Controversial Speakers Deserve Fair Platform
Author Charles Murray was invited last week to speak at Middlebury College in a move that was certain to invite controversy. Notorious for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which suggests that IQ rather than economic opportunities or access to basic services such as health care is the most effective indicator of future success, Murray is justly despised by many liberals. His work lacks credible peer review and is often cited by white supremacists to justify their racism, since Black people scored an average of 15 points lower than white people on IQ tests at the time of The Bell Curve’s publishing.
Middlebury students swarmed the speaking venue and chanted to prevent Murray from speaking. After 20 fruitless minutes, Murray was ushered offstage and the talk moved to a virtual format, streamed across campus. Students discovered the location of the streaming and attempted to disrupt it as well. Eventually, Murray was escorted out of that classroom and to an off-campus location, although not without more aggressive confrontation and harassment from students. While the students have a right to free speech, they used that right poorly in silencing Murray.
To understand the significance of this event, we must understand the process by which ideas circulate. The world is a conglomerate of distinct and opposing worldviews, where a “natural selection” of ideas, concepts and morals takes place. Just ideas gain larger contingents of followers, as do compassionate or inspiring ones. Evil ideas can also flourish, often through appealing to concepts such as inherent superiorities. Eventually, their faults are exposed and they fall away. Like an ecosystem, these competing intellectual processes naturally balance each other and result in an orderly chaos. For this system to work, therefore, each individual must hold the right to promote their own distinct ideology and try to alter or outright eliminate others. This intellectual right is protected by unconditional free speech.
Liberals would do well to keep this in mind. They’ve twisted the concept of tolerance into a twofold to deflect criticism and attack other ideas through non-engagement. They shy away from critiques of their ideas by declaiming these critiques as fill-in-the-blank-ist (even when they are) and then view this denunciation as a trump card that ends debate. When on the attack, they block speeches and shout down opposing ideas. They believe that individuals can use free speech to block other free speech because the state is the only entity that is technically prohibited from interfering. This argument is petty and goes against the spirit of democracy. This argument is an intentional tactic to destroy any environment conducive to intellectual engagement with offensive or hateful views. In other words, it’s an intellectual and rhetorical cop-out. If their ideas are truly superior they should eliminate their opponents’ in a fair fight and therefore should engage at any possible opportunity.
Thus, Murray should be allowed to speak. In environments like Oberlin and Middlebury, most liberal students are surrounded by friends with near-identical opinions, and it’s often hard to grasp the importance of free speech in this intellectual ecosystem. It’s hard to understand the necessity of developing sophisticated and nuanced points so that one stands a chance when engaging with other, hardened ideas outside of school. Although the format of the talk did not give students a chance to ask questions, they could have done so anyway: just break the rules and shout out the questions. The students can’t pretend that the rules of the talk were a limiting factor for their actions after chanting and harassing Murray. Even though they have a right to their own free speech, they used that right poorly in silencing Murray. A better use of it would be in blindsiding Murray with a well thought-out question. This would do much more damage to their rival ideology than chanting sound bites. While debating with Charles Murray probably would not — and should not — have changed the minds of many Middlebury students, it may have helped them learn how to fight in a productive and effective manner. And learning how to fight, how to survive in the intellectual wilderness of the real world, should be a skill that every progressive student holds dear.