First they came for Milos Yiannopoulos and I said nothing, because Milos Yiannopoulos is a jerk, a bully, and a self-aggrandizing provocateur who was not worth defending
But then they came for Charles Murray and I thought, wait a minute, folks: this is, as they say, a mob too far.
Students at Middlebury College were not happy last week that conservative sociologist and author Charles Murray (THE BELL CURVE, LOSING GROUND, COMING APART) was invited to speak on their campus, and they demonstrated their unhappiness by chasing Murray from the designated venue for his speech: chaos, and some minor injuries, ensued.1
Fortunately, Mr. Murray survived, and his book sales will probably benefit from the incident; but that’s no excuse for the Middlebury students’ behavior. When I posted disapprovingly about this on Facebook, a friend of mine wanted to know what else the students could have done, given that the Middlebury administration had ignored their requests to disinvite Murry. Here is my response:
Let's see--protest peacefully but allow Charles Murray to speak? Not chase him from the scheduled venue? Not surround him with an angry mob? Schedule a speaker of your own to criticize Murray's views? Write letters to and articles for the campus newspaper expressing disapproval of Murray and his work? Work with the campus administration to make sure students and faculty have more of a voice going forward regarding paid speakers? Hold a teach-in on campus about Murray's work? Listen to Murray speak and then politely ask him some pointed questions? That's all I've got for right now...
My friend agreed that those were indeed some possible options, but she also advised me to lose the snark, please. On re-reading my response, I think I kept the snark factor pretty low, but apparently not low enough: snark is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and your mileage may vary.
In any case: students have every right to disapprove, and to express their disapproval, of an invited speaker. But you can’t win every battle, and you have to learn to accept defeat in good grace in hopes that you can win the next one. The Middlebury students’ actions play right into the prevailing idea of left-wing “PC” tyranny and of attacks on the free speech rights of conservatives; such actions do no one any good at all.
Tactics aside, I also think the Middlebury students were wrong on the substance. Charles Murray is not some racist fringe figure; whatever you think of his scholarship (or of the conclusions he draws from that scholarship), he’s a serious person whose views ought not to be proscribed. He’s done some good research on the woes of the white working-class (Trumpsters!), and although I rarely agree with his deeper analyses (too much government, safety net erodes incentive to work, welfare destroys families, IQ is a valid measure of intelligence, etc.) or with his policy prescriptions, I hardly consider him a threat to the republic. Murray was thoroughly raked over the coals decades ago, and deservedly so, for THE BELL CURVE, but there’s no need to banish him from polite society.
I should note that Charles Murray has apparently been designated an enemy of the people by no less than the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC has done much good work over the years, but I am not entirely comfortable with its willingness to lump Murray in with, say, David Duke. On the other hand, readers should judge Murray’s views for themselves by clicking on the SPLC link below. I’ll admit that several of Murray’s statements are far more offensive and far more objectionable than I had expected. 2 Is it possible I had him confused with Robert Putnam?
It’s not the easiest thing in the world to draw the line between objectionable but permissible speech and hate speech that ought not to be invited onto a campus (much less accompanied by a lucrative speaking fee).3 Even if the Middlebury students were right about Murray’s views, however, I still think their tactics were wrong and even self-defeating.
In closing, I apologize for whatever snark survived my snark detector; I should probably take it in for a tune-up.
1 The definition of “minor injury” is “an injury that happens to someone else.”
2 https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/charles-murray The quotes are disturbing, even if they don’t fully represent Murray’s work.
3 The notion that anyone and everyone has a right to be invited (and paid) to speak on campus is, of course, entirely fatuous, as is the notion that all viewpoints, no matter how odious or reprehensible, have a right to be aired.