A Fustian Bargain: Your Speech For His Feelz

At the totally not-fake-news site, Slate, University of Chicago senior Osita Nwanevu argues that it’s not at all outrageous to stamp out bigoted speech under the catchy headline, The Kids Are Right. His post is directed at the campus attack on Charles Murray, a cause he deems unquestionably righteous.

Charles Murray, an author and political scientist, was scheduled to give a lecture at Middlebury College earlier this month. Murray is best known for co-authoring The Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 in which he argued that blacks are less intelligent than white people. On March 2, a mix of students and “outside agitators” shut down Murray’s talk and forced him off campus. A professor was injured and hospitalized, and Murray’s car was mobbed.

Putting aside that Nwanevu apparently never read The Bell Curve, since that wasn’t what Murray “argued” at all, his embrace of the pop culture notion that it’s good enough to believe things for them to become “true facts” rather than “fake facts” suffices to hit his stride.

The fact that the research Murray has endorsed is regularly deployed by racists to argue that the education of black students is futile went unacknowledged. And in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that the incident reflected the “dangerous safety” of higher education and endorsed the view that Murray’s critics can only learn he is wrong via engagement with his ideas. The millions who’ve found good reason to reject the notion of black inferiority without even an awareness of Charles Murray’s existence evidently have yet to be truly educated on the subject.

Of course, that’s one argument, despite the effort to construct a strawman of it being the only argument. But while he has the time to write this post, it’s not as if “critics” have nothing better to do than address efforts to silence Murray.

The veteran critics on and off campus, like the rest of us, are a bit preoccupied. As you may have heard, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States.

And then comes the Gertruding:

This is not a call for the criminalization of speech in the United States. It seems probable that the stringent protections for speech afforded Americans by the First Amendment have created a uniquely open public sphere that yields unique benefits to our discourse. But the argument that politically correct standards of etiquette or speech restrictions on campus are delirious, unprecedented absurdities that will set us on a slow, steady path toward the snuffing out of free society is unhinged.

And finally the flowery, if tendentious, conclusion:

But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November. The cost has been an erosion of our national character that we will be powerless to stop unless we fight prejudice wherever it lies.

The critics of political correctness have argued that shutting down certain conversations may bear political costs and alienate potential allies. This is a certainty. Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change. This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing. In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?

While the post may be unduly flowery, jargon-filled and far too long, there is a message to be considered within the conflation of morality and logic. Nwanevu fails to offer any clear and concise rationale for why it’s not merely right, but moral, to silence anyone who doesn’t share his values because he disputes the efficacy of the marketplace of ideas. In other words, if Murray was to speak, people might wrongfully listen and be persuaded.

Beneath this fear is a truth: Nwanevu is right and anyone who disputes that is wrong. There are myriad names for such people, none flattering, but the upshot is that he possesses the certainty of the religious zealot this his god is the one true god, and so no other gods can be suffered.

On the one hand, it’s not an entirely crazy thought. His core complaint with Murray, even though misguided as his understanding of Murray has been shaped by simplistic misinformation, is that blacks are genetically less intelligent. As a young black man, of obvious intelligence, it’s completely understandable that this would be an intolerable assertion. No reasonable person could take issue with Nwanevu’s rejection of this as an assertion worthy of discussion.

Putting aside that Murray didn’t make that assertion, but rather went where the evidence took him without characterizing it as a genetic racial flaw, the upshot of this complaint is that racists will seize upon such notions to bolster their racist views. And Nwanevu is right. They will.

But none of this is the point, any more than whether a racist view belongs in the marketplace of ideas, or whether it will prevail. The point is that no one, not Nwanevu nor I nor you, owns the ability to dictate which ideas will prevail. As it happens, I share his belief that racial genetics have no place in a discussion of innate intelligence, even if I don’t share his preference in rhetorical flourishes. I’ve stated my views here many times and in many ways, and others have challenged them.

Yet, silencing Murray or anyone else persuades no one of anything except that Nwanevu is too close-minded, too absolute, too narcissistic to grasp that his values cannot dictate the thoughts of others. There are many ideas held by otherwise sentient people that are repugnant. There always will be. Just as my ideas, and Nwanevu’s, may be repugnant to others.

