He’s best known for his book, The Bell Curve, which might have mustered some mainstream scholarly interest but for its chapters 13 and 14.
It’s central point is that intelligence is a better predictor of many factors including financial income, job performance, unwed pregnancy, and crime than one’s parents’ socio-economic status or education level.
Cool enough, but then he did what, even in 1994, was an unforgivable sin. These two chapters question the role of race in intelligence.
While the authors were reported throughout the popular press as arguing that these IQ differences are genetic, they write in the introduction to Chapter 13 that “The debate about whether and how much genes and environment have to do with ethnic differences remains unresolved,” and “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.”
Some will view this as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry. The Southern Poverty Law Center, instead, put Murray on its list of racists to hate. The argument here, aside from being tenuously connected to what Murray was actually saying, was that the mere consideration of race as a factor was racist, because race can’t be a factor, because to consider it a factor would be racist. Quite the syllogism.
Murray was invited to speak by the American Enterprise Institute’s student group at Middlebury College about his 2012 book, Coming Apart. He had the support of the administration, if not personally, to speak in the face of protests. The setup was a debate with a professor of International Politics, Russell J. Leng, moderated by economics prof Allison Stanger. Things went poorly.
Protesters in the room chanted to prevent Murray from speaking. Then they pulled fire alarms, precluding the debate from proceeding. As Murray and Stanger left the building, they were blocked and attacked by students, injuring Prof. Stanger. Or, as anonymous students explained, magical bad stuff just sort of happened to Murray and Stanger, and the students were the passive victims of Murray and his entourage’s excessive use of force.
According to the school’s administration, Stanger suffered serious injury at the hands of the students.
“During this confrontation outside McCullough, one of the demonstrators pulled Prof. Stanger’s hair and twisted her neck,” the College’s Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger said.
“The protestors then violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and try to prevent it from leaving campus,” he said. “At one point a large traffic sign was thrown in front of the car. Public Safety officers were able, finally, to clear the way to allow the vehicle to leave campus.
According to the students, stuff just happened.
In recounting the events of Thursday night, it is essential to emphasize that protesters did not escalate violence and had no plan of violent physical confrontation. We do not know of any students who hurt Professor Stanger; however, we deeply regret that she was injured during the event.
A student reports that Professor Stanger’s hair was not intentionally pulled but was inadvertently caught in the chaos that Public Safety incited. It is irresponsible to imply that a protester aggressively and intentionally pulled her hair.
In the aftermath, the issue raised was, in the minds of some, very different than the question presented by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech was silenced because he was just a hateful troll, because Murray was a scholar. Even if there was a subconstitutional argument that Milo was just too disgusting to be entitled to speak, Murray was no troll, but a serious scholar.
An interesting “dialogue” followed on the twitters between The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, which clarified the view that justified the silencing of Charles Murray and the violence that followed.
- The “fetishization” of debate, no matter how unacceptable the subject.
- The failure to acknowledge that “substantive harm” can flow from debate.
In other words, there are some subjects that are so offensive, so outrageous, so unworthy, that there can be no legitimate debate or inquiry into them. Murray’s Bell Curve questioning of whether race played a role in intelligence was such a subject. It was inherently racist to raise the question, no less proffer it as a serious scholarly inquiry.
Curiously, Conor’s point wasn’t to challenge the conclusion, that intelligence is wholly unrelated to race, but to note that by debating the point, this conclusion would be borne out, and thus put to rest anyone who would harbor thoughts that there were racial differences in intelligence. Bouie saw this as Friedersdorf’s obsession with free speech, when the thesis was inherently undebatable.
But then, what was the harm of debate, even if the political and philosophical conclusion precluded any consideration of empirical inquiry? The answer was “substantive harm,” which isn’t that the mere raising of the issue hurt feelings, but that it undermined a race’s inherent self-worth. The seeds of a possibility of black racial inferiority harmed blacks and encourages others who might be inclined to believe such a thing.
So any presentation by Murray, notwithstanding that his debate at Middlebury had nothing to do with race, was unworthy of the right to be heard because Murray was notorious for engaging in an unacceptable sociological inquiry that fell beyond the fuzzy line of speech that was too awful, too unacceptable, to deserve protection. And because the idea behind Murray speaking caused substantive, if non-physical, harm, force and violence was justified to silence him.
Is Murray a white nationalist crank beneath a scholarly veneer, such that he should never be allowed to stand atop a soapbox and express a thought? Is Murray so inherently horrible, a “white nationalist” per the SPLC, that his attempt to speak justified the use of force to attack him after the speech was canceled?
The notion that Milo’s right to free speech is somehow less worthy than Murray’s, because one is just a dangerous troll while the other is, at least to some, a scholar, is itself a false distinction. But that ideas are so inherently wrong they must not be thought, or so dangerous that they must be met by violence, is where progressive intellectuals find themselves.
Bouie believes there is a line below which speech and thought are too awful to exist, and where the harm they cause justifies harm in response. To the extent there is a rationale for the illiberal silencing of ideas, he explains it. Too bad for Prof. Stanger, who was a bystander in the war against unsound ideas, even as Murray’s speech remained ungiven. Every war has collateral damage.
Update: The Middlebury student government’s response to what happened here is, shockingly, to limit invited speakers to only those who meet its approval.
The problem isn’t censorship or violence, but ideas that could have a “lasting impact” by forcing them to think.