The Eternally-Expanding Circle of the ‘Hateful Racists’
Alexander Riley | firstname.lastname@example.org
A not so funny thing happened at Middlebury College on March 2nd. Charles Murray, a mild-mannered fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with a PhD in Political Science from MIT and author of several best-selling books that explore inequality in American society, arrived to give an invited talk and was violently prevented from speaking by a riotous agglomeration of shouting, belligerent youth. While Murray stood patiently at the podium, these individuals, allegedly students at the college but giving no obvious evidence of their claim to this title beyond their age, drowned out his efforts to speak with a barrage of witless couplets and unfounded accusations, e.g.,:
“Charles Murray go away, racist sexist anti-gay!”
“Who is the enemy? White supremacy!”
“Your message is hatred, we cannot tolerate it!”
The placards they brandished gave more evidence of the same degree of scholarly refinement:
“F*#k white supremacy”
“Respect existence or expect resistance”
“Charles Murray is fake news”
Let us be clear: this was not a protest. It was, in the words of Bill Burger, the Vice President for Communications, “a mob,” a frightening sea of youthful faces twisted into crooked, self-righteous sneers, chanting robotically, twitching spasmodically in their raging moral superiority, looking for all the world like strangely large-bodied two year olds in the midst of a collective temper tantrum, denied the cookie and reacting by throwing themselves precipitously and limply to the ground in order to demand the attention of the adults in the room, who in this case were not present, and so the primal fit continued for a half hour. The video is online, and everyone interested in intellectual freedom on American campuses should see it in its entirety, however difficult it may be to stay the course all the way through this wretched document of the depths into which some parts of the American intellectual world have plummeted.
This was a thoroughly thuggish action, complete with assaults of both Murray (whose car was attacked as he tried to leave campus) and the Political Science professor on hand to critically question his work (the day after she was wearing a neck brace, injured by a rioter who pulled her hair). Had any of the bellowing ruffians in that horde read even a full paragraph of Murray’s work? Doubtful. I would wager that not one member of that anarchic assemblage would have been capable of accurately summarizing the essence of any of Murray’s books, nor would they have felt it important to be able to do so. And yet they were utterly assured of the meaning of intellectual work that they had not troubled to read, and of its supreme malevolence, and of the need to trample on a college’s sacred policy of protection of free expression and civil debate in order to forcibly prevent those ideas from being expressed.
Just as startling as their behavior was the absence of any effort to practically defend the college’s principles. There were no security officers in sight, and no calls were made to bring in the experts trained in the only language rioters understand. Although the mob was reminded prior to Murray’s ascension to the podium of the possible sanctions for efforts to stop him from speaking, they acted nevertheless, and with apparently complete impunity.
What could make young people so recklessly and stupidly certain of the righteousness of an action so manifestly despicable and contrary to the life of the institution in which it took place, and so seemingly certain that the authorities would not have the courage to stop or punish them?
The baleful ignorance of those shrieking at Murray had received a potent material contribution from the failure of numerous professors and administrators at Middlebury to do their own homework and adhere to the tenets of their professional calling. Some of those paid to teach did not do their jobs and thereby effectively set the benighted, belligerent tone for their students. The college president, Laurie Patton, gave introductory remarks in which she went out of her way to distance herself from Murray. She claimed to vehemently disagree with “many” of his conclusions, though these were not named, and my suspicion is that if she had been made to name them, it would have taken Murray a few minutes to demonstrate that he had not himself reached those conclusions and that the fact that she believed him to have reached them was proof that she could not possibly have carefully consulted his work before negatively caricaturing it. She repeated several times the college’s commitment to all students “regardless of race, class, sexual orientation, religious orientation, disabled status, or any other demographic marker,” and reminded them that they “all belonged [t]here,” as though Murray’s mere presence were a threat to that commitment or their belonging. Although it lukewarmly invoked the college’s policy protecting free expression and debate, Patton’s introduction, situated as it was in scarcely concealed contempt for whatever misunderstanding of Murray’s ideas she holds, can scarcely have represented to the mob any serious moral check on their illiberal intentions.
Patton, a religious scholar, can perhaps be excused for knowing nothing of substance of Murray’s work (though she should therefore have refrained from commenting on it). The same cannot be said of Sociology/Anthropology Chair Michael Sheridan, who was widely quoted in local media after a public radio interview concerning Murray’s visit. Sheridan called Murray “a scientific racist pseudo-scientist” who “is not engaging the rest of his own discipline,” whose work is “not peer-reviewed and when it does get post-publication peer review, people tend to find that it is full of claims that are not well supported, misinterpretation of data, methodological problems in how social statistics get converted into conclusions.”
