In May of 2018, the H.F. Langenberg Memorial Speaker Series brought Robert Frank and Charles Murray to campus in an event called “Culture and Opportunity in America”. Frank discussed themes from his book Success and Luck, which deals with the social strains caused by astronomically high benefits to those at the very pinnacle of our economy. Murray discussed themes from his book Coming Apart, which focuses on the erosion of social connectedness that is creating troubling social ‘bubbles’ by class.
While I, personally, had nothing to do with bringing Frank and Murray to the campus of Lindenwood University, I am affiliated with the Institute that oversees the speaker series that brought him, and for that reason, was asked by some colleagues about the decision. I answered truthfully, so far as I knew, that he was coming here to discuss American culture and the impact of adopting a universal basic income. Murray’s most recent book, Coming Apart, has been taken seriously across the political spectrum as analysis of the hardening of class structures in America, even garnering its own PBS News Hour quiz that helps you figure out how much of a bubble you’re in. Certainly, Murray made some very technical genetic claims 25 years ago that were perceived as racist and eugenicist by some, but I really didn’t take that accusation too seriously. I don’t have any personal interest in genetics myself, but know Murray to hold to a fairly strict individualist view of human rights, such that calling him a eugenicist has to be worse than hyperbole, and I know that some of his detractors were using the term ‘white nationalist’ in reference to him, which is just plain false. So I was inclined to blow them off. After looking into it a little bit (but not a lot) it seems that the worst that can be accurately said of The Bell Curve (which only mentions race briefly in one chapter) is that Murray is sincerely convinced that IQ scores reflect real intellectual ability, and thinks that the differences in scores between blacks and whites might be explained by any number of factors, one of which is genetic. I’m already aware of research showing, for instance, that IQ scores everywhere are going up because of improved nutrition. With the rise of epigenetics, which sound to me like a kind of modern LaMarckism, it’s not clear that calling something ‘genetic’ carries the same denotation it once did. Nonetheless, I could certainly understand the concern over attributing differences in IQ scores to genetic differences by race! But knowing very little about biology, I didn’t have a strong opinion on any of it. I’ll be quite honest and say that, while I understood the dismay I might feel if I were a black person and I was told that a racist eugenicist was being brought to speak on campus, I blamed his hysterical detractors for creating that outcome, and not my own institute for inviting him.
A group on campus expressed concern at his coming, and a there was a minor eruption on Facebook. I began to think more deeply about my concerned colleagues, and whether I could maintain my neutral position. Here follows the conclusion I came to after much contemplation:
Part of the reason for my high level of tolerance for a man who (at worst) might be popularizing old-fashioned biological racism is that I am constantly tolerating people who are making deeply insidious claims in some areas while being legitimately interesting in others. Just last spring my students and I read some very interesting work by utilitarians on effective altruism; these are the same people who defend various forms of infanticide, organ transfers from coma patients, and preference for the lives of certain healthy animals over severely disabled humans. I can hardly think of a worse philosophical approach overall – for me, it’s as though Satan himself had entered the philosophy profession. Nonetheless, it would have been unconscionable for me to skip over their work on effective altruism for a conference called “Prudent Charity”, though of course, I included a critique. Furthermore, their leader, Peter Singer, is a distinguished professor at Princeton, and he has a Ted talk! But if you’re ready to protest Singer as well, there are plenty of other examples from our everyday lives. After all, don’t we who are pro-life sit down and eat with, and befriend, people who we believe are defending and even praising downright murder? And don’t those who are pro-choice sit down and eat with, and befriend, those who they believe defend and even praise the patriarchal control of women’s very bodies and lives? Do those of us who are anti-war not sit down and eat with, and befriend, those war-mongering killers on both the left and the right who, in their hubris, try to centrally plan the governments and economies of other societies all over the world? And do they not sit down and eat with me, even though I am the kind of person who would sit by and watch as horrific tyrants oppress their own people, refusing to intervene? And perhaps we would have much to talk about outside of these topics, and much to learn from each other, while we remained diametrically opposed in this particular. There are many pro-choice scholars whose work on other topics I deeply respect (including Socrates himself!), and the same could be said for pro-war scholars. While the wound of racism is particularly painful here in America, it’s not obvious to me, from an ethical perspective, that allowing for the mere possibility of genetic differences between whites and blacks (in a book that you are not here to speak about) is worse than advocating for killing millions of babies, oppressing millions of women in the most intimate way, making endless war on millions of people, or standing by idly as millions of people suffer under tyranny. And yet we happily invite these people to campus to speak on a plethora of topics. In other words, de-platforming actual scholars (as opposed to mere provocateurs, like Milo or Spencer) makes no sense to me as a philosopher.
