Charles Murray

Charles Murray, Free Speech, and the College Campus

No sooner had One Thing after Another posted an essay entitled “Milo Yiannopoulos, Free Speech, and the College Campus”  that Charles Murray’s encounter with protesters at Middlebury College became national news. In discussing Yiannopoulos, this blog developed various criteria that a school could use to determine which visitors are suitable to speak on a college campus. Do these ideas have any applicability to the Middlebury-Murray imbroglio?

A political scientist and sociologist currently associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Murray had been invited to Middlebury by a local student chapter of the AEI to speak about his latest work, Coming Apart: The State of White America (2012). Murray, however, is most famous (or infamous) for having co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Although the book’s claims about the relationship between intelligence and social status have inspired a great deal of criticism, it is the work’s arguments about the influence of race on intelligence that have sparked the most controversy. It is primarily for this reason that a number of students appeared at his lecture, began chanting, and prevented Murray from speaking. When it became clear that he would not be able to begin, let alone complete, his discussion, Middlebury College administrators went to Plan B, and took him to a room with an interviewer so their conversation could be live-streamed to the college community without interruption. When this interview was complete, Murray, Allison Stanger (the political science professor who interviewed Murray), and Bill Burger (VP for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer at Middlebury) were hustled out a back door by security to a waiting car. Unfortunately, a group of protesters was waiting for them. Stanger was yanked to the ground by her hair (suffering a concussion), and protesters banged and rocked the car as it inched its way out of the crowd.

Of course, news outlets, social media, and those who were there have attempted to impose a grand narrative on this incident: what happened at Middlebury College was depicted as an example of liberal intolerance, an archetypal expression of millennial snowflakery, evidence of the death of free speech on campuses, a symbol of the decline of higher education, a symptom of the college-aged generation’s inexperience in protesting, a skirmish in the battle between liberals and conservatives, a “metaphor for what is wrong with our country,” and so on. The certainty with which these interpretations are propounded contrast with the contradicting stories about just what exactly happened at Middlebury that evening. According to some, Middlebury’s administration all but abetted the protest while others (including Murray himself) argue that the administration acted in exemplary fashion. Charged by almost everybody with irresponsibility and malevolence, the students who protested have responded by claiming that some administrators (mainly Burger) along with various public safety officers engaged in “reckless and dangerous” behavior. And so it goes. Murray has made light of the situation, the protesters are unapologetic, the administration has wrung its hands (while trying to atone for an incident that has turned into a public relations disaster), and the nation seeks to project some meaning on this tempest in a teapot.

One Thing after Another would like to approach this issue from a different angle by asking if Murray should have been invited to Middlebury in the first place. After all, in discussing Milo Yiannopoulos, this blog argued that colleges have a right to bar speakers a) who were not experts in the subjects on which they were invited to speak and b) who treated their audiences without respect. And so the questions become: Is Murray an expert, and has he behaved courteously before his audiences?

Treating first things last and last things first, it would appear that the answer to the second question is a “yes.” Murray has been a regular on the college circuit and does not appear to have treated anybody with contumely. One could argue that by trafficking in racist ideas, Murray has insulted his auditors, but for a number of reasons, One Thing after Another would rather have concepts (and those who promote them) dismissed because of their wrongness, not their offensiveness.

Responding to the first question is somewhat more difficult. For one thing, this blog has argued that questions of expertise should be answered by experts, and this blog is not well versed in sociology. For another, One Thing after Another has asserted repeatedly that there are limits to what historians can and ought to do. This blog, then, hesitates to trespass upon the jurisdiction of another discipline and make definite claims about Murray’s proficiency. However, for the sake of argument, One Thing after Another will adduce certain facts that bear on the question.

