Middlebury's McCardell Bicentennial Hall / PenelopeIsMe - Wikimedia Commons

An update on a topic I return to periodically—speech, political conflict, and the intellectual climate on American college campuses. The past two years have seen repeated conflagrations over these issues, with free-speech rights and the critical exchange of ideas pitted against such prevalent campus concepts as hate speech, microaggressions, and the safe space. (Anyone interested in tracking back can read my take on “The Coddling of the American Mind”; the Halloween costume controversy at Yale; campus speech codes and the disinvited rap artist; and censorship at the Wesleyan University newspaper.)

The latest eruption occurred last week at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where the controversial sociologist Charles Murray was invited by a conservative student organization to discuss his work. Murray is notorious for his 1994 book (co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein), The Bell Curve, which summoned a massive array of data to argue that individual human intelligence is largely inherited, and that those who measure low on the IQ scale are bound to languish in American society, no matter how government might try to intervene. The book was excoriated for its perceived racist implications, and Murray himself widely criticized for having manipulated his data to fit his thesis.

Ever since The Bell Curve, Murray’s speaking appearances at colleges have sparked protests. But his reception at Middlebury registered a significant uptick in both the type and the intensity of protest. First, a crowd in the auditorium prevented Murray from speaking by chanting slogans, until college administrators decided to relocate him and his discussant, political science professor Allison Stanger, to a private room, for a conversation that would be live-streamed to whoever wished to watch. Once protesters ferreted out where this interview was occurring, they tried to disrupt it; failing, they resorted to physically bullying Murray and assorted Middlebury staff on their way out. In the process, Stanger sustained injuries that included a concussion. The mob then followed the group to a nearby restaurant and forced them to retreat from there and find a spot well out of town.

The events elicited a public letter from Middlebury President Laurie Patton, who condemned “the clear violations of Middlebury College policy” and apologized “to everyone who came in good faith to participate in a serious discussion, and particularly to Murray and Stanger for the way they were treated during the event and, especially, afterward.” To get a feel for how it all played out, you can check out a 40-minute video made by a student attending the Murray talk. At the start we see Patton, in her prefatory remarks, walking the tightrope between defending speech and placating student sentiment—insisting that “we welcome the challenging argument,” even as she invites any students “who might wish to exercise their right to non-disruptive protest” to do so (“to them I say, Please do”).

Where to draw the line? The default bias at a university has to be way in the direction of allowing speech

Oops! The protest that follows is anything but. There’s a party-like atmosphere, replete with laughing jeers and catcalls as two business-suited young Republicans make introductory remarks lauding Middlebury as “a place of freedom of speech and of the mind.”  (“Yeah, HATE speech!” a student calls out.) Murray comes to the stage, amid a cascade of boos. En masse, students stand, turn their backs, and start reading in unison a prepared statement. There follows round after round of rowdy chanting: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” and “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray GO AWAY!” and finally “Shut him down! Shut him down! Shut him down!” Eventually Professor Stanger comes out, informs the crowd that she has prepared tough questions for Murray, and pleads with students to yield. No luck. “You’re not going to let us speak,” she says. “I think that’s a terrible shame.”

I do, too. But let’s pause for some fundamental questions. Does hate speech exist? Of course it does. Are there reasonable and necessary limits to what should be given a hearing at a university?  Sure. Invite a speaker who advocates genocide, and defenders of his right to speak would dwindle to a handful of neo-Nazis and hardcore free-speech absolutists.

So the question is, where to draw the line? In my view, the default bias at a university has to be way in the direction of allowing speech, and the bar for what qualifies as hate speech has to be really high.

Does Murray qualify? A few days before the event, the Middlebury student paper published a letter, signed by hundreds of alumni, that answered a resounding “Yes,” and argued that Murray should not be allowed to speak. Essentially the letter dismisses the issue of freedom of speech by defining Murray’s work as something other than speech. It asserts that his writings are white supremacy hidden behind “a thin veneer of quantitative rhetoric and academic authority,” identifies them with “the same thinking that motivates eugenics and the genocidal white supremacist ideologies which are enjoying a popular resurgence under the new presidential administration,” and concludes that “[h]is invitation to campus, then, is not an educational opportunity, but a threat... that directly endangers members of the community.”

