There has been another row over a presentation by political scientist Charles Murray denying him academic freedom, this time at the University of Michigan (before it was at Middlebury College where Allison Stanger was assaulted and ended up in a neck brace). Murray had been invited by a student group, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michigan Executive Council, to speak on the topic of the 2016 election. Even though Murray himself opposed Trump, he is well informed about why the election happened because he has carefully studied American social behaviors and values by class and demographics as outlined in his phenomenal book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2013). The topic of the 2016 election desperately needs to be studied, analyzed, and debated in a civil and professional way in order to help us understand how America found herself in such desperate straights that she elected a man of Donald Trump’s troubling character to the highest office of the land. If we are disturbed by Trump’s election and presidency thus far, and if we want to make strides to assure that such a thing doesn’t happen again, then we must understand how we got here. We must grasp the severity of the unraveling of America’s social fabric and the fraying of her political institutions. Murray can help us do that.
But the students weren’t having any of it.
University of Michigan and Academic Freedom
As a piece in the New York Times details, the moment Murray’s visit was announced back in September 2016 there was resistance as op-eds appeared denouncing Murray and calling for his invitation to be rescinded. When Murray did show up and try to lecture, however, protesters arrived first in order to fill the classroom, and then once the talk began, interrupted him rudely and hurled vicious epithets. The NYT described the scene:
Chants of “racist, sexist, K.K.K., Charles Murray go away,” indecipherable shouting, earsplitting cellphone alarms and “The Imperial March,” Darth Vader’s theme in “Star Wars,” drowned out his words.
At one point during that chaotic hour, a university spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald, took to the stage. He called on the protesters to stop shutting down the speaker or further measures would be taken. The boorish behavior continued. Further measures were never taken.
At several points during the inaudible lecture, protesters turned off the lights and displayed a projection with the words “white supremacist” on the wall with an arrow, pointing down at Mr. Murray. Others held signs: “We punch white supremacists!” and “Nazis go away.” Over a dozen University of Michigan police officers stood by. No one was removed from the event.
Finally, after some 45 minutes of pandemonium, which included a graduate student protester taking to the stage and co-opting the lectern from Mr. Murray, the protesters marched out of the event en masse. Mr. Murray spent the remainder of his time lecturing on what he was invited to speak about: The 2016 election and how we got stuck with President Trump, whom Mr. Murray fiercely opposes.
You can watch the video yourself. It’s difficult to put into words just how rude, uncivil, and completely inappropriate this behavior is. This is what you would expect from middle schoolers throwing a fit, not college students who are supposed to be maturing into adults through critical thinking and facing potentially uncomfortable life situations. At one point a young Asian woman goes to the front of the room and blocks Murray, declaring that the audience would rather hear her speak than him, and then proceeds to lecture Murray on what a terrible, racist, pseudo-scientist he is. The level of entitlement, privilege, arrogance, and plain old audacity is staggering. These students have no manners, no respect, no civility. They don’t deserve to listen to Murray, nor do they deserve the privilege of a collegiate education as long as they are displaying such dispicable behavior.
For the few students who stood up for their right to hear Murray speak, I only have words of commendation. It takes guts to stand up to the mindless mob that’s already so far gone that they have normalized, if not glorified, this kind of reaction. The protesters repeatedly said they shouldn’t have to hear someone with Murray’s ideas speak. Fine, then leave! But of course, that’s not what they meant. What they meant is that they should be able to prevent anyone else from listening to Murray as well. They acted as if the University of Michigan was their private property, and that they could expell anyone they didn’t like. Had they truly not cared about hearing Murray they could have avoided the talk altogether. Instead, their actions amounted to an abridging and negating of the political and civil rights of others: the right of Murray to speak at an event where he was the invited guest, and the right of anyone else who wanted to listen. This is deeply disturbing, and the fact that the protesters don’t realize this, or don’t care, shows just how emeshed and trapped they are in their own self-righteous ideology.
How to Disagree
Let us grant for a moment that Charles Murray really is as bad as the students claim he is. He is a racist, a white supremacist, a eugenicist, a white nationalist, an “assassin.” He’s a quack, a pseudo-social scientist, a discredited “academic,” the scholarly version of Milo Yiannopoulos. His ideas are false, his views toxic, his speech divisive. In other words, he’s a bad dude. Let’s say Murray really is all those things. Okay, now what? How ought we the body politic, not to mention students and teachers at an academic institution, to treat such a person? Since there’s never going to be a dearth of horrible people in the world, not to mention those we strongly disagree with and even oppose, we ought to determine from the start how we are going to relate to such individuals. I would suggest the following approach.
- Treat them with respect regardless of what they believe. They are created in God’s image as you are, Christ died to redeem them as he did you, and despite how wrong-headed and depraved they may be, they aren’t beyond the love of Christ. Respect, of course, doesn’t mandate agreement; but it does mandate civility, listening, and irenic discussion even if at the end of the day you part ways.
- Respect the civil and political rights of others to speak freely. Rightly understood, the First Amendment only precludes Congress from censoring free speech; it doesn’t protect us against stupid things we say in public that rebound with consequences. That said, freedom of speech and assembly are natural, negative rights; they are rights granted to us by God by virtue of our being created in his image and made for community. This places an obligation of non-interference upon the rest of us to respect people’s right to speak and write in the public square and to gather with others. Only in extreme cases can these rights be abridged.
