Letter to the Editor: Don’t confuse “dissent” with “bad behavior”

Disclaimer: I am currently enrolled in Professor Montgomery’s Resource and Environmental Economics class. (Nonetheless, the contents of this letter have nothing to do with our class or class material.)

A recent Letter to the Editor published in last week’s edition of the Scarlet and Black by Vincent Kelley ’16 identified Professor Mark Montgomery, Economics as having behaved poorly by “abusing” Hofstra University professor Silvia Federici at her Center for Prairie Studies lecture.

With an almost humorous lack of self-awareness and a generous amount of hypocrisy, Kelley depicts Montgomery as some kind of lunatic, un-Grinnellian monster hell-bent on enforcing the patriarchy and inequality over Federici, as he criticizes Montgomery in the same letter for personal and condescending attacks. From there, Kelley arrives at the (thinly disguised) conclusion that political opinions which stray far from his own should not be considered a “form of academic dialogue,” and that Montgomery’s professorial opinion is somehow not an “informed debate in good faith.”

Although Kelley’s letter is an extreme example of an attempt to silence voices of dissent, we must be careful to recognize and repudiate such language and actions in the future.

Immediately in Kelley’s letter, it becomes clear that Montgomery’s behavior is not the issue at hand, it is his beliefs that Kelley has a problem with. As Kelley chides Montgomery for delivering “a condescending, paternalistic lecture,” he paints Montgomery as stupid, crazy (“… in a frenzied effort to protect his sacred neoliberal economic ideology …”) and close-minded because of what Montgomery believes (“Trapped in the prison of Market fundamentalism, Montgomery cannot even consider the idea…”).

Here’s another example: when Kelley writes that he possesses “a sense of respect, decency and an honor for civil methods of discourse,” he insinuates that Montgomery has none of those qualities, thereby failing his own test of common decency.

It’s fine and dandy to say that someone was disrespectful and should act more appropriately in the future, but Kelley misinforms the reader of his intentions by conflating his perceptions of Montgomery’s behavior with his perception of Montgomery’s beliefs, and by addressing one he eagerly leaps to discredit the other. Along the same lines, by saying that Montgomery’s manner of speaking is unwelcome at presentations, he attempts to silence Montgomery’s personal opinions, as well.

Let me be clear: I do disagree with Mr. Kelley regarding his views on economics and the market. However, even if I thought that someone was entirely misinformed, I would never call their opinion unacademic and certainly not anti-intellectual in an attempt to remove their voice from the public sphere, which is among the most basic of academic expectations. (It would be saying: “I don’t like your opinion, so I don’t want to hear it.”)  It is perfectly okay (and very “Grinnellian”) that we challenge the viewpoints of our professors and classmates, but slanderous accusations which use thinly-veiled insults and misleading language are not the way to do so.

The insinuation that Montgomery’s “behavior” (read: belief) is somehow contrary to the goals of social justice and academia in particular is also absurd and appalling. It has been said frequently about Grinnell and it bears repeating: dissent does not equal ignorance. Montgomery expresses “un-Grinnellian” world views which call into question many of the beliefs commonly held at Grinnell concerning social justice movements, but isn’t the point of learning to be challenged? Montgomery’s criticism is well-informed, and just because he disagrees does not mean that he is thereby ignorant and does not deserve to have his voice heard. Criticism reforms and enhances social justice movements, echo chambers do not.

As Kelley said, no, this is not about Mark Montgomery. This is about the lack of voices at Grinnell College who dare to speak up and raise objections or counterpoints because they are afraid of being demeaned on a personal level for doing so.

—Steve Yang ’17