Now, instead of students calling for him to be fired, many of his faculty colleagues issued heated demands for him to resign.
Here are just a handful of excerpts from messages from faculty colleagues written in response to Bret’s discussion with Tucker Carlson:
Bret, both directly and through some of his associates, has chosen to take steps that can now be materially demonstrated to have invited threats of violence, wielded for political ends, against our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. As a result, many of us are terrified, which is clearly the intent of these threats. And in my own academic area of expertise, there is a very specific term for political violence, and for threats thereof, deployed to terrorize. This is serious. I call on Bret to apologize and to rectify the damage he has done, or to resign.
I concur with the alarm expressed below that one of our faculty has turned to the most right-wing, inflammatory propaganda sources on TV today, Tucker Carlson’s national segment on FOX News, to virtually invite right-wing forces to attack and defund Evergreen, and denigrate the Day of Absence/Day of Presence as “Campus Craziness.” As a scholar who has studied the far-right for three decades, and as a community organizer who has seen them in action, I can confirm how dangerous such a white backlash can become…. This has gone too far…. Until Friday, I merely disagreed with Bret. Today, I no longer consider him to be a colleague interested in the well-being of our community….
By appearing on Tucker Carlson’s Alt-Right TV program, you endangered our students…
Our community has been put at risk, and the inevitable threats are already being made. I call on Bret to apologize or resign, and invite other faculty members to also ask him to do so.
Beyond individual emails of this sort, a collection of faculty and staff members signed a petition to the administration that, in part, clearly outlined what they thought should happen to Professor Weinstein:
Demonstrate accountability by pursuing a disciplinary investigation against Bret Weinstein according to guidelines in the Social Contract and Faculty Handbook. Weinstein has endangered faculty, staff, and students, making them targets of white supremacist backlash by promulgating misinformation in public emails, on national television, in news outlets, and on social media.
Ignore for a moment the fact that, regardless of what some Evergreen faculty members might say and whatever you might think about it, Fox News is not the alt-right and disingenuously conflating the two detracts from the very real damage the actual alt-right perpetuates. Are faculty members actually saying that there are some news outlets that should be off limits, that merely speaking to them merits punishment? I suspect that, when pushed, most faculty members, even at Evergreen, would bristle at the thought of an approved list of media organizations.
So, if that’s not the case, the problem must lie with what Professor Weinstein actually said in his interview with Tucker Carlson. An examination of his actual interview might be surprising to some.
The full segment took only 5 minutes and 50 seconds. During that time, Carlson introduced the topic, showed a segment of the video in which students surrounded Professor Weinstein at his classroom, and asked Professor Weinstein a grand total of five questions. Are any of Weinstein’s answers to those five questions problematic, dishonest, or in any other way worthy of punishment?
Question 1: Carlson asked what happened and why. Weinstein responded by saying that 50 or so students disrupted his class because they claimed he was a racist based on the email he had sent.
Question 2: Carlson asked what happened after the video ended. Weinstein responded by saying that the police were concerned for his safety and tried to find a way into the building that wasn’t blocked, that upon leaving the protestors went to the president’s office and extracted some concessions from him, and that later that day there was another meeting that was “far crazier” than what was on the video.
Question 3: Carlson asked why the president was allowing a student mob to threaten one of his professors. Weinstein noted that that’s exactly what the president was doing; that a student mob had effectively taken control of the campus and that the president had ordered the police to “stand down” and not interact with protestors. He added that, at this very moment, students were meeting with the president who was responding to their demands and that they had indicated that if he did not meet those demands there would be violence. Finally, he repeated his charge that the police were told to “stand down” by the president and thus they were not able to regain control of the campus.
Question 4: Carlson notes that Weinstein is likely a “Hillary voter” and Weinstein corrects him saying that he isn’t, that, in fact, he’s a “deeply progressive person.”
Question 5: This was actually a statement more than a question. Carlson asserted, “You said people shouldn’t be allowed to speak or not on the basis of their skin color, which seems like a foundational belief of the left, and one that I agree with strongly, and for that they physically threatened you and are trying to get you fired.” Weinstein agreed and reiterated that there was nothing racist in what he had written.
Professor Weinstein was calm, articulate and factual. The only thing he said that could possibly be seen as controversial was his statement that students had promised violence if their demands were not met. But that promise was well sourced and, it turns out, prophetic given that students formed a vigilante group and roamed the campus with baseball bats and tasers a week later.
Why, then, did faculty attack Professor Weinstein for speaking with Tucker Carlson? I believe that there were two reasons. First, as they had done all year, they were attempting to silence a divergent voice, one that repeatedly called for discussion. That Professor Weinstein was offered a platform on Fox News, an outlet whose politics is not aligned with that of most of the faculty’s, simply made it easier to attack him for speaking out.
More importantly, however, although news of the chaos on campus was increasing dramatically via social media and some conservative outlets even before his appearance on Fox, visibility really took off afterwards. Many videos of the protest received upwards of 100,000 hits and, more strikingly, virtually every comment reflected negatively on the student protestors, their faculty supporters, and the College. Faculty were looking for a scapegoat for all of this negative publicity and Professor Weinstein’s appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show seemed like an obvious choice – regardless of the details.
The problem is that their choice of scapegoat can’t explain the fact that students, faculty and the College came in for scathing attacks from media outlets, bloggers, and organizations representing the far right, the far left, and the middle of the political spectrum.
If scapegoats are needed, students should look in the mirror and see how their violent and inchoate behavior alienated virtually everyone. Faculty should look in the mirror and see how their attacks on the free speech rights of a colleague and their mindless support for a small group of protestors, regardless of the extreme nature of their actions, alienated virtually everyone. The campus administration should look in the mirror and see how their inability to provide leadership in the face of what should have been a minor crisis, alienated virtually everyone.
What Professor Weinstein did, purely and simply, was help the rest of the world see for themselves what was happening on the Evergreen campus. The unedited videos of students screaming at the president, of a faculty member cursing at her colleagues, provide a clear picture of the reality of the situation. Yes, more people became aware of what was happening on campus because Professor Weinstein dared to speak with Tucker Carlson. But if everyone was as proud of the students and their colleagues as they originally claimed they were, greater awareness wouldn’t be a problem – it would be a virtue.
There was a somewhat surprising upside to the conversation between Professor Weinstein and Tucker Carlson. Numerous people wrote to Weinstein saying that although they doubt that they share many of his political perspectives, they very much respect the position he’s taken and how he’s presented his opinions. Real connections with people were forged and those connections improved understanding.
Reaching across the political divide, communicating across significant differences, may actually be possible – but it has to begin with conversation. If, as faculty at Evergreen seem to want, we limit those conversations to those with whom we agree at the outset, we’ll make no progress and we’ll learn nothing. Looking beyond oneself, listening to what others have to say, understanding a perspective other than your own, even if you don’t agree with that perspective, after all, is what a liberal arts education is all about. If the faculty at a liberal arts college can’t grasp that simple point, our educational system is truly in deep trouble.