Tuesday, March 14, 2017

When the moderator meets the mob: @AKStanger speaks out

When it comes to brave moderators, no one has anything over Allison Stanger.

She's the Middlebury College professor who agreed to moderate an appearance on her campus by Charles Murray, a controversial conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The appearance was interrupted by protestors who shouted down the discussion, prompting the speaker and moderator to move to a room where it could be livestreamed, but that, too, was interrupted. And both Murray and Stanger were attacked by the protestors. For Stanger, the moderator, the result was a concussion, whiplash, and the need to wear a neck brace.

But this moderator is no shrinking violet. Yesterday, she published Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion in the New York Times, and while what she experienced might make you reconsider moderating anything controversial, I hope you'll read it--not just to learn what happened, but to learn about why moderation is important.

From the article, she establishes her reason for participating:
Though he is someone with whom I disagree, I welcomed the opportunity to moderate a talk with him on campus on March 2 because several of my students asked me to do so. They know I am a Democrat, but the college courses I teach are nonpartisan. As I wrote on Facebook immediately after the incident, this was a chance to demonstrate publicly a commitment to a free and fair exchange of views in my classroom. But Dr. Murray was drowned out by students who never let him speak, and he and I were attacked and intimidated while trying to leave campus.
And here's the chilling paragraph about what happened when they attempted, finally, to leave the scene:
Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm to shield him and to make sure we stayed together, the crowd turned on me. Someone pulled my hair, while others were shoving me. I feared for my life. Once we got into the car, protesters climbed on it, hitting the windows and rocking the vehicle whenever we stopped to avoid harming them. I am still wearing a neck brace, and spent a week in a dark room to recover from a concussion caused by the whiplash.
Stanger comes down firmly on the importance of letting an unpopular speaker speak, and have moderation. She describes clearly what a good exchange of views might have looked like:
But for us to engage with one another as fellow human beings — even on issues where we passionately disagree — we need reason, not just emotions. Middlebury students could have learned from identifying flawed assumptions or logical shortcomings in Dr. Murray’s arguments. They could have challenged him in the Q. and A. If the ways in which his misinterpreted ideas have been weaponized precluded hearing him out, students also had the option of protesting outside, walking out of the talk or simply refusing to attend.
In reading what Stanger has to say--and I'm glad she spoke up about the experience--I hear a true moderator: Someone who need not agree with the person or panel she is moderating, but who is committed to the discussion with that person and the audience. And those are great goals for any moderator.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by evinella)

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