By Nicholas Nerli
The Lewis & Clark community and liberal academia witnessed a disturbing, tasteless episode of protest at Christina Hoff Sommers’s speaking event at the Law School. The March 5 talk, hosted by the LC Student Chapter of the Federalist Society, evolved from a collegiate forum to a grand stage of Shakespearean drama, complete with scurrilous altercation, insulting rhetoric and humiliating behavior. Students and faculty alike experienced an event that threatened the reputation of our institution and garnered nationwide coverage. Ultimately, an atmosphere that should have attracted worthwhile scholarly debate turned to a platform for raucous, disruptive conduct of a most fantastical proportion.
Dr. Christina Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute is an author and philosopher known for her studies in gender politics, feminism and university free speech. On Twitter, Sommers has disclosed that she is a registered Democrat whose ideology leans libertarian, also stating to have once identified as a socialist. Critiques of her work have pointed to her publications on classical liberal feminism and gender feminism, often arguing that modern feminism unfairly attacks men, amplifies falsehoods about domestic violence and greatly exaggerates contemporary rape culture. Two of Sommers’s books, “The War Against Boys” and “Who Stole Feminism,” have suggested that modern culture unfairly presents men as a hateable gender and that the current feminist movement is both radical and excessively divisive. There is no doubt that Sommers defends contentious and questionable opinions, but the basis of her speech hardly permits the sort of behavior exhibited on our campus.
At LC, Sommers was scheduled to lecture on “The Closing of the Feminist Mind,” a topic she has spent much of her professional career exploring. Upon learning of her scheduled speech, several campus student groups including the Women’s Law Caucus, Black Law Student Association and LC Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild signed a scathing letter condemning the invitation of Sommers. In the letter, Sommers was labeled “a known fascist” whose work augments women’s suffering and strengthens a culture of male supremacy. However, the climax of the letter came with a demand for the LC Federalist Society to rescind its invitation for Dr. Sommers to speak.
Clearly, the signatories of this letter failed to study the word “fascism” before nonsensically slapping it onto their plea for dismissed academic discourse. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, fascism requires unequivocal support for political suppression, hostile nationalism, racism, violent force and dictatorial government. Despite defending controversial views, Sommers fails to possess any remote element of fascism. In fact, the only people at the talk attempting to suppress anything were the protesters themselves.
The LC Chapter of the Federalist Society responded strongly, crafting a letter that both critiqued the writing of the student groups and upheld its decision to host Sommers. The Society expressed hope that Sommers’s branding as a fascist was “a rash mistake,” explaining that their organization remains “firmly committed to standing for the ideals of free speech and discourse.” The reaction of the Federalist Society was both respectful and passionate, representing a mindset that is imperative to effective and progressive liberal education.
Chanting, shouting and bursts of profanity all littered the environment of Dr. Sommers’s lecture, leading to an event that was ultimately cut short. According to Sommers, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Janet Steverson approached the podium in the middle of her speech and asked her to finish without a fully developed argument. However, many accounts repudiate this interpretation of events. Instead, several maintain that Steverson asked Sommers to transition from a speech to a section of questions and answers. This shift in the lecture schedule was meant to allow for students to engage with the speaker and promote civil debate while also granting Sommers the chance to expand on her arguments.
I am embarrassed by the conduct observed on our campus. I do not deny that Sommers holds opinions that are highly controversial, but debate and ardent dialogue are the finest methods when formulating opinions, discussing sensitive subjects and breaching new realms of intellectual communication. Older generations often make the assertion that college students exist in a world where a protective liberal bubble promotes a magical fantasyland; events like this strengthen their position. If it is our generation’s responsibility to fight social and political inequality, and action must occur through purposeful and rational argumentation.