How Do You Solve a Problem Like Murray . . . uh?

March 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)

Dear President Patton,

We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.

Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.

Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )

As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s Coming Apart on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.

For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules.  After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil. 

The campus left doesn’t toss around the word evil, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.

But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.

The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.

Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .”  is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.”  Here’s the full Gallup question:

If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to
  • create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people, (or to)
  • create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

College students went for free speech more than did the average American.

The General Social Survey gets similar results on its item about banning a racist from giving a speech in the community. The college educated are more liberal than others. The percent who would ban a racist speaker his risen somewhat in the past four decades from about 22% to about 27%, but the overwhelming majority favor letting the racist speak.

It’s a mistake to think that the dominant view on US campuses favors political correctness over free speech as some handwringing writers on the right seem to think. (Catastrophizing is not the exclusive province of the left.) But a handful of students, representing a minority view of free speech, can still make enough noise to cancel a speech and make headlines.

* Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Murray, it was more than "a handful of students" at Middlebury that shouted racist remarks and violently prevented free speech. It was an exceptionally large number of students and (you conveniently left out) a large number of professors. I was in the audience and it was the atmosphere of an ideological riot against anything and everybody who might have the slightest shade of a different opinion. It was a bullying, hate-filled crowd with a mob mentality that also physically attacked innocent women.

It is not the case that most college campus' in the US now value free speech. They value political ideology that is openly racist and hateful with regard to anything opposed to them. This is also the case in your classes at MSU as well as in many of the classes I attend. At a minority woman, I am aghast at the number of times I am shut down (and marked down) for not towing the party line.

I think you should be ashamed of the Fake News you are spreading here.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks for your commments. You’re right. I failed to notice that the IHE report did mention that some faculty members were involved.

• My statement about most students valuing free speech was based on the Gallup survey that I cited. Those results may not square with your perceptions, but in making generalizations, I prefer to go with systematic evidence on the population in question.

• Unfortunately, I don’t have systematic evidence about Montclair students as racist, hateful, and intolerant of opposing views. Your perceptions are different than mine. If by “your classes,” you meant my own classes, or whether you meant Montclair classes in general, I’d be curious as to the information you are sing your statement on.

• How many is a “handful”? The term is imprecise. The IHE report did not give any numbers at all. I wish they had reported the total number in the lecture hall and the number who took part in the protest. But I would guess that even 30 or 40 determined people, chanting loudly, can halt a lecture. Is forty people out of a campus population (faculty and students) of 2500 more than a handful?

Anonymous said...

Whether a handful, a minority, or a majority, it is a fact that US campuses are ripe with hate speech and racism that indeed shuts down views opposed to the radical alt-left. That is just a fact on nearly all US campuses today. Those asking for a tolerant society, those who do not want war with Russia or the last 8 years of daily indiscriminate bombing and drone attacks, those who ask for a government of fiscal responsibility, those who ask that laws are followed and respected are shouted down and often violently attacked. MSU is no exception.

We all have seen what polls are worth and the Fake News MSM has brought us. You playing down the violence, the hate, and the unlawfulness that actually took place because of a poll with a small sample is just contributing to an unruly and entitled political wave that is undoing genuine education. What you take as "evidence" in the face of the facts shows how little you understand of the social sciences.

Stop pretending. There is a world of hurt you are underwriting.