During the early days of the Trump administration, several venerated progressive organizations have been thrust into the spotlight because of their valuable and principled advocacy for equality and democracy. Many of these, in turn, have received stronger than usual financial support from the American people. Among these has been the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the most respected ant-racism organizations in the US. When the SPLC reveals an increase in racial violence, tracks the rise of extremism of one form on another or fights back against racist policies, people concerned about racial equality pay attention.
For this reason, perhaps we should pay attention to what the SPLC has to say about Charles Murray, who they believe to be a white nationalist. “According to Murray, the relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups.” This conclusion was reached largely, but not entirely, due to Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve.
Murray, of course, has been in the national news again recently because of events at Middlebury College in Vermont where students prevented him from speaking, disrupted his scheduled talk and injured a professor who was acting as a discussant for Murray’s talk. The coverage of this event, even outside of the conservative press, has been largely the standard finger wagging of older, largely white, writers scolding students for not being tolerant enough to let Murray speak.
Murray’s comments on what happened at Middlebury are also significant revealing yet again, the extreme sensitivity ofolder white males in a changing America. “The inmates ran the asylum last night at Middlebury…I’ve never encountered anything close to this, both in the open-ended protest — not letting me speak at all — and the ferocity.” In his comments, Murray raises the question of what America is coming too when a white supremacist can’t make a speech at college campus without being shouted down.
It is important for universities to both expose students to a range of ideas and to be an arena where scholars can discuss their ideas freely. When I was a professor I frequently invited speakers with whose views I disagreed. I have appeared on many panels with other speakers who do not share my views. This is part of the give and take of academia that is beneficial for students and scholars alike. This also has very little to do with events at Middlebury because Charles Murray is not a conservative scholar or rigorous academic thinker. He is a discredited racial theorist who, most notably in The Bell Curve, sought to tart up 19th century racist thinking with flawed methodological pyrotechnics.
Given this, the question of how students should have responded to Murray when he attempted to give his talk is a more complicated one. It is not at all obvious that students should be asked to simply sit quietly and politely when a racist, even if he happens to be affiliated with a prominent consecrative think tank, comes to campus.
The events at Middlebury are nonetheless troubling and not because Murray ultimately was not able to speak. As even Charles Murray knows, those who chanted, yelled and effectively stopped him from speaking were individuals exercising their own free speech. Part of the challenge of living in a society where there is freedom of speech is that everybody has it, not just the person at the podium. However, the events were troubling because they included threats and low level physical violence. Murray should have been able to walk off the podium and leave the event without the real fear of being hurt. Similarly, assaulting a professor whose role in this event was to lead an honest discussion is, in fact, wrong and shameful.
The events at Middlebury have led to the usual concern about the problems of the left on college campuses, but it should also lead to some discussions of the problem of the right on college campuses. Conservatives on most elite college campuses, as they never stop reminding the rest of us, are a minority. However, they rarely seem to ask why or how they should respond to that reality. The primary reason conservatives find themselves a minority is that if you subscribe to a political view that is anti-science and seems to base domestic policy more on the works of a bizarre mid-twentieth century novelist than on actual empirical data, you may not find a lot of support in communities where scholarship and research is a central value, but I have never heard a conservative student consider that possiblity.
Too frequently, this has led campus conservative groups to focus a great deal of attention not on exposing the fellow students to interesting or different ideas, but on angering and frustrating the progressive majority that exists at many of these schools. From the conservative student perspective, the progressive reaction, particularly when it turns ugly, to a speech by Charles Murray or Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, is not an unfortunate result, but the primary purpose of the event. While this may seem fun at the time, and is always good for a few stern opinion pieces from the middle-aged white guys who dominate even progressive media, it is not a strategy for persuading people, creating dialog or otherwise spreading ideas.
I am now one of those middle aged white guys and when I ask myself what I would have done in that situation when I was a student, at UC Santa Cruz, a school with its own proud progressive tradition, I think that I would have been one of those students chanting and demonstrating, but probably that is all. However, what I would or wouldn’t have done in the late Reagan years is less relevant than what I think, and hope, my older son who starts college next year, but not at Middlebury, would do in a similar situation. I would hope that he wouldn’t spend his time quietly listening to a white supremacist or any other bigot who came to campus. I would also hope that while he would read and listen to opinions that are different than his, he would make his voice heard, and eschew violence, when presented with somebody whose views were repugnant and discredited. I think that is what most of the students at Middlebury did, and that gives me some hope for the future.
Photo: cc/Gage Skidmore