Zachary Wood: Why Should We Listen To Views We Find Offensive? In college, Zachary Wood joined a group that invites provocative speakers to campus, hoping to spark dialogue. But he soon learned not everyone wants to hear from those with whom they disagree.
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Zachary Wood: Why Should We Listen To Views We Find Offensive?

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Zachary Wood: Why Should We Listen To Views We Find Offensive?

Zachary Wood: Why Should We Listen To Views We Find Offensive?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

ZACH WOOD: Should I say my full name?

RAZ: However you want to say it, yeah.

WOOD: OK. I'm Zach Wood. I'm a writer, freelance journalist and speaker.

RAZ: But you really are a student, right?

WOOD: I'm a senior at Williams College graduating in about a week.

RAZ: Right, OK. Zach grew up in a pretty progressive family, a family that didn't shy away from difficult conversations.

WOOD: Yeah, so a liberal household and really valued issues relating to gender and race and pushing for racial equality.

RAZ: And I guess we should mention because this is radio, nobody can see you, you are African-American.

WOOD: I am, yes.

RAZ: So once Zach got to Williams College as a first-year student, he looked forward to that same kind of exchange of ideas. And he joined a student organization. It's called Uncomfortable Learning. And the members of that group invite provocative speakers onto campus. But pretty soon after Zach joined, he discovered that just inviting these guests would create big problems. Here's Zach Wood on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOOD: In 1994, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein co-authored "The Bell Curve," an extremely controversial book which claims that, on average, some races are smarter and more likely to succeed than others. Murray and Herrnstein also suggest that a lack of critical intelligence explains the prominence of violent crime in poor African-American communities. But Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein are not the only people who think this.

In 2012, a writer, journalist and political commentator named John Derbyshire wrote an article that was supposed to be a non-black version of the talk that many black parents feel they have to give their kids today - advice on how to stay safe. In it, he offers suggestions such as do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks, stay out of heavily black neighborhoods and do not act the good Samaritan to blacks in distress. And yet in 2016, I invited John Derbyshire as well as Charles Murray to speak at my school knowing full well that I would be giving them a platform and attention for ideas that I despised and rejected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOOD: John Derbyshire is - so he was a writer for the National Review. He has made claims such as intelligent, well-socialized African-Americans are as rare as fancy commercial jets - right? - so things like that, very inflammatory, very incendiary. And he was a Trump supporter down the line.

RAZ: So why did you invite him to speak on campus?

WOOD: At the time, you know, I see Donald Trump is on the rise. I think it's important for Williams College students to understand what it is that he thinks, what his base thinks. You know, you have this entire segment of the American electorate that supports him. And I don't think it's safe for us to assume that we know why. And I thought that it could be valuable to have someone on campus who could express this viewpoint - especially someone who's, you know, written a lot in the National Review and been a part of various public forums and so forth - about why it is that they think Donald Trump should be at the helm and really articulating those views on immigration and race specifically.

RAZ: So what happened after you invited him?

WOOD: So I made the invitation, and I would say within about five minutes - it could have been less - I was getting all kinds of comments, people saying things - you're a traitor to your race, we can't believe you've done this - every time I look down on my phone. And then about two days after that - it was either two or three days after that - Adam Falk, who was the former president of Williams College, disinvited John Derbyshire. And so it was canceled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Right now, on college campuses across the U.S. and in many parts of the world, there's a debate about freedom of speech, about who has the right to speak and whether people who spread incendiary and ugly ideas should be given a platform. So today on the show, we're going to talk about free speech and the ideas and arguments about whether all speech should be treated in the same way. And we want to explore a simple question - is hearing from those we deeply disagree with worth it? Well, for Zach Wood, the answer is yes, which is why even though Williams College ended up uninviting John Derbyshire, Zach continued to invite others like him to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOOD: No one likes being offended, and I certainly don't like hearing controversial speakers argue that feminism has become a war against men or that blacks have lower IQ's than whites. Many argue that by giving these people a platform, you're doing more harm than good. And I'm reminded of this every time I listen to these points of view and feel my stomach turn. Yet tuning out opposing viewpoints doesn't make them go away because millions of people agree with them. In order to understand the potential of society to progress forward, we need to understand the counter forces.

By engaging with controversial and offensive ideas, I believe that we can find common ground, if not with the speakers themselves than with the audiences they may attract or indoctrinate. Through engaging, I believe that we may reach a deeper understanding of our own beliefs and preserve the ability to solve problems, which we can't do if we don't talk to each other and make an effort to be good listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Why do you think that there are so many students and so many people your age who just disagree with you, who think that the idea of unlimited, uninhibited free speech isn't something that all university campuses should accept? I mean, do you think that they're all wrong?

