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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Charles Murray?

Photo Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0


Charles Murray
, author (with Richard J. Herrnstein) of the notoriously racist The Bell Curve was invited by a student chapter of the American Enterprise Institute to speak at Middelbury College last Thursday. Unfortunately for Murray, the American Enterprise Institute club appears not to have been representative of the Middlebury student body more generally, hence Murray’s appearance was not well received. In fact, the audience for Murray’s talk appeared to be comprised mainly of protestors who turned their backs on Murray when he tried to speak and began chanting such slogans as: “Who is the enemy? White supremacy!” and “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Charles Murray has got to go!”

So go he did, finally, to the safety of a video studio from which the talk was live streamed to the campus. The video on YouTube of the aborted talk is mesmerizing. At least it mesmerized me. It’s not easy to keep chanting for about half an hour without stopping. There was something heart warming about the spectacle of a group of young people so united and determined in their rejection of racism and economic elitism. That Middlebury is itself an elite institution wasn’t the only irony of the protest, however. A crowd that chanted repeatedly: “Your message is hatred. We cannot tolerate it!” also held up signs that read: “Fuck Eugenics,” and “Fuck White Supremacy.” A crowd that was professing to champion the rights of everyone was refusing to allow Murray to speak.

I have enormous sympathy with those students, and yet I am deeply uncomfortable with their tactics. Murray should be allowed to voice his views, no matter how offensive some people find them. The question is whether it is appropriate for him to voice them as an invited speaker on a college campus. I think Middlebury’s student protestors correctly intuited that there was something wrong with Murray’s appearing as an invited speaker at Middlebury, or on any college campus. The problem, I believe, is not so much that Murray’s views are morally offensive. There is, after all, a certain subjective element in moral offense. Some people are offended by things that others find inoffensive. The problem is that they are not based in sound science and scholarship.

IQ tests are widely recognized by psychologists and social scientists to be extremely unreliable indicators of intelligence. In fact, long before The Bell Curve, IQ tests were criticized for implicit social and economic bias and recent research suggests they are virtually meaningless. “[I]f you are not good at them,” explains Dr. Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist at Western University in Canada, “all it proves is that you are not good at IQ tests. It does not say anything about your general intelligence.

Intelligence is such a complex and ill understood phenomenon, and social and economic influences, not so much on the quality of thought as on its character, are so unimaginably difficult to calculate that it would seem impossible even in principle to devise a test to measure intelligence. And yet Murray constructed an argument that involved claims about the relation between race and intelligence based on IQ tests that was taken seriously by at least some intellectuals.

When I teach critical reasoning, I sometimes use as an example of poor reasoning an article by Murray from The Wall Street Journal entitle “Prole Models” in which Murray argues that proletarian moral values are ruining our country. What he identifies as proletarian moral values, however, are not, in fact, proletarian moral values, but criminal, or as Murray says himself “thug” values. Any sociologist worth his salt will tell you that working-class moral values are solidly traditional: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, do unto others, etc. It’s the social and economic elites who set the poor moral examples by conspicuously excepting themselves from these rules. It’s the social and economic elites who are unraveling the moral fabric of this country by repeatedly sending the message to those less fortunate that cheaters do prosper.

Murray’s argument in “Prole Models” is not merely based on obviously erroneous premises. It isn’t even coherent because while he’s railing against the working classes for their supposed “promiscuity” he acknowledges explicitly that promiscuity has always been accepted “in a few sophisticated circles.” If that isn’t enough, he actually praises the hypocrisy of women of the “social elites,” whose circles were presumably less sophisticated, for endeavoring to hide that they were sexually active.

Murray includes no references to research that would support the parade of contentious claims he presents in “Prole Models” and yet he presents those claims as if they are authoritative and he is able to publish such “fake scholarship” (okay, somebody had to coin that phrase) in no lesser paper than The Wall Street Journal! He keeps cranking it out, too. He published the equally morally and intellectually offensive Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 in 2012 (see “Debunking Charles Murray Again”), and he has a new book, In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, which presumably, was why he was invited to speak at Middlebury.

In a properly functioning democracy with a good system of public education and a vital intellectual culture, Murray wouldn’t receive the attention he has. That Murray’s views have been taken seriously by people who purport to be intellectuals reveals that many people in this country with advanced degrees aren’t really all that well educated.

Murray should be allowed to speak, of course, but it is entirely inappropriate, in my opinion, for him to be an invited speaker on a college campus. It is no more appropriate for Murray to speak on a college campus than it would be for the host of the Arts and Entertainment series “Ancient Aliens” to do so. Murray’s views are the sociological equivalent of Holocaust denial in their departure from accepted standards of science and scholarship. He should not be speaking at an institution of higher education. Middlebury’s student protestors were right about that.

So what do you do with a problem like Charles Murray coming and speaking on your campus? ––You don’t go. And what do we, as a culture do about that problem? We labor mightily to improve the general quality of education in our nation so that Murray’s theories will be conspicuous as the clap-trap they are. Then, maybe, he would no longer receive invitations to speak on college campuses. THAT would be heartwarming!

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M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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