- If you want to discredit and debunk ideas you think are dangerous and destructive, the best way to do that is not through censorship, libel, and shouting down your opponent. This only communicates your own intolerance, small-mindedness, and quite frankly, your fear of other people’s ideas. This fear may be well-founded and rational, but more often it points to deficiencies in ourselves—whether that be ideological tenets we don’t want challenged or intellectual idols we don’t want dethroned. Confronting ideas we disagree with, especially if they are defended by scholars who are excellent in their field, can be extremely threatening and uncomfortable. Perhaps we are wrong. And if so, that might mean we need to change the way we think and live.
- The best way to combat bad ideas is through civil debate, where in the marketplace of ideas the truth has the best chance of winning out. If you aren’t afraid of discovering the truth, and if you believe you have genuine knowledge of the truth, then there’s no reason to fear a civil discussion where you will have ample opportunity to demonstrate the folly of your interlocuter and the superiority of your own beliefs. Of course, such an enterprise takes effort and often long hours of studying, reading, and writing, as well as practice in public speaking and debate. Those shouting down conservative scholars in academia are not only revealing their ignorance but also their intellectual sloth. Few, if any, are as scholarly decorated or as published as Murray; few could stand toe-to-toe with him in a debate. In this situation, censorship is the easier route, but also the more cowardly.
- You often learn the most from those you most severely disagree with, and in the process of trying to understand them the gap between their and your humanity shrinks. Fraternizing exclusively with those who agree with you, whether it be in person or through the written word, might be comforting and self-assuring, but it doesn’t stretch and grow us personally and intellectually as much as wrestling with ideas that are foreign or even dispicable to us does. In fact, it leads to tribalism and the demonization and dehumanization of those of different ‘tribes,’ whether they be political, intellectual, or ethnic. One of the main things you learn in college is how much you don’t know, and how much you thought you knew was actually wrong. College is meant to open up intellectual and disciplinary vistas, it is supposed to challenge long cherished ideas, it is meant to reveal the complexity of human life, and it is supposed to cultivate critical thinking (among many other things). These protesters demonstrate none of this. Their world is small, crowded, and flat; right and wrong align along a white-black spectrum. They are destroying their college education—and in the process their own souls—by refusing to think hard about Murray’s ideas to see what they might learn from him (whether that results in strengthening or reformulating their own beliefs).
On Charles Murray
It just so happens that the accusations and names hurled at Murray aren’t true, which compounds the already brazen and deplorable behavior of the protesters: they are attacking an innocent man. It is unlikely that any of these disrupting students have read a single book by Murray (or any article), many of which have nothing to do with racial or ethnic issues. I have read his Losing Ground, American Exceptionalism, Coming Apart, In Our Hands, and By the People. Murray is a careful scholar who is well read and who cities his work copiously. Many of his ideas are sound, if not profound, and they have simultaneously refreshed my mind and inspired my own work. I don’t agree with everything he’s said, but I have learned from him nontheless. His most controversial book by far is The Bell Curve (co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein), which investigates class, ethnicity, and IQ in American life. I own the book and have read parts here and there, although I have yet to read it straight through.
It is upon this work that the protesters are basing their grievances. Apparently, racist signs created by alt-right groups began showing up around campus earlier this month with slogans like “Do the Math. Nature is Racist. Not ‘the system.'” The source for these signs and slogans was supposedly Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. The only problem: The Bell Curve never made such claims. Needless to say, there is a massive amount of misinformation and outright lies that have been spread across mainstream and social media regarding The Bell Curve. Substantial academic debate regarding the many claims made in the book has taken place since the 1990s, but most of that flies under the popular radar. Instead, in these protesters minds, Murray is a racist and a bad dude since alt-righters have supposedly used his work to prop up their dubious claims. It doesn’t seem to have corssed the minds of students to actually read Murray for themselves in order to find out if what the alt-righters claim about his conclusions are accurate.
Must college students really be told that such a step is part of what it means to be intellectually virtuous and a critical thinker? Has college taught them nothing? This is common sense and it is staggering to realize that most students haven’t cared a wit to investigate Murray’s work on its own. This cast doubt upon their entire enterprise to shut down, shout down, and stomp out any and all conservatives of Murray’s stripe and those who support them.
Before we go stomping and protesting the free speech of others, it’s a good idea to find out what they really believe first. This might require that we step away from the activist soapbox and discipline ourselves to read their work and study their ideas first. Misunderstanding or misreprenting someone’s beliefs, and then protesting against them on that basis is disingenuous and a shame, and it demonstrates how mindless and foolish you are. Don’t be that person.
However, when you do legitimately disagree with someone, you should: treat the person with respect because of their intrinsic worth, something that doesn’t hinge upon one’s beliefs; treat the person with respect by upholding and protecting their civil and political rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—one day they might return the favor for you; to refute bad ideas, do not resort to censoring, name-calling, or intimidation, but seek out robust and civil debate within the marketplace of ideas allowing the integrity and coherence of your ideas do the heavy work of convincing and convicting for you; finally, seek to learn from those you disagree with, for this is when we grow the most intellectually and interpersonally. There is no excuse or justification for the kinds of ill-mannered and churlish behavior we are witnessing on college campuses today.
If students reject this path all that’s left is the tryanny of majority and Nietzsche’s “will to power.” That way ends in despotism and civil discord. It has torn other civilizations apart, and it will do the same to us. We are already seeing the effects of this, as America is more socially and politically divided than it has been in half a century. Sadly, universities seem to be breeding grounds for this kind of ideological extremism. The best way to put an end to this is to teach our children to engage in civil discourse worthy of America and to lead by our own example.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed his MA in New Testament Biblical Studies. He is currently completing a second MA in Christian Apologetics and Ethics, and hopes to pursue a PhD in the near future. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.