Sunday, March 12, 2017

Murray at Middlebury, when the walls fell.

Of all the stories of campus speakers being shouted down, censored, or attacked by protesters, the one that should give libertarians the most pause is the faculty and student led riot that prevented Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College. It is important that libertarians understand that event for what it was, because it creates an opportunity for libertarians to favorably distinguish ourselves from both the Left and Right.

Dr. Charles Murray
(photo credit: wikimedia)
Charles Murray is a political scientist, sociologist, and author with a doctorate from MIT in political science, and an undergraduate degree in history from Harvard. He is most widely known for three books, Losing Ground (1984), The Bell Curve (1994), and Coming Apart (2012). In these books he critiques United States social policy, discusses the troubling segregation of the "cognitive elite" from larger society, discusses the potential heritable and environmental causes of individual and group differences in cognitive abilities, and the problem of increasing insularity of a highly educated, wealthy, and privileged minority from society in general.

These are controversial and "hot button" topics. Even though we almost universally accept the variability and heritability of many qualities, with expressions like "the apple never falls far from the tree," the rigorous scientific exploration of what exactly that means raises the specter of eugenics, and "scientific racism," from darker times past. Unlike many in the field, Murray is willing to follow the data wherever it leads, even if the questions are uncomfortable. They are particularly uncomfortable for those who believe axiomatically that the only source of inequality between groups is social injustice.

Murray became most identified with the libertarian movement with the publication of In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (1988), in which he described principles of government most likely to produce a happy society. Not surprisingly, these were largely, though not entirely, libertarian principles, including among other things, giving parents control over their children's education, removing all constraints on who schools can hire, radical decentralization of planning, and generally lowering the barriers faced by individuals and groups who are trying to improve their condition in life. This made him very unpopular with those who favor centrally-planned, government solutions to organizing society.

One of the anti-intellectual practices of the Left is to label their opponents as being "discredited," or having been "refuted." Sometimes this is in reference to writings by someone who has denounced their opponent, with or without substantive refutation. This becomes a piously repeated shibboleth, "X has been discredited." Which leads to, "We don't have to listen to X because he is discredited," and finally, "X should not be permitted to speak because he has been discredited." When asked what, exactly X got wrong, they are helpless to answer.

Vice Magazine interviewed some of the student organizers of the Middlebury protest against Dr. Murray. One of them was Aliza Cohen who said, "...[A]ll of these attacks on affirmative action are rooted in his ideas––that racism is connected with IQ, and that students of color don't belong in institutions of higher learning. So I actually think the point of shutting it down is saying, "These ideas aren't what we're engaging with, they're discredited."  Another student, Hana Gebremariam said, "Another part of the frustration for students is that Charles Murray is painted as a scholar, even though his work has been refuted many times, and we know that his work cannot stand any kind of criticism for any kind of academic standards." (emphasis added).

Anyone familiar with Murray's work would conclude from this that Ms. Cohen and Ms. Gebremariam have not read any of his books, and furthermore believe that it would be wrong to do so, because he has been "discredited." Ms. Gebremariam refers to the received wisdom of Murray's refutations and lack of scholarship, which again is risible to anyone who has read his work which, because of its controversial topics, is far more carefully researched than most social science.

Protesters at Middlebury also whipped up mob sentiments by shouting him down with chants of "Racist, sexist, anti-gay. Charles Murray go away!" This is nonsensical, as he has long been on record as supporting gay marriage and equal legal rights for all people, as one would expect of a libertarian. He also supports legal abortion, further separating himself from mainline conservatives. Middlebury protesters, including Ms. Cohen, made the over-the-top accusation that Murray was a "white nationalist," which no reading of his work could support. Having whipped themselves into a frenzy of hatred against an imagined version of Charles Murray that did not exist, events went downhill from there.

When it became clear that the mob would not let the event go on in the hall, the College moved the event to a different building where it could be live-streamed on video, with questions taken via Twitter. The mob followed, tripping building fire alarms to further prevent Murray's thoughts from being presented or challenged.

Prof. Allison Stanger, is a prominent liberal professor of political science who interviewed Murray with the intent to challenge some of his ideas. She was injured trying to escort Murray to safety when a rioter pulled her hair and wrenched her neck. Stanger described the event as, "The saddest day of my life." She wrote:

Prof. Allison Stanger
(photo credit: Middlebury faculty web site)
"I want you to know what it feels like to look out at a sea of students yelling obscenities at other members of my beloved community. There were students and faculty who wanted to hear the exchange but were unable to do so, either because of the screaming and chanting and chair pounding in the room, or because their seats were occupied by those who refused to listen and they were stranded outside the doors. I saw some of my faculty colleagues who had publicly acknowledged that they had not read anything Dr. Murray had written join the effort to shut down the lecture. All of this was deeply unsettling to me. What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters." (emphasis added)

Prof. Stanger is correct that the protest was an exercise in demonizing others. Tribalism works in large part by uniting around a common enemy who is dehumanized. For Prof. Stanger's colleagues to protest against Murray's lecture having not read anything he had written, without forming an independent judgement of his work, makes no sense in the setting of an academic truth-seeking institution. However, from the standpoint of a ritual display of tribal loyalty, it makes perfect sense. Ignorance of Murray's work only enhances the loyalty ritual. If your participation in a ritual group bonding event is contingent on your independent judgement of its rightness, that makes you an unreliable ally. Ritual demonstration of gang loyalty is most convincing when the member does something that would be wrong in normal circumstances.

Faster than anyone could have predicted, both Left and Right are regressing into warring, unreasoning tribes seeking enemies to demonize and cult leaders to follow. With the Right newly engaged in economic nationalism, and the demonization of immigrants and religious minorities, and the Left doubling down on all the regressive excesses that in part gave rise to Trump, and offering up a steady stream of local and national protests that highlight their censoriousness, over-the-top accusations, and overweening political correctness, we libertarians have an opportunity to distinguish ourselves as something much better.

People are becoming increasingly disgusted with the regressive politics of both legacy parties. Libertarians are the allies of all the people, without regard to race, gender, class. We reject both violence, and its incitement. We are the only clear and consistent advocates for removing the roadblocks that prevent every person from reaching their potential. We encourage your independent judgement. We embrace reasoned debate, and free expression.

I think libertarians are partly to blame for what has taken place on college campuses, by not having enough campus outreach. A larger libertarian presence among student organizations could easily have provided the missing voices of reason, tolerance, and fair play. If there ever were a call to action to improve our campus outreach, this is it.