Phil Hanlon and moral equivalence

Dartmouth’s president Phil Hanlon has sent a message to the Dartmouth community regarding the rampage of angry, disruptive black students through Baker Library. Hanlon tells us:

On Thursday evening, Nov. 12, a large demonstration by members of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities culminated in a moment of silence in front of Dartmouth Hall. This demonstration was a powerful expression of unity in support of social justice—Dartmouth at its strongest.

I cannot say the same about events that transpired in Baker Library immediately afterward. I have heard reports of vulgar epithets, personal insults, and intimidating actions used both by students who entered the library and students who were already in the library.

We are actively investigating all reports of violations of College policy, and will enforce appropriate sanctions. Such behavior is antithetical to our values and goals as an institution. As one of the great institutions of higher learning, we are committed to the open and energetic exchange of ideas. And as Dartmouth’s citizenship pledge reminds us, we must treat each person with dignity and respect. Abusive language aimed at community members—by any group, at any time, in any place—is not acceptable.

If Hanlon really intends to enforce appropriate sanctions, that’s good news. But it’s troubling that he appears to draw a moral equivalence between the conduct of students “who entered the library” — the protesters who came to harangue, harass, and intimidate students — and those “who were already there” trying to study.

There is no such equivalence. The protesters were the aggressors; those studying were their victims regardless of whether, upon being harassed and/or assaulted, they insulted the protesters. Even in today’s environment, you cannot expect every student who is innocently studying in the library to take abuse from frenzied protesters without a response.

By sniffing that “abusive language aimed at community members by any group, at any time, in any place is not acceptable” Hanlon appears to be draining the context out of what happened in Baker, perhaps in order to pacify and/or shield the protesters. The big problem with what happened at Baker isn’t just (or mainly) abusive language; it’s the attempt to coerce students into ceasing their studies and/or joining protests. By eliding this problem, Hanlon is doing the protesters a huge and unwarranted favor.

One imagines that the protesters have countered the fully justified outrage at their thuggish behavior by alleging that some of those they confronted uttered a bad word or two at them. This, I take it, is why Hanlon emphasizes that he’s investigating “all reports of violations of College policy.”

But even if a few students who had been minding their own business responded in kind to the abuse being hurled at them by the protesters — and Hanlon certainly should not take the protesters’ word that this occurred — disciplinary action should focus on the aggressors, not their victims. A contrary approach would be morally unacceptable. It would also provide militants with an incentive to push students they disagree with into disciplining jeopardy.

Am I reading too much into Hanlon’s message? I hope so. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.