This is the conversation that began it all, assuming the cynical voice in my head is telling the truth:
Student A: Charles Murray is going to speak here and he’s a racist!
Student B: Oh my god, that’s awful. We can’t let that happen! We must stop him before he normalizes racism! Who’s Charles Murray?
Student A: He’s a racist! Everybody says so. He says blacks are genetically intellectually inferior.
Student B: Such hate speech! Where did he say that?
Student A: In a book called “The Bell Curve.”
Student B: That’s horrifying. Did you read it?
Student A: Are you kidding? I would never read that racist’s filth.
Student B: Oh, absolutely. It’s our privileged duty to stop this racist.
Student A: So you’ll come out and protest, burn down the auditorium if we have to so that this racist can’t spread his hate speech?
Student B: Of course! If I can find something black that’s cute. It’s so exhausting finding just the right outfit to wear to a riot.
A simple study, using the text of Charles Murray’s talk, stripped of his name, ended up showing that he was, at worst, spreading ideas that were deemed “moderate.” Not moderate by shitlord racist standards, but by the standards of academics.
American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Still, the 57 professors who responded to our request gave Mr. Murray’s talk an average score of 5.05, or “middle of the road.” Some professors said that they judged the speech to be liberal or left-leaning because it addressed issues like poverty and incarceration, or because it discussed social change in terms of economic forces rather than morality. Others suggested that they detected a hint of discontent with the fact that Donald Trump was elected president. No one raised concerns that the material was contentious, dangerous or otherwise worthy of censure.
The characterization of college professors as “overwhelmingly liberal” is disputable. The old-school notion of liberal is now on the conservative side of the spectrum, as the left of center has been taken over by progressive thought. Progressives are anything but liberal, a detail often overlooked or ignored in heated political rhetoric. But I digress.
That the talk produced an average score of 5.05 on the sphincter scale, given the campus climate and polity, makes it about as banal as possible. Perhaps it was too boring, too uncontroversial, to be worthy of interest? Perhaps it would be worthy of criticism for lacking the radical passion demanded by students today? But unworthy of protest. And certainly not violence.
If only they had stopped to listen before lighting fires. If only they had endured the exhausting task of reading Murray before deciding that he was too evil to exist. If only they thought before they felt with the absolute certainty that characterizes the morally righteous and intellectually vapid youth.
The experiment was repeated, this time with Murray’s name attached.
We also sent the transcript to a group of 70 college professors who were told that the speech was by Mr. Murray. The 44 who responded gave it an average rating of 5.77. That score is significantly more conservative, statistically speaking, than the rating given by the professors unaware of the author’s identity (suggesting that knowing Mr. Murray was the author colored the evaluation of the content). Even still, 5.77 is not too far from “middle of the road.”
It’s hardly surprising that the name of a “famous racist” would skew perception about his words. What is surprising, maybe even shocking, is that the profs still rated him within the parameters of “middle of the road.” What it suggests is that information, even presented to people who read it through a biased lens, softens the hatred that ignorance bolsters.
Our data-gathering exercise suggests that Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative. It is not obvious, to put it mildly, that Middlebury students and faculty had a moral obligation to prevent Mr. Murray from airing these views in public.
Notably, the duty isn’t cast in terms of free speech, or academic freedom. It’s not about intellectual diversity or even intellectual honesty. No, it’s a “moral obligation.” This is telling when applied to pedagogy, as earlier noted:
Some professors said that they judged the speech to be liberal or left-leaning because it addressed issues like poverty and incarceration, or because it discussed social change in terms of economic forces rather than morality.
There are very different approaches to questions of social change. Some involve thought, reason, logic. One might hope that would be the approach favored by academics, those charged with being the stewards of intellectual disciplines, responsible for passing the knowledge gained over the past to the next generation.
Much as I might prefer this be characterized as a matter of intellectual integrity, homey don’t play that. Casting it as a “moral obligation” speaks to the language of the Academy, the language of social justice. While students of philosophy might argue that morality isn’t a vagary to them, it is to a generation that has wrapped its beliefs up in the pretty bow of mindless social justice.
Was this all a big mistake, a misguided effort to silence a scholar whose ideas were misunderstood by people who couldn’t bother to learn them, who were too blind to understand them? Probably not, from the point of view of the social justice warrior. Just as it doesn’t matter if a “survivor” of sexual assault was actually assaulted or created a complete lie, it produces no epiphany, no contrition. It just defaults to the next level of emotional excuse, since at least it “starts a conversation” we simply must have. Because we must.
Not everyone deserves to get to speak at a college campus. But those like Mr. Murray who use reasoned, evidence-based approaches to investigate matters of scholarly concern shouldn’t be forcibly silenced after they have been invited to do so.
Too bad this does nothing to inform professors or students where the “moral obligation” draws the line. After all, everybody knew Murray was a racist.