Not an Era for Apologetics: On Charles Murray
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.
The PC pundits of academia’s sacred neutrality have got it wrong over the recent Middlebury College protests against Charles Murray. Middlebury College, a self-described bastion of open-mindedness with a history of inviting polemical speakers to stretch the horizons of campus denizens’ minds, overrode student and faculty protests, jumping through hoops to bring Murray to campus to speak March 2, 2017.
A darling of the KKK, Murray infamously co-wrote the pseudoscientific genetic racist tract The Bell Curve in 1994, and works for corporate-funded non-academic alt-right industry front groups like the American Enterprise Institute. The Southern Poverty Law Center has Murray on their watchlist as a confirmed racist. Murray argues that black and Latin people as well as women have lower IQs due to deficient genetic material—not because of environmental pollution, less opportunities, systematic institutionalized discrimination, or a host of other factors historical, contingent, and mutable.
In a nutshell, the prime violence Murray commits is the fallacy of essentialism. Rather than seeing disparities as resulting from social conditions, he judges disparities as ontological, reflecting the type of stock a given race or gender “is.” The racial and gender make-up of a person determines their likelihood of contributing meaningfully to society, according to Murray. Women haven’t contributed much to civilization, on this view, based on the number of female mathematicians, scientists, and Nobel Prize winners. Blacks likewise contribute little to culture, in Murray’s view, far undercontributing per capita.
This inaccurate and ahistorical representation of groups according to a perverted notion of “big history” has the nasty side-effect of giving grist to racists’ and sexists’ mills, a manipulation of statistics to achieve a contemporary version of phrenology. The error at work in such thinking arises from taking slices of analytic data completely divorced from the conditions that gave rise to those inequalities.
Murray makes inequality not the result, but the cause. He seems to be oblivious to centuries of systematic discrimination that has led to the institutionalized exclusion of these groups from the sort of education and opportunities valued by what bell hooks calls the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.
In a certain light, Murray is simply describing the outcome of millennia of suppression of women, 500 years of active Eurocentric colonialism, and the fallout of the slave trade. Even if one were to agree with his results, instead of calling for institutional recompense of these heinous inequalities via recognition and redistribution, he instead gaily legitimizes the very violence and bigotry that created the circumstances he describes.
Instead of contextualizing his claim that Blacks and Women have contributed less to culture than white men in the last hundred years as a result of a rigged system, Murray hypostatizes and abstracts intelligence tests, making genetic arguments based on IQ. This IQ reductionism, as if IQ tests actually measured the worth of a person, and weren’t created by rich white men testing people like them, renders salvation or damnation depending on the ethnic group or sex of the test taker.
Academically-couched vitriol is disempowering. Even if the results were true (which they’re not), there would be no social good gained presenting them in such a hauntingly deterministic manner, especially as we know from research on social identity threat by Claude Steele and others that many of these perceived differences in “scores” are overcome once identity threat is neutralized and members of discriminated groups are relieved from the Atlas-like burden when stereotypes force their performance to reflect the capacities of their group. Instead of offering individuals methods and techniques to overcome institutionalized bigotry and changing systems of oppression to benefit those who have historically had the cards stacked against them, Murray’s approach doubles down and constructs a self-fulfilling prophecy ignoring the historical perversions of classist, racist, sexist, chauvinist societies.
While the heartlessness of prejudice may be a genetic defect itself in the occasional individual, what is unconscionable is the complicity of the (neo)liberal academy. Past University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin system president Robert O’Neill, for example, in Inside Higher Ed blames the boogieman of the black bloc responsible for the “angry mob” that refused Murray’s address. O’Neill is bewildered “why so few of the rank-and-file Middlebury students resisted or were even indifferent as essentially an angry mob turned their backs on the speaker and continue[d] to shout and jeer.” He also is astonished that faculty involvement in the event was “limited if not absent.” O’Neill’s authoritarian answer to such a debacle is a “strong elected student government” that presumably would minimize turmoil, and he calls for increased security for incendiary speakers. I’ll spare you the more reactionary, violent responses in major news media.
But even nominally progressive organs such as The Nation have towed the PC clueless free speech line. Robert George and Cornel West’s more carefully-worded petition in response to the Middlebury Affair has been eagerly misinterpreted and taken to fan the obligatory flag-waving of what has become the empty signifier of spree speech, rather than civically-oriented free speech. Middlebury professor Linus Owens is one of the very few voices responding to this debacle venturing to tiptoe outside the relationally-deracinated party line.
Ironically, in defending hate speech, these academics implicitly favor violence: for the protesting students and academic community repeatedly stated a strong “no” that bureaucrat after bureaucrat refused to hear, and continue to block out. No wonder the deafness of administrators forced students to raise the volume of their protest.
Refusing to respect the wisdom of people who do not wish hate speech in their own backyard is a type of violence. Refusing to discuss other notions of what hate speech may mean—notions that you may not initially subscribe to—is a form of domination.
Philosophers and other thinking people distinguish between well-meaning speech working for the betterment of all, and speech that incites crimes against others based on their race, ethnicity, culture, religion, gender or any other attributed, constructed category. (Politicians or media personalities inciting ill people to assassinate abortion doctors ought to be tried.) The irony of academia’s new-found respect for anything-goes policies of public discourse is that the same right-wing voices crying discrimination in this case argue for authoritarian libel laws allowing them to sue journalists legitimately pointing out their unabashed lies. These are the same voices hell-bent on stripping the poor, women, and non-whites of basic social goods like healthcare and the ability to decide what they wish to do with their own bodies. What appears absent from the conversation is the simple yet incontrovertible fact that not all speech is created equal.
Content matters. Those who abuse their power and privilege to blast hate speech designed to degenerate social cohesion and understanding are ill-deserving of the bullhorn we bestow upon them. Language is our responsibility to yoke to the social good—honoring plurality and diversity rather than dismissing and destroying those who do not fit the monolithic imaginaries of the white, privileged Vitruvian Man. Universities give lip service to taking seriously the gravity of words, so they must take responsibility for their complicity in knowingly propagating dangerous memes that lead to fractious sectarian violence.
Bureaucrats’ and academics’ denial that words matter belies their out-of-touch sterility vis-à-vis their less-sheltered neighbors. Some speech can be calculated to bring about repugnant, divisive discord, entrenching prejudices and distortions—Murray’s for example. Other forms of speech can become torrential forces for turning the tide against ignorance and backwardness, and inspire nobility in people; Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” address comes to mind. The two types of speech diverge, above all, in purpose.
We ignore at our own peril the fact that epistemologies bring along their own ethical implications and political fallout. Scientific quibbles we can discuss. Differing opinions regarding a societal problem, fair game. Yet, it is doublespeak to deny that problems of inequality even exist and frame those institutionally marginalized as troublemakers when they make domination visible. There is nothing democratic about throwing the majority of the polity under the bus. When Murray, his cronies, and his apologists learn to treat all people with respect, and humble themselves in the truth that they are no better than any other human being, only then will giving them a platform in our own home to say their piece be warranted.