WOOD: I think it's a complicated conversation. I think a few things are going on. I think one thing that's going on is you have progressivism itself. You know, you had efforts beginning in the '60s, '70s, '80s - let's increase the presence of minorities on campus, right? And so if we're trying to make progress and we want America to be more inclusive, you can't just increase diversity. But you want people to feel welcome. That becomes very important. But what that ends up meaning is that if students are saying, I don't feel comfortable or welcome or included because of X, because of X person, because of X microaggression, because of X speaker who's been invited, there's this tension then between the effort to be inclusive and the effort to make sure that we have academic freedom and we're protecting free expression.

RAZ: So I'm trying to think about this from the perspective of a student who might feel offended by this. Like, let's say you're a student of color, you know, and particularly a male. You're a first-generation college student. And, you know, over the course of your life, you're just used to getting pulled over by cops because you're driving in a neighborhood or walking in a neighborhood that's predominantly white or you might be followed around in a convenience store or in a department store. You know, somebody might treat you with suspicion, right? And so you deal with these indignities throughout your life. And then you show up on this predominately white college campus...

WOOD: Right.

RAZ: ...And then it's like, hey, tonight, speaking is John Derbyshire. I mean, I could understand why that student might not feel safe on campus hearing from somebody...

WOOD: Right. Right.

RAZ: ...Like that, you know?

WOOD: Absolutely. There are, you know, aspects of those things you've described, I've experienced those things myself. You know, that's why - I do understand that it's really difficult for students. And I would say that I am not saying that I think every student on this campus should say, oh, boy, John Derbyshire is coming to campus. Let me go and read everything he's written and prepare to question this guy during the Q&A and to make apparent to the audience what is wrong with what he's saying. But I do think that for 2 1/2 hours, we should have a space in which those students who want to, who have a desire to engage in that kind of intellectual discourse should be able to do so, so that's my view. It's not that I think everyone should be engaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WOOD: I look out at what's happening on college campuses. And I see the anger. And I get it. But what I wish I could tell people is that it's worth the discomfort. It's worth listening and that we're stronger, not weaker, because of it. When I think about my experiences with Uncomfortable Learning and I reflect upon them, I do feel a sense of hope when I think about the individual interactions that I've been able to have with students who both support the work that I'm doing and who feel challenged by it and who do not support it. It's my belief that to achieve progress in the face of adversity, we need a genuine commitment to gaining a deeper understanding of humanity. I'd like to see a world with more leaders who are familiar with the depths of the views of those they deeply disagree with so that they can understand the nuances of everyone they're representing. I see this as an ongoing process involving constant learning. And I'm confident that I'll be able to add value down the line if I continue building empathy and understanding through engaging with unfamiliar perspectives.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So earlier, you mentioned Charles Murray who has argued that African-Americans have lower IQs than whites and who - I should note, he was allowed to come speak on your campus at Williams. What is it that you wanted students to learn from him?

WOOD: So one, when he has 45 minutes to get up on stage, I want people to pay close attention to the logical flow of his argument, to the evidence he's providing, to the lack there of, right? I want people to see what kinds of questions make him backpedal, what kind of questions make a pause, right? Where is he - because this is in the public sphere, in the political sphere. When you're getting things done, it's always going to be contentious, whether the issue's welfare, whether it's crime, whether it's taxation, it doesn't - right? And so understanding, strengthening your own arguments by really assessing what are the weak points, and then trying to see what are the most effective ways for you to expose what's wrong with that argument so that then the people in the audience who might be undecided or who might know a bit less now can see for themselves why it is that Charles Murray's wrong.

RAZ: OK. But some students - right? - would say just by inviting him, you're legitimizing his viewpoint. You're giving him a platform. But it sounds like what you're saying is that by bringing somebody like him to campus, you're basically building resilience for those students who might be offended?

WOOD: Yes, exactly. And that even if it's one student, if it's five students, there is progress that is being made, and that I think it would be far worse to suppress speech, that it would be far worse to say that we shouldn't be engaged in robust and open discussion, that it would be far worse to say that we should tune out that which makes us feel very, very uncomfortable.

RAZ: How do you know, Zach, that you're on the right side of history on this issue?

WOOD: I guess I would have to say that when I look at the thinkers I admire, from the founding fathers to Martin Luther King Jr., I would say that they always engaged with the people they disagreed with the most, even when it was very, very difficult for them to do so, and that if you look at free speech and the history of free speech in this country, it has been free speech itself that allowed the, from the abolitionist movement to women's suffrage to the civil rights movement to the gay rights movement, to be successful. That's what allowed those dissenting opinions to be aired and re-aired and to apply social pressure upon government in ways that lead to positive, social change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Zach Wood. You can see his entire talk at ted.com. On the show today - ideas about the right to speak. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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