Charles Murray deserved better.
The violent protests that greeted the conservative political scientist when he tried to speak at Middlebury College last week could be easily dismissed as the latest episode in the by-now tiresome campus speech wars. They shouldn’t be. Murray isn’t just another right-wing gadfly who enjoys provoking left-wing outrage. In a very real sense, if the left thinks he isn’t worth debating, then one has to wonder who they think is.
The story sounds like one we’ve heard before. Murray was invited to speak by a conservative campus student group. Protesters assembled to prevent him from speaking. They disrupted the speech to the point where it had to be canceled. Murray then repaired to a room to have his speech recorded so that those who wanted to hear it could do so. Protesters continued to disrupt the proceedings, and Murray was physically threatened as he attempted to leave the building. One of the professors who accompanied him was injured by the mob.
Murray’s account of the events makes for distressing reading, but one point he makes is worth reiterating: This has not been his experience with past protests. He notes that the college did all the right things in advance. They attempted to negotiate with the protesters to give them the opportunity to make their points while allowing the speech to continue. They arranged for the backup plan of recording the speech if the protests proved too disruptive. The college administration stood firmly and unequivocally for free speech and the marketplace of ideas. In his past experience, these have been adequate to ensure that protest was civil and did not ultimately prevent him from speaking. This time, that wasn’t enough.
Murray is no stranger to protest; if he says something has changed, it’s worth taking him seriously. He is infamous primarily for his 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that IQ measured important differences in intelligence between individuals that were highly predictive of success across multiple dimensions, and because of this our society was becoming increasingly stratified by cognitive ability. The primary locus of the controversy around the book related to his comments on differences in IQ between racial and ethnic groups, which Murray believes to be at least partly innate. It is understandable why such a view would invite a furious response. But the larger point about class stratification has only proved increasingly evident over time, and became the focus of his most recent book, Coming Apart. And with the election of Donald Trump, the cultural consequences of that stratification have powered the most astonishing political upheaval of our time.
All of which is to say: Murray is someone students need to hear from. He may be utterly wrong in his explanations for the phenomena he is studying. He may be thoroughly misguided in his proposed solutions. But he is asking questions that must be asked — and that must be asked in particular of a community of higher education which is a primary vehicle for the stratification he worries about.
Moreover, the concerns Murray is airing should be of particular interest to the left, which historically stands against the concentration of economic and political power, and against domination by a ruling class. If meritocracy and equality of opportunity does not increase social mobility and reduce class stratification, but the opposite, that would seem to be at least as powerful an argument for old-school left-wing solutions, like strong labor unions and the redistribution of wealth, as it is for Murray’s own conservative libertarianism.
But that’s why you have a debate.
Left-wingers should want to hear Murray — and hear what answers can be had from his analysis — more than conservatives should, because he is asking precisely the questions they need to answer. By ruling Murray unworthy of consideration, the radicals who protested him have not just traduced important norms related to free speech and civil respect (which would be bad enough), they have traduced those norms in the name of preserving themselves from having to question the institution they attend and its place in our society. A less-radical agenda than theirs is hard to imagine.
This is, of course, not a phenomenon limited to the left by any means. The same week that Murray was attacked at Middlebury, a bill was introduced into the Arkansas legislature to ban the work of radical historian Howard Zinn from public schools. But the right has an anti-liberal tradition to justify the notion that people should be “protected” from subversive, unpatriotic, or blasphemous views. And a right-wing legislator seeking to protect the existing power structure is at least acting in their own interest. The radical left is doing precisely the opposite.
At some point in an article like this, the writer typically says that they abjure Murray’s abhorrent views but stand firmly for his right to air them, or that by engaging in violent and disruptive protest you merely turn him into a martyr and thereby enhance his stature rather than silencing him. And if I were writing about an odious troll like Milo Yiannopoulos, and I bothered to write an article about him at all, I might say something like that.
But I’m not going to say that about Charles Murray. He deserves to be debated not only because free speech belongs to everyone, but because he is asking absolutely vital questions. And any left worth its salt would jump at every chance to demonstrate that they have better answers.