The field of academic sociology seems to be either bemused by or hostile to Murray. Murray obtained a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and claims he is not a sociologist, but it is hard to describe what he does if it is not sociology. Critics find problems with his methodology, describe his fieldwork as idiosyncratic, and think his consideration of various questions somewhat blinkered. (See reviews of Coming Apart, his most influential recent work, here, here, and here. And here’s fellow conservative David Frum’s review, although, as Frum explains, he has had words with Murray.) The racism expressed in The Bell Curve (and with a copy at hand, it is quite clear to this blog that the assertions made in Chapter 13 and 14 are indeed racist), seems to be of a piece with research that is quirky and data that appear to be massaged. These problems with Murray’s published works are a function of the fact that they do not appear to have been peer reviewed. Neither The Bell Curve nor Coming Apart underwent a process that is widely considered indispensable to academic publishing. In some ways, though, this omission should not surprise us because Murray is not an academic writing for other academics; he clearly writes for a popular audience and has always enjoyed far more influence with politicians and journalists (witness the extraordinary impact of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, which played a major role in the formulation of the Welfare Reform Act of 1994).

And yet . . . a number of experts in human intelligence stood by many of Murray’s assertions in The Bell Curve. Moreover, as even critics of Murray point out, he addresses important issues that not everybody feels comfortable confronting, his work is thought-provoking, and his books compel reviewers to articulate their own ideas more clearly. Perhaps we can even find ways to exculpate Murray of some of the charges brought against him. For instance, one could argue that we all make mistakes but those mistakes do not necessarily indicate that we are mountebanks. It is possible, that instead of being some sort of fraud, Murray is a sociologist—just not a very good one partly because he allows his biases (some of them more pernicious than others) to influence his work. Should he be flogged mercilessly for erring? Perchance, Murray, as a libertarian-conservative, is judged rather harshly by academic sociology, which is dominated by progressives.

Is Murray a peddler of “pseudoscience,” or is he a social scientist at a respected think tank who makes people unhappy because he touches upon sensitive matters? One could accumulate evidence to support either finding (One Thing or Another could really use an expert here, for “Awlus a muddle,” to quote Stephen Blackpool). The interesting point here is that if one were so inclined, it would be possible to challenge Murray’s claims to expertise. And that point allows us to engage in an interesting thought experiment. Say Murray is not really an expert and should not have been invited, and say the gatekeepers of the college failed in their duty to keep him away. How should the students have acted?

Shouting down a speaker and assaulting a professor are unacceptable, and One Thing after Another is not impressed by attempts to defend the behavior of the protesting students at Middlebury. This blog’s stance on Yiannopoulos would seem to suggest that students should not engage with a guest who shouldn’t have been invited in the first place. Such a reaction would have been better than what happened at Middlebury, but it would be a bit too easy for everyone—guest and students alike. Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury, however, had a different solution. According to Dickinson’s blog:

Two days before Murray’s talk I spent my entire weekly politics luncheon discussing Murray’s research in the Bell Curve, and acquainting students with many of the critiques of his findings. My presentation was attended by a packed audience of students and local residents, and many of the students went away primed to do battle with Murray.  A few of them, drawing in part on my slide presentation, put together a pamphlet outlining five criticisms of Murray’s argument in the Bell Curve, which they placed on every seat in Wilson Hall.

In other words, Dickinson sought to prepare his students to challenge Murray. One Thing after Another believes audiences should prepare for non-experts in exactly this way (just as it should for experts). If those without expertise must come, the college community ought to make the best of the situation. Students and faculty should subject these guests to real academic scrutiny and make them understand what a true intellectual exchange really is. Maybe such guests will change their mind, maybe they will understand that no one is buying what they are selling, or maybe they will realize that they are out of their depth. Whatever the case, they might learn something. It is the best that can be hoped for if an administration fails in its task of manning the gate against charlatans. Yelling and pushing at Middlebury, however, led to lost opportunities as well as other pernicious consequences that protesters probably did not fully comprehend until later. As Dickinson points out:

Due to the actions of protesters, my students never had the opportunity to engage Murray beyond a few questions directed at him via Twitter. What’s worse, they now find themselves inaccurately characterized in media outlets as coddled, immature ‘snowflakes’ and ‘liberal fascists’ bent on promoting intolerance and hate.

And that surely does not sound like a satisfactory outcome.