I know Charles Murray’s work fairly well, having read several of his books and a significant amount he has written online. Sheridan is correct that many academic social scientists ignore his work, and some others are clearly hostile to it, but there is an ocean of important unspoken background in those points. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard or read someone in a social science discipline speak or write negatively about something he disagreed with on ideological grounds but that it was patently obvious he had not read, I could comfortably retire today. More, in my own discipline of sociology at least, it is common knowledge that there are many journals in which the vaunted process of peer review consists first and foremost of an ideological sniff test, and if your work does not pass this test, if it leads even potentially to observations or policy proposals not consonant with leftist politics, it does not matter how rigorous the analysis, how robust the data, how elegant the prose--you will not be published in that journal.
Murray produces serious research for a largely but not entirely non-scholarly audience, in popular presses that do not operate according to academic peer review, and it is true enough that this is a publication process that differs from the typical peer review process in the social sciences in a number of ways. However, the idea that this means by definition that his work is less rigorous or less subjected to intellectual criticism than the typical scholarly article published in some minor social science journal with a clear ideological tilt by someone who has colleagues/friends on the journal’s editorial board, or who can count on her submission being read by a friend simply because the sub-field is so small and insular, is risible. Murray’s work is read by far more readers, and far more professional social science readers, than will ever set eyes on the typical academic peer-reviewed social science journal article, which is initially evaluated by a mere handful and consulted even cursorily post-publication in most cases by only a slightly larger number of people. One must have absolutely no knowledge of how intellectual opinion and peer review work in much of the social sciences to say or believe what Sheridan says here, and he must know how dishonest a framing this is, unless he is wholly professionally incompetent.
Even where social science peer review works relatively rigorously and non-ideologically, one typically has to be working in the relevant sub-field to fully understand and comment knowledgeably on work in that field, and differences in theoretical or methodological orientation can produce significant difficulties for mutual comprehension even within substantive sub-fields. A quick glance at Sheridan’s own meager publication record and his areas of scholarly expertise give no reason to be confident that he is remotely capable of accurately evaluating the supposed methodological weaknesses in Murray’s work, given that he does not write or teach in any of the areas and topics with which Murray’s work deals.
Sheridan presents his personal disdain for Murray’s work (bolstered by no concrete references to any specific arguments or evidence presented by Murray) as though it were self-evident that it is uniformly shared by his colleagues. Prior to listening to Sheridan’s comments, I had never bothered to see what, if anything, is made of Murray’s work in the academic social science review journals. Within five minutes, however, I was able to find several reviews of probably Murray’s most controversial book, The Bell Curve, in the sociology journals, and none of these reviews even remotely suggested that the book was not a legitimate and intellectually respectable entry into the scholarly discussion on the subjects with which it deals. As an example, the book was reviewed in one of the most venerable such journals, the American Journal of Sociology, by an eminent scholar who, though critical of the book’s argument on numerous points (show me the wholly uncritical book review and I will show you a bad book review), nonetheless characterized it as “an effective book…well written, clearly argued, lively, engaging…a model of how to write an effective social science book aimed at a general public.”
Whence then comes Sheridan’s claim that there is broad consensus on this book and the rest of Murray’s work regarding its position outside the boundaries of respectable research? Perhaps he has heard this from colleagues and taken it as fact. But if this is the case, it would have taken him but a few minutes to check the claim before speaking publicly about it. It is unflattering to him in the extreme that he did not bother to do so, and nonetheless he did not refrain from uttering his groundless opinion as if it were established fact. Sheridan failed woefully at a basic requirement of modern intellectual life: the recognition that what you think is the right way to pursue a set of questions might not be the only legitimate way to do so, and that the fact that other researchers arrive at conclusions you do not like is not a sufficient ground for eliminating their work a priori from the conversation. While Sheridan did not call for banning Murray, he did viciously, ignorantly defame him in a manner that reveals how poorly Sheridan fulfills his intellectual responsibilities, and that provided useful cues to the members of the mob as to how to approach Murray’s appearance on campus.
Sheridan’s libelous commentary on Murray’s work was directly invoked by a group of four students who wrote an open letter, signed by more than 600 other “members of the Middlebury community,” in which they engaged in an interpretive travesty even more spectacularly dishonest than Sheridan’s. After reading of Sheridan’s mischaracterization of his work, Murray wrote a 2500 word response published by the Middlebury Campus online site the day before his visit. The four Middlebury students were apparently aware of Murray’s response, as they referenced it in their letter, but they could not conceivably have read or understood it, to judge from their bizarre characterization of the exchange. They described Murray’s detailed summary and defense of the argument in The Bell Curve on the relationship of race and IQ as “dismissive” of Sheridan’s “critique” (because it showed that the “critique” was based on fallacies?) and as constituting evidence that he “is not willing to engage in discussion about his ideas” (because…it obviously constituted an engagement in discussion about his ideas? Perhaps by “engage in discussion about his ideas,” the students mean “fully acknowledge that a malicious, mendacious ‘critique’ made in a ten minute radio interview constitutes a crushing refutation of a scholar’s lifework”?). Sheridan’s insulting “critique,” which consisted solely of ad hominem denunciation and factually incorrect categorization of Murray’s work as something all ‘respectable’ social scientists reject, is described incredibly by these students as “a gateway to productive discourse.” One scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry at such a preposterous effort at summary of this intellectually entirely one-sided exchange.
