On March 2nd, the conservative social scientist Charles Murray was invited by a student group to speak at Middlebury College, a private liberal-arts institution in Vermont. In response to the controversial author’s speaking event, students filled the venue, chanting in protest. Unable to be heard over the din, Murray and Dr. Allison Stranger, a liberal professor who had been asked to moderate the discussion, left to an undisclosed location to live-stream their conversation instead. After finishing their streamed dialogue and leaving the second venue, however, the two were found by a large group of protesting students, and during the course of the ensuing interaction, someone pulled the professor’s hair. Once in Murray and Strange got into a vehicle, students surrounded it and shook the car, resulting in the professor getting whiplash and a concussion. Setting aside the rowdiness of the protest, at the heart of the matter is the issue of free speech and its place on campus environments. Media of nearly every political bent has since used the incident to demonstrate the dangers of unchecked student activism and to paint universities as bastions of liberal brain-washing that threaten our democracy.
Have left-leaning students, as journalist Andrew Sullivan would have us believe, become so enamored with the “religion of intersectionality” that they are simply unwilling to tolerate a lively intellectual debate? Just what was it about Charles Murray that so enraged the students and prompted their ‘anti-intellectual’ dissent anyways?
Charles Murray, as it happens, is most well-known for co-authoring a book that flagrantly advocates for eugenics. The official summary of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) reads as follows:
“Breaking new ground and old taboos, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray tell the story of a society in transformation. At the top, a cognitive elite is forming in which the passkey to the best schools and the best jobs is no longer social background but high intelligence. At the bottom, the common denominator of the underclass is increasingly low intelligence rather than racial or social disadvantage. The Bell Curve describes the state of scientific knowledge about questions that have been on people’s minds for years but have been considered too sensitive to talk about openly — among them, IQ’s relationship to crime, unemployment, welfare, child neglect, poverty, and illegitimacy; ethnic differences in intelligence; trends in fertility among women of different levels of intelligence; and what policy can do — and cannot do — to compensate for differences in intelligence.”
So yes, there’s a whole chapter with charts and graphs and scientific “data” that explains how Black people have inferior intellectual capabilities, as proven by IQ tests (which Murray places a great deal of faith in when they are “properly administered” (1994, p. 315)). Murray’s more recent work, Coming Apart (2012), eschews racism in favor of classism, asserting that the white working class has become increasingly distant from the “founding virtues of civic life” (NY Times). The mostly white upper class, on the other hand, has become an aristocracy of inherited intelligence – a class of mostly liberal people who adhere more closely to the “founding American virtues” – they don’t have babies out of wedlock, they spend more time parenting their children, they work harder, they don’t commit crimes, and so on. At any rate, if you’re not wealthy, college-educated, and white, you have either culturally conditioned inadequacies or genetically inherited inadequacies – but either way, the sharp stratification of American society is understood as a reflection of the superiority of the “cognitive elite,” and the overarching myth of America as the great meritocracy is left untouched.
OK, so Murray’s ideas are odious and horrific, but this is a democracy, and we all have the right to free speech, correct? Shouldn’t universities, supposed to be at the forefront of intellectual freedom, be protecting this right at all costs? Indeed, this is has been the dominant message from all sides. The liberal and centrist media and several notable public figures have since decried the Middlebury students’ protest, arguing that ‘free expression’ is sacrosanct, a right so fundamental to our national identity as to elicit support across party lines. As liberal public intellectual Cornel West and conservative legal scholar Robert P. George declared in a joint statement, “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.”
This perspective, however, as pointed about by a recent article in the Outline, is steeped in Enlightenment-era ideals of personal liberty, and assumes that all ideas and all speakers are on an even playing field – essentially erasing the contexts, histories, and identities of all parties involved. Like our own university’s assertion that Brother Dean’s right to stand on campus and tell women they deserve to be raped must be protected under the First Amendment, this reaction to the Middlebury incident epitomizes modern liberalism.
According to Charles Mills (2008), liberalism is the foundation for both contemporary left and right-wing thought, an unquestioned premise that is “globally triumphant” (p. 1380). Very generally, liberalism as it is used here refers to a school of thought that values rationality and individual rights over the health and well-being of society as a whole.
In other words, from the standpoint of liberalism, Murray’s individual right to free speech is more important than the consequences of his scholarship for the rest of humanity. Liberalism abstracts and renders equal all kinds of speech, irrespective of deeply entrenched asymmetries of power that can differentially structure discourse, and erasing the fact that perpetuating White supremacy, even if is “only” done discursively, has material implications for people of color.
Charles Murray’s inimical scholarship dusts off old ideas of biological racism and eugenics, breathing new life into an effort to use science to “prove” that people of color are inherently inferior (and, more recently, that poor people are genetically deficient as well). In case anyone has forgotten, this is the “science” that has been used to justify all manner of violence, from slavery, to colonialism, to genocide. Trotting out such ideas in a university setting, even if one’s intent is to “critically challenge” the scholarship, is dangerous because it serves to legitimize those ideas; if nothing else, it means that they are still up for debate.
Mills argues that the unstated logic that has structured hegemonic liberalism since the inception of the modern era is racial liberalism, a theory that relegates people of color to an inferior status, and reserves full personhood for white men. Within racial liberalism then, rights and prescriptions for justice are not in actuality neutral or universal, but rather qualified and color-coded (Mills, 2008). As Mills (2008) so astutely points out, the very people who served as key figures in the liberal tradition (e.g., Locke and Kant), those who famously declared that men are by nature free and equal, were also the same white men who invested in African slavery and were purveyors of scientific racism. And so, as Mills argues, though liberalism nominally proclaims equality for all and declares itself colorblind, such equality has been substantively denied, in a systematic fashion, to people of color. This contradiction between theory and reality, so gracefully elided by philosophers, politicians, and the official authors of history, is liberalism’s dark side. And it has been there all along.
Perhaps, as Mills suggests, the solution is not to reject the ideals of liberalism – justice, equality, freedom – but rather to fully acknowledge their unsatisfactory implementation, to frame our sociopolitical paradigm as resting upon an ontology of racialized domination and exclusion, rather than an idealized abstraction of inclusive egalitarianism. From this perspective, Charles Murray’s presence as an invited speaker to a college campus would be recognized as an act of white domination. His speech could perhaps be deemed hate-speech. Rather than lionizing non-partisanship, neutrality, and individual rights, perhaps an understanding of the mechanisms of domination would mean that the health and well-being of the collective would be prioritized over a single individual’s right to publicly proclaim the natural inferiority of oppressed peoples. And maybe, just maybe, rather than protecting the rights of a modern-day eugenicist, universities would be called upon to protect the rights of their students, who don’t deserve have their very humanity called into question by white supremacist “scientists.”
Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. A. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
Mills, C.W. (2008). Racial Liberalism. PMLA, 123 (5), 1380-1397.
Nichols, A. (2017, March 15). Protesting Racists is as American as Free Speech. Retrieved from https://theoutline.com/post/1230/protesting-racists-is-as-american-as-free-speech