In summarizing the views of Voltaire, biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote the famous words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” How far we have drifted from that pithy and principled description of free speech. A more apt version for our time might be “I disapprove of what you say, and I will make it my personal mission to make sure you have no venue to say it, and I will snidely point out that I have not violated your freedom of speech because the rabble I have joined with to restrict what you say is not an arm of the government, and anyhow, you are a hate monger and hate mongers shouldn’t be entitled to their say.” This new version doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, nor does it capture the principles we supposedly cherish as Americans.
These days, discontented mobs regularly try to suppress speech which they find disagreeable, from the pressure campaign against Rush Limbaugh advertisers because of his ungracious comments towards liberal activist Sandra Fluke, to the recent ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich because of protests from gay rights activists angry with Eich’s 2008 support for California’s Proposition 8, a ballot initiative which led to a statewide ban on homosexual marriage. Never mind that those Limbaugh protesters don’t listen to the show in the first place, or that Eich, whose views in 2008 coincided with President Obama’s, has no history of discriminating against anyone in business decisions. It is now a key plank of the “social justice” movement that if someone, somewhere has uttered the wrong words, they must be punished. After all, that’s what tolerance is all about, isn’t it?
One particularly dangerous thought criminal is Charles Murray, the Harvard-trained sociologist who wrote the landmark 1984 book Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. Losing Ground laid waste to the well-meaning but costly and ineffective anti-poverty programs of LBJ’s Great Society and was a key arrow in the quiver of those who agitated for welfare reform in 1996. The book was revolutionary in that it gave voice to the previously unspeakable truth that many who live in poverty are poor not because of “the system,” but because of bad short-term decision making. Government programs made things worse by providing disincentives for people to work or form stable families—a key predicter of economic success. Murray is not one to hesitate to slaughter sacred cows.
He followed up Losing Ground with the even more controversial The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence, a trait that develops through both inherited and environmental factors, is a better predicter of a person’s success in life than other factors such as education. But in this offering to the age old nature vs. nurture debate, Murray made the mistake of gripping the third rail of race, suggesting in a few sentences that racial differences in intelligence might be an expression of genetics, and that the issue is worthy of future study.
Whoa, boy. Controversial stuff to be sure, and the fallout has been detrimental to Murray’s career. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, dubiously classifies the mild-mannered libertarian social scientist as a “White Nationalist.” In the past few months, Murray has been in the news for ticking off feminists by exploring whether women on average are not as well-suited for certain professional fields as their male peers, and for inspiring comments about poverty made by Paul Ryan which were denounced as racist. As one Huffington Post blogger put it, Ryan mustn’t have been aware that “Charles Murray is seen by many as a racist psuedo-scholar rather than an authority on poverty.” Of course, the chattering masses who make up this “many” never examine whether Murray is right. They just denounce his words as hateful and move on.
But Murray is a hero to many because he asks hard questions, makes his case based on the evidence, isn’t afraid to stir controversy in search of the truth, and is willing to defend his ideas. And that is why he just couldn’t be allowed to speak at Azusa Pacific University. The evangelical Christian school had invited Murray to speak last Wednesday on his latest book The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, an anodyne tome filled with advice for twenty-somethings who want to achieve life and career success.
In an open letter, Murray writes that the school’s president “postponed” the event “given the full record of Murray’s scholarship.” Murray was also told by a faculty member that “he and the provost were afraid of ‘hurting our faculty and students of color.’” Margarita Ramirez, a recent graduate of Azusa and grad school classmate of mine, attributes the cancelation to a pressure campaign from a vocal minority, led by English professor Scott Okamato. A small cadre of protesters regularly claims that controversial speakers should be rejected because they are not Christ-like. But Ramirez counters that “what doesn't have a place at a Christian institution of higher learning is the close-minded dismissal of ideas and the refusal to engage. What could be less "Christian" that this refusal to use your reason and intellect, the highest gift God has given mankind?” Nothing less Christian, perhaps. Nothing less American, certainly.
For Murray’s part, he writes in his letter that “The task of the scholar is to present a case for his or her position based on evidence and logic. Another task of the scholar is to do so in a way that invites everybody into the discussion rather than demonize those who disagree.” Contrast that with words written by Scott Okamoto on a private Facebook page for those associated with Azusa: “Murray is being a dick, too, with his condescending ‘this is what college is supposed to be’ line.” Remember, this man is an English professor.
Murray, much derided for his supposed “hate,” is one of the signers of an April 22 public statement entitled “Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent,” issued by a collection of public intellectuals who are in favor of gay marriage, yet disturbed by the “eagerness of some supporters of same-sex marriage to punish rather than to criticize or to persuade those who disagree.” It’s a shame that their call for vigorous debate rather than the squashing of dissent is not an example for more of us. Especially the protesters at Azusa Pacific.