The Middlebury mob gives the lie to the assertion that is made on the left, sometimes ingenuously, sometimes with malign motivation, about the nature of campus protest of ‘hate speech.’ Aaron Hanlon, a Bucknell alum and former BUCC member, makes this claim in a recent New York Times op-ed, opining that if only conservatives would stop inviting those who “belittle” students of leftist sensibilities and extend invitations instead to those engaged in “teaching and learning,” there would be no riots such as those which took place recently at Berkeley and Middlebury, only civil if vigorous debate. Hanlon’s example of the “belittling” kind of speaker is Milo Yiannopoulos, an admittedly provocative figure made even less easily defensible by the recent revelation of his comments regarding homosexual relationships involving adult men and boys.
I knew and liked Aaron Hanlon while he was at Bucknell, and I have no reason to doubt that he goes in the category of the ingenuous defenders of this idea that students and professors with radical ideological axes to grind will naturally arrest the concept creep of their moral denunciations at speakers like Yiannopoulos. The evidence from Middlebury makes clear however that Hanlon is wrong on this point, even if he is not malicious in intent, and the mistake is important. Where has Charles Murray “belittled” those who silenced him at Middlebury, or anyone else? He has made book-length arguments, bolstered with evidence, that inequality is almost certainly a more difficult social problem to resolve than the stock leftist defenders of the Blank Slate/’everything caused by oppression and poverty’ vision of human nature would have us think (their proffered solution is simple, if limited in effect: redistribute, redistribute, redistribute, and then redistribute some more until there’s nothing left to redistribute). One can disagree with Murray’s arguments, but one can hardly reasonably see them as “belittling” individuals who are literally not described by the statistical analyses and macro-sociological data in Murray’s work. And how can one seriously charge that Murray is not dedicated to “teaching and learning,” if one can be bothered to watch any of the videos online of his many appearances at similar events at campuses and other intellectual venues? If Hanlon is correct, why are leftist student mobs now reacting to Murray in exactly the same way they reacted to Yiannopoulos?
The truth is that the circle of ‘hate speech’ is ever-expanding. As soon as one enemy is targeted and liquidated, one has to find others. If the definition must be stretched still further to find those new enemies, this is an easy matter to accomplish. There exists a whole network of zealously ideological sources that, despite the haphazard, often scandalously unscientific methods that drive the production of their ‘data,’ are uncritically accepted by many on the left as objective and non-partisan, sometimes even by college professors who should be immunized against this credulous perspective by their training. Such sources effortlessly paint potential enemies in precisely the colors required to produce riotous mobs slavering radical sanctimony and virtue signaling.
How far can the circle be expanded? Just as far as the Southern Poverty Law Center and other such regressive left organizations decide to expand it, and few seeking to dispatch enemies by labelling them as racists instead of understanding and criticizing their arguments will ever bother to inquire into the fact that such organizations count basically any individual who has e.g., been publicly critical of post-1965 American immigration policy as a de facto racist and white supremacist. The regressive left online media have, in the wake of Middlebury, giddily taken up the task of transforming Murray into a member of the Ku Klux Klan by fiat of simply referring to him over and over, with no mention of anything he has written or said, as “the racist Charles Murray.” This is what they do, and the process is undeniably effective at convincing people who cannot be bothered to think for themselves what ‘right-minded folks’ ought to believe and what they ought to do when ‘racists’ appear on their campuses.
What could the speakers who preceded Murray at the Middlebury event have conceivably said to the mob to change their minds? Perhaps nothing. The primitive emotional power of the mob can effortlessly override much rational communication. Still, I might have liked to have a shot at this. What would I have said to them? Something like this:
“I’d like you to do me a favor, before you get involved in the emotionally satisfying, sanctimonious work of shutting down the most basic function of a college. Please, calm yourselves a moment. I won’t keep you long. Just one favor, in keeping with the claim that you are students. You do say you are students, do you not? Well then. If you are students, here is some homework: go learn about the Red Guards during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China. Study how they comported themselves, how they endeavored to bring about changes they desired in Chinese educational institutions and society. Study closely, spend enough time to get a sense of their motivations and of the social and human costs of their actions. Reflect on the relationship of that action to a true understanding of the workings of the world. Got it? OK. Now watch the video of yourselves in the event you are currently creating here, once it is posted from the phones recording it to YouTube and other sites. What do you see? And who, after all, are the totalitarians?”
Fall 2016 Edition