I’m afraid that, in the end, Jonathan Haidt is correct in his claim that the university can only have one ultimate purpose, one telos, and we must choose: is it the relentless pursuit of truth, or is it social justice? This of course does not mean that, were we to choose truth, we could not also pursue social justice (however that is defined) wherever possible. It simply means that truth is the driving force in our studies, and that when getting at the truth conflicts with our social justice goals, truth must be the determining factor. Thus, the fact that certain ideas are offensive cannot justify ignoring them. Talk about offensive – I have a lecture on Catholic sexual ethics in my political philosophy course! Nothing could be more politically incorrect, and I certainly try to handle the discussion with care. But the fact is that future political scientists really, definitely need to understand how Catholics are reasoning when they reason about marriage, birth control, and other related topics. One can hardly understand huge swaths of the international political conversation without it. Notice that this requires making a distinction between what we do in the university with what we do in other parts of our lives. In other arenas, perhaps, hospitality is primary. In such a case it may make perfect sense to avoid certain topics, to stay silent when they are brought up, or to express ourselves in a way that stirs up thought without actually laying out an entire argument. Everything in its proper place.
I’m fairly certain that my colleagues are not actually nearly as concerned about the few paragraphs in The Bell Curve as they are that Murray is just a racist plain and simple. The evidence for that fact must be that he adamantly opposes affirmative action (and many other progressive welfare efforts), and so is clearly just building an infrastructure of pseudo-scientific justifications for the backwards conclusions he has already reached. The only problem with this analysis is that it betrays gross ignorance of the arguments against affirmative action, and many other welfare programs too. Murray’s position was caricatured as the view that “black kids can’t make it in college”, which is such a bastardization of the substantive argument (made by many people besides Murray as well) that I have convinced myself that the person must simply be unaware of the true one. If he were aware of it and presented it that way, he would be guilty of professional malfeasance. Here is the actual argument: Blacks are overrepresented under the poverty line (although, as I hope you know, the black middle class is booming and incomes are starting to converge with whites), so a larger portion of black students will be coming from struggling school districts, with tougher circumstances than their more privileged white (or black) neighbors across town. When affirmative action in admissions was introduced, scholars began to notice a disturbing trend. It didn’t appear that non-college-bound students were suddenly going to college. Rather, students already bound for college were getting recruited by higher-ranked colleges. That alone doesn’t sound disturbing, but when one takes into account that higher-ranked colleges tend to cover the same content at a faster pace, it became clear that many of these very capable students were dropping out, giving up, or changing to less challenging courses of study. In other words, students who, because of their educational background, could do well at Michigan U but not at MIT, were now dropping out of college altogether. That means fewer black doctors, fewer black lawyers, and fewer black scientists. Now this argument may be wrong in its particulars; I don’t know. But it is hardly absurd on its face, and it is also clearly not arguing that blacks, by nature or for any other reason, for that matter, “can’t make it” in college. If one wants to engage the argument with new data or poke a hole in the analysis, go right ahead. But don’t misrepresent it as an inherently racist argument – it clearly isn’t. And the same could be said for the well-known concerns about the welfare state, regarding moral hazard and perverse incentives. I know a lot of economists, most of whom share these concerns, and not a one of them thinks the outcomes of bad policies are any different whether the people affected by the policies are black or white (a claim that we are quickly confirming in white rural areas throughout the country). In fact, one advantage of economic analysis is that it can show how behavior that might look strange or even wrong can be understood as quite rational when one understands the person’s circumstances of choice, as in the case of someone who quits her job because her $.25 raise costs her the family’s TANF benefits. Once again, there is a very interesting conversation to be had about the accuracy of these critiques, whether various points are being emphasized proportionally to their real importance, or what alternatives ought to be considered. But there is nothing inherently racist about this argument, a point which left-leaning scholars like Elizabeth Anderson and Catherine Rampell have made clear by sincerely engaging with it.
I will admit to being torn between a desire to avoid needlessly alienating anyone, and a principled pursuit of free inquiry. I also feel ambivalent about that very alienation; I’m truly at a loss to determine whether the psychological pain is the result of real engagement with a certain viewpoint, or only with a frenzied caricature of that viewpoint. If the latter is the case, am I not more obligated to my colleagues to correct the caricature than to avoid the viewpoint?
I will end by assuring my colleagues that I am uncompromising in my support of academic freedom in general, including for topics such as transgenderism, polyamory, or any other area traditionally condemned by conservatives. It is absolutely ridiculous to think that we could avoid discussing such salient topics, controversy or no! While I have spent these few paragraphs defending the choice to bring Charles Murray to campus, I am committed to defending the great conversation that has been going on in universities for the last 900 years and more, and I will defend you, too, should the need arise.