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The Duke Charles Murray Walkout: Is there such a thing as a Discourse?

October 30, 2013

Just tonight, I read in The Chronicle, a Duke student-run newspaper, about a walkout staged by some undergrads at the beginning of a talk by Charles Murray, in protest of what they consider him to stand for and of the national policies he had influenced. Murray had co-authored the infamous The Bell Curve Richard J Herrnstein, with the book published in 1994, that reviews had stated as an attempt to correlate the IQ with socio-economic and racial classes (I must say this as I have not read the book). While the students who participated in the walkout did not resent Murray’s presence on campus, they claimed the need of such acts to make their voices heard. Some of Murray’s audiences who stayed put expressed disappointment with the attendees who participated in the walkout, claiming that the latter had passed on an opportunity to debate openly with Murray. However, the main organizer of the walkout, the senior Kamalakanthan, argued that the walkout was necessary given how the event was not conducive to a real debate, and that “…the walkout is sort of an attempt to turn back the relations in power that Charles Murray exerts over our bodies by using our bodies as a symbol of protest.”

Were one to scroll down the article (something not possible with the print copy from whence I have first discovered the story), you will find, well, the kind of stuff you usually encounter online, a mixture of trolls and those with a sincere desire to chime in.  Whether one actually is able to generate discursive conversations that could lead to a productive end, through a handful of comments among the haystack of rants, raves, fawns, and insults, are themselves telling of how discourse usually takes place in public space (even if this space is mediated by the digital), which was one of the reasons leading to Popular Science deciding to shut down its comments section (a move that was generative its own series of debates within the science communication and social media world).

That said, let’s return to the story at hand. In this case, the talk was student-organized with the profiled speaker giving his one hour, or perhaps more than an hour of lecture, such as the practice. Towards the end, the floor is open to the audience, and one might have, probably, about 30 minutes for Q&A, and that depends on how busy the speaker’s schedule is and the time for which they have been paid for their appearance – time is money. If the speaker is known to be a crowd-puller, the more expensive he/she will be, and it is unlikely that the organizers can keep him/her for too long. I have not attended too many talks by super-famous speakers, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered, but I have had attended sufficient number of talks, forums, symposiums, colloquiums and roundtables on campus and beyond to get an idea as to what usually transpire in such sessions. Most graduate students remain silent even in events that are suppose to get them talking (especially if the event has a huge audience with a few bold souls scrambling to get their two-pennies in). Unless one comes prepared with questions that one is determined to get answered, whatever it takes (and regardless of what the speaker is saying), or if the speaker has said something that struck such a chord that yours is the first hand up (or the first set of feet to  the mic) even before the applause has died down, the ordinary audience member usually requires time to cogitate before any ‘smart questions’ can emerge. Unless the speaker is willing to spend time actually talking to the students before or after his/her talk, the power relations that are already imbalanced from the beginning will just deepened. The very physical setting of an organized talk, with such power differentials at play, makes any form of critical engagement neigh impossible, as in any real dialog. You can ask a question and the speaker has as much right now to answer it, or to skirt around it. Unless you have the starring role as an interlocutor, respondent or interviewer, you are unlikely to have the chance to press on without hogging valuable time and appearing a douchebag.

Hence, the walkout is the loudest form of an opinion that one can form, regardless of what one might think of it. On the other hand, one might ask if it would make a difference whether they decided to walk out 5 minutes into his talk, or more than halfway through. Maybe leaving the hall half-empty in the beginning is meant to rattle the speaker by showing him their displeasure. However, it may also not be effective within the larger landscape, if only because, at the end of the day, the power of discourse lies in the hands of the likes of people such as Murray, who are considered the opinion-makers that powerful decision-makers listen to. But maybe that is not the point.

Therefore, this brings us to how the power of discourse operate within the capital market. While the advent of social media and blogs is supposed to democratize participation from other voices, allowing those without the network and access to the gatekeepers a way to make their opinions visible. But then, you are only as well-known as the readers you have. In the day before professional publications made their digital leap, a semi-professional blogger can achieve a level of fame even if he/she is blogging about the most mundane life events, if only because he/she has the novelty of writing from a different platform and to a demographics increasingly immersed in an online world. But now, even bloggers are trying to get themselves linked to established, or ‘hot’ and coming digital publications, because it spurs their social capital, and this might mean writing on topics that their new patrons would like them to write on (which brings to question the notion of intellectual freedom).

Therefore, while college and school teachers may think of their classroom as a ‘safe’ space for engaging in a multitude of conversations (or as far as the school board or the political powers-that-be allow), where their students could voice their dissent, support, and even cautious critique of an issue, the idea of the safety (though this is not completely true) is also related to impotence. The student may voice strong disagreement with a policy that almost everyone in his/her milieu does, including the policy-makers, and he/she might not be able to affect change immediately. However, if he or she is determined, he/she may be able to explore various alternatives that could command attention to his or her course. Nonetheless, that, in itself, is not an engagement with discourse. A video or blog post or whatever content it is that goes viral is not discourse. Discourse only happens when all participants are willing to commit themselves to keeping an open mind and be equal participants. Discourse is not about deciding which interlocutor has the greater value, but for each participant to contribute to creating new values through exchanges.

Are the students losing the opportunity for a discursive intervention when they walked out? Not necessarily. In fact, the walkout itself might be the starting point for discursive strategies that lays the gauntlet on everyone’s feet. How one picks that up remains to be seen, including the organization of events purported to be of an intellectual nature.

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