Screaming for silence won’t change them. Denying Murray (a bad example for Nwanevu’s position) a platform won’t make ideas disappear. And just because Nwanevu adores his own thought so much that no one else’s are worthy of consideration doesn’t make him the speech-ruler of the universe. And it never will.

As much as the traumatic election of Donald Trump proves to someone who believes as Nwanevu does that there is a disease in the public discourse that must be stopped, there is a message there as well that he can’t hear through the voices in his own head. The marketplace of ideas doesn’t always value yours as highly as others. To ignore this is why we have Trump. To ignore this is why the ideas that are absolute truths to Nwanevu have failed to sell.

It’s not about letting Murray speak so that others will decide he’s wrong. It’s that others may have ideas that don’t conform to yours and may well give you pause to rethink your religion. You may be right. You may be wrong. You may be right, but not as right as you think you are. Other people’s values matter too.


22 thoughts on “A Fustian Bargain: Your Speech For His Feelz

  1. Fyodor

    Even if you’re sure that you’re right and they’re wrong, do you really want to trust that the other side won’t have their own mob? Is it your experience with mobs that they’re super-discerning about who is right and who is wrong?

    1. SHG Post author

      Does the potential of an antagonistic mob (which, of course, can be a very real threat) provide much of a principled basis for decision making?

      1. Fyodor

        I think that it’s the starting point for a lot of people’s understandings about universal rights. Do you want to trust that there won’t be a mob or policeman or government official that wants to shut up your views or views you like? Even if you *know* that the guy Scott is defending is guilty, don’t you want there to be due process so if you or your family is arrested falsely you fight it?

        1. SHG Post author

          You can see it because you look further than the surface to appreciate the consequences. Most people don’t. Fewer today than ever.

  2. DaveL

    Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change.

    The Spanish Inquisition certainly thought so, also the House Un-American Activities Committee.

  3. Jeffrey Gamso

    I’ve always thought that if, as Holmes wrote, “the theory of Constitution” is “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” [and yes, I know that’s not the whole quote], then the theory is wrong. It’s never seemed obvious to me that open and robust discussion and debate will likely get to truth winning out (whatever truth might be and whatever winning out might look like).

    Hell, I do criminal appeals. As I’ve said to colleagues more than once lately, “I think I’m right, but that’s not the same as expecting the court to rule my way.”

    So be it.

    Rather, I’ve always taken the position that free speech (and free thought – they seem ineluctably to go together and enhance each other) is itself an absolute virtue. A virtue not for the Holmesian instrumentalist reason but on its own terms.

    1. SHG Post author

      Obviously, he sees no particular virtue in free ideas in the first place. Let him close his argument to the court with, “And this court should refuse to allow the prosecution to argue as it’s wrong and merely provides a platform for it to spew its wrongful ideas.”

      1. Jacob G

        Is that not how courts work?
        I was always under the impression that the side of #Justice got to say “neener neener” and that was it. What are the suits, ties, and robes if not kabuki theater?

    1. SHG Post author

      Damn. That’s kind of a major screw up on my part, since the second link was to the underlying post. Now fixed. Thanks.

  4. B. McLeod

    So, this guy appears to be suggesting that “politically correct standards of etiquette or speech restrictions on campus” equates to “physically attacking anyone who may ever have said something you don’t like and anyone else who happens to be with him.” If he really thinks that should be acceptable, he should call it what it is, instead of trying to dress it up as some kind of “etiquette.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Without the vagaries and conflations, not even the jargon could save the argument from the laugh test.


    SHG, I just read the young man’s post. Despite, as you say, the overly long nature of the post, he is an excellent writer. I was particularly impressed with his use of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale as rhetorical jujutsu. In short, the kid’s got talent–and that is a refreshing change from what we see and hear from about 99% of the feelz folk. All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      His writing was remarkably good. His reasoning, not so much. Whether this is a deficit or he’s so locked into his beliefs, I can’t say. It’s just a shame to see good writing squandered on bad thought.

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