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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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2017 at 12:17 am

9 Responses

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  1. The Bell Curve is one of the most important research projects in social science of the last 30 years. The sociology faculty in Indiana or the people writing in this blog haven’t produce anything remotely as important. So the need to justify or legitimize Murry’s scholarship (for whom exactly? for a bunch of leftists social justice PC psychopaths??) is not only ridiculous it borders on insanity.

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    PC police

    April 11, 2017 at 1:11 am

  2. “many Western Civilization classes and history classes will read Mein Kampf, in an attempt to understand national socialism and related movements.”

    True, but few of them would invite Hitler to come speak at their campus, were such a thing possible.

    (I’m not saying Murray is Hitler. But the issue isn’t whether ideas should be discussed, but whether the person holding odious ideas should be given a platform to personally spread them.)

    And as a final point, of course the students protesting his appearance on campus are exercising their own free speech rights in the same way that you argue Murray and the group that’s bringing him should be allowed to. Those free speech rights also include the right to advocate for not having him come to campus. Too many of these discussions emphasize the free speech of the speaker over the free speech of the student protestors, and I think that’s a mistake.

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    Justin

    April 11, 2017 at 3:14 am

  3. Thanks for the note, Justin – Two points: First, Hitler endorsed extreme violence against people. That is not protected speech. Second, I also support the right of students to exercise their speech rights, long as they don’t rely on force and harassment. And it is very much within the realm of free speech to question the wisdom of inviting a particular speaker.

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    fabiorojas

    April 11, 2017 at 3:19 am

  4. One of the most important elements of a democracy is actually humility: we might be wrong. It’s a deeply anti-utopian political order, for good or bad. That means that one of the most important mechanisms within a democracy is encouraging as much speech as possible. I recognize that this can do real harm but it’s, I think, a necessary evil.

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    jeffguhin

    April 11, 2017 at 3:15 pm

  5. The big non-sequitur you mention about policy is not quite represented correctly.

    “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? ”

    Murray and herrnstein argue that the hereditarian left is a niche waiting to be filled. That is, the left can use cognitive limits as one aspect to base public policy on. The authors would agree that you can make the argument, “If low IQ individuals have limited life course chances, shouldn’t they be the first to get help?”.

    There are many people who argue for something like a hereditarian left. Peter Singer delivers a wonderful book that is something like that (The Darwinian Left).

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    James

    April 11, 2017 at 10:51 pm

  6. “For example, it claims that American cities will become segregated by cognitive ability, which may or may not be true.”

    I’m wondering how you can look at Silicon Valley, NYC, DC, London, etc., and have any doubt about this…

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    Benjamin.L

    April 14, 2017 at 5:32 pm

  7. Benjamin: You are selecting on the dependent variable. Yes, *some* areas are tech/education intensive but not all. Further more, some of the examples you give are highly ambiguous. Take DC – it contains a large, highly educated workforce but it also contains a large number of low education workers as well. Like I said, “May or may not.” It’s a hypothesis to be tested not a irrefutable fact!

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    fabiorojas

    April 14, 2017 at 5:48 pm

  8. You think it’s a “non sequitur” to note that throwing social welfare money at social problems that cannot be solved by throwing social welfare money at them is kind of irrational? Interesting use of the term.

    Your insinuation in “cutting social services” is that Murray and Herrnstein are advocating that the cognitvely disadvantaged not have access to basic public programs that all other citizens do. I don’t remember them doing this. As I recall, they simply say that spending zillions of dollars on the latest fad coming out of education grad programs that guarantees you can make non-smart people smart just by having a team of highly paid specialists follow them around and ‘stimulate’ them from cradle to grave is a good way toward bankrupting the public till. The cognitively disadvantaged have the same right to need-based general welfare as any other citizen; they do not however have a ‘right’ to additional money legitimated by the hare-brained schemes of people who willfully refuse to acknowledge the sizable component of IQ that is not amenable to change by altering socialization patterns, education, culture.

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    Mesex Douia

    April 15, 2017 at 1:30 am

  9. “One of the most important elements of a democracy is actually humility: we might be wrong”

    I think this is a profound point, but as much as humility is an element of democracy, so is the need to finally act. So adding to your comment, I might say that an element of democracy is the need for people and institutions to balance the sometimes competing concerns of humility and action. When to defer, when to oppose. When to accept a large degree of powerlessness, when to demand more powerlessness for others.

    Applying this perspective to the present situation I think requires asking the question is the conservative movement that has gone on this country and is going on in this country a legitimate democratic force, or is it not? Can a self-identified liberal (like myself) identify the proper implications if it is not? If it is?

    Liked by 1 person

    Austen

    April 15, 2017 at 4:38 pm


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