Really? Is Murray so brazenly incendiary, so unquestionably beyond the pale, that no reasonable person could consider his views anything but hate speech? There’s considerable  evidence to the contrary. Consider the treatment of Murray over the years by the New York Times. Columnist David Brooks declared Coming Apart the most important book of 2012, confessing that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society.” A review of the book by Jennifer Schuessler implicitly praised Murray’s decision to make outreach to blue-collar realities from the comfortable enclave of upper-middle-class life. And a second Times review, by political reporter Nicholas Confessore, sums up approvingly the thesis of the book: “Our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class.”

These reviews put forth plenty of criticisms. Confessore calls Murray’s method “highly idiosyncratic,” and criticizes his emphasis on cultural values without regard to structures of economic inequality and insecurity. But these are routine criticisms, and nothing in these reviews in America’s premier liberal newspaper suggests that Murray’s work is or should be beyond consideration. The original Times review of The Bell Curve, by Malcolm W. Browne (famed, by the way, for his 1963 photograph of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk in Vietnam), while calling the racial implications of Murray’s work “unpalatable,” acknowledged that Murray scored points: “The Bell Curve makes a strong case that America's population is becoming dangerously polarized between a smart, rich, educated elite and a population of unintelligent, poor and uneducated people. The authors deplore this polarization, which, they feel, has begun to manifest itself in the polarization of the nation's services.”

I’m no Charles Murray fan. His books reflect a lifelong effort to bolster certain mythic pillars of conservatism—exalting the classic bourgeois values of hard-work and self-reliance—while pushing the Reagan-era notion that government is the problem, not the solution. To that effort he brings a dash of populist antipathy toward the American meritocracy, of the opportunistic type exemplified by our current President. But there’s no doubt that Murray has contributed to the national political and policy conversation in the past three decades; his invention of the term “cognitive elite” alone gets him a place at the table. And the thesis of blue-collar disaffection highlighted in Coming Apart —published in 2012—anticipated the rise of Trump in a way that surely merits attention.

In short, Murray is no Goebbels. He’s a stock-in-trade conservative sprinkled with Trumpian pseudo-populism and more than a touch of the charlatan. How is it possibly in the interests of a university to prevent such a person from speaking—and especially via intimidation?

The live-streamed interview that Middlebury eventually managed to conduct is frankly hallucinatory. Students found out where it was happening, and the exchange, in which Murray mildly explicates his critique of the meritocratic elite that is the core argument of Coming Apart—what he calls “the demoralization and deterioration” of working-class life and “the problems associated with the new upper class”—is continually interrupted by fire alarms and the sounds of angry people shouting and pounding on the walls. It’s pretty awful; the intimidation is palpable. At one point Murray breaks off and asks Stanger, “What am I saying that requires me to be shut up?”

You can listen to the interview and judge for yourself. To my mind, one of the unfortunate side effects of the events of last week was to make Murray (who later wrote a detailed account of the night) sound like the epitome of reasonableness. As for Professor Stanger, her lengthy and anguished Facebook account of the evening describes being beset by a threatening crowd and says, flatly, “I feared for my life.” She describes

what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange, but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair-pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen, and they were stranded outside the doors. I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me.

It didn’t have to be that way. And it shouldn’t be that way. When I was in college, some conservative columnist (I can’t remember his name, only that he was widely syndicated at the time) came to give a talk. I can’t even remember what the subject was. All I remember is that after he spoke, Henry Steele Commager—a renowned mid-century liberal historian and an elder statesman of the Amherst faculty—took the guy on, and piece by piece dismantled him. The crowd loved it.

In 2012, after Coming Apart was published, the invaluable Thomas B. Edsall of the Times put together an omnibus overview of Murray’s career and its reception. Edsall provides many links to related texts, sums up what he calls the “exuberant praise and brutal criticism” the new work elicited, and goes on to offer his own perceptive critique and dissent. This one article contains enough information for a mini-course on Murray, his meaning, and his impact. I view it as the essence of what teaching is and does. Clarify, contextualize, criticize. It is the opposite of shouting someone off a podium.

A place like Middlebury is well stocked with brilliant, resourceful, well-trained, progressive-minded humanists. Let them deal with Murray. Take his ideas and put them in the context of the history of American racism, eugenics, class mobility and its limitations, the ideology of IQ testing, and on and on. Get your crowd excited by the power, eloquence, and persuasiveness of your arguments, the beautiful truths you can summon and articulate. Isn’t this what college is about? Instead, a mob of angry chanting students forced a speaker off the stage, followed him and a professor around campus in order to prevent him from speaking, then finally assaulted them and chased them out of town.  

How is this anything other than an unmitigated disaster? A huge windfall to Murray, who now gets to play the victim. A huge embarrassment to Middlebury and to American higher education, for playing the thug.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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