let charles murray speak
On Tuesday evening, Charles Murray will speak at Indiana University. Not surprisingly, his visit has resulted in a bit of discussion on campus. A number of people have immediately wanted to protest the meeting and, like at many campuses, people want “answers.” A lot of my colleagues have acted honorably. While some have jumped to wild conclusions and recommended strong actions, most have done what scholars are supposed to do. They are asking questions, they are discussing the scholarly responses to Murray’s work, and they are organizing their own events.
Here, I want to lay out how I think about campus free speech. Basically, campus free speech is really about the ability of the owners, managers, and employees of an academic institution to discuss whatever they want in a civil environment. There is a lot of trust and tolerance built into this view of free speech. There are no boards that police campus events. There is no party that the campus represents. It is not the Indiana University of Liberals and it is not the Indiana University of Conservatives. It is simply Indiana University. Thus, if a small group of students and faculty obtain their own funding to bring in an outside speaker, so be it.
In this discussion, two important issues are raised and they deserve an answer. First, does permitting Murray to speak somehow legitimize or bring attention to “hate speech?” The answer is clearly no. Lots of ideas are taught and discussed in universities, including hateful ones, but that doesn’t legitimize them. For example, many Western Civilization classes and history classes will read Mein Kampf, in an attempt to understand national socialism and related movements.
Furthermore, it is not clear to me that Murray’s talk would even fit the definition of hate speech, which is that it is speech that “attacks” or “disparages” a minority group. His speech is about his book, Coming Apart. I have not read it, but it appears to be about the differences between working and middle class Whites. It may be right or wrong, but does not appear to be hate speech, as normally understood (“disparaging” or “attacking” remarks about an ethnic group). Finally, it would be unwise for universities to directly police speech. I rue the day that a committee of professors and students directly intervene in invited talks and seminars.
Second, people ask whether it is good or bad that conservative groups sponsor a talk. Once again, I return to the foundation of higher education. A university is not a community of liberals or conservatives. It is a community of scholars. Thus, funding – from any source – is not a problem so long as the funding is consistent with the ideals of independent scholarship. It is totally ok if a group funds scholarship that they like, so long as the student or faculty member is free to come to the conclusion they feel best reflects the evidence.
This is the standard that should be applied to liberal groups, like the Soros Foundation, or conservative groups, like the American Enterprise Institute, which often donate to campuses. In terms of the Murray talk, the faculty who helped organize the talk – some of whom I know personally – have also invited liberals, such as E.J. Dionne, and conservatives, such as a recent talk by Bill Kristol. The Murray talk seems to be consistent with inviting a fairly broad spectrum of commentators, even those who are in the opposite camp.
Finally, let me end with a discussion of the source of Murray’s notoriety. It is not Coming Apart, it is The Bell Curve. That is the book that most people are alluding to when he is accused of hate speech. In all honesty, it is the only work by Murray I have read in its entirety. I read it in the 1990s to see what all the controversy was about.
It’s a mixed bag in my view. The book’s main goal is to argue that IQ research is not a sham and that it is a variable of importance for studying life outcomes. This is actually a fair point and it is consistent with a lot of sociological practice, but not its rhetoric. For example, how many models of achievement or status control for “academic ability?” Answer: tons. In the mid-20th century, it wasn’t unusual for sociologists to have a regression with IQ in it, such as Blau and Duncan’s The American Occupational Structure. Even today, many surveys will include measurements of cognitive ability. The GSS even has a verbal test in it so the researcher can adjust for IQ.
But The Bell Curve goes farther than that and makes many dodgy claims. For example, it claims that American cities will become segregated by cognitive ability, which may or may not be true. Then, there is the very short section on group differences – including racial differences – in IQ, which should be treated with great caution. But, for me, most people skipped over the most non-sequitur claim in The Bell Curve, which is that cognitive limits should be the basis of public policy (e.g., cutting social support makes sense since it won’t change IQ and thus behavior). This strikes me as bizarre. If low IQ individuals have limited life course chances, shouldn’t they be the first to get help? Even on its own terms, The Bell Curve stretches a lot of evidence and argument to reach the authors conclusions on policy.
The bottom line is that the university should be a place of free speech, even speech that may disgust us. There is a difference between unpopular opinions or distasteful opinions and truly hateful speech. Murray says a lot of things I disagree with (e.g., his recent move to restrict migration, which is a bad policy) but he is not in the realm of the politician who incites people to violence (e.g., see Trump’s infamous “Get ’em out of here!” moment), the student who loses their temper, the student’s who physically attacked and injured a professor at Middlebury College, or the faculty member who directly calls for brute force against journalists.
Let him speak. Show up if you want to, or not. Either is fine.