Questions for Those Who Shut Down Murray

By David Stoll, Middlebury Faculty

On behalf of President Donald J. Trump, I would like to thank the protesters who prevented other people from hearing Charles Murray’s last week. The Trump administration is under siege by investigators and subpoenas. But you provided a welcome distraction. From Steve Bannon’s point of view, it couldn’t have turned out better. As for myself, I would really like to hear how different protest groups and options interacted up to the critical moment, around 4:45 p.m. on Thursday March 2, when a bunch of you decided not to walk out. If this group included newcomers pushing for a fight, and if this was still the Nixon administration, my next question would be, any chance they work for the FBI? Nowadays, the next question would be, any chance they work for an Alt-Right sting that persuaded you to do stupid things on camera?

However this happened, the shut-it-downers acted out the inhumanity you say you oppose. Shut-it-downers preempted other strategies, that would respect a speaker’s right to be heard and make the protest look good, so that you could rhythmically stomp on free speech. The rest of us do not understand how, in the name of fighting hate-speech, you could hate-speech a speaker for two hours, then attack him and his escort as they tried to leave. But there’s a possible explanation for why you could do this with a clear conscience — is it because of how you think about race?

The reason I ask is that you used race to justify your actions. Racial epithets played all too well in this liberal enclave. The Southern Poverty Law Center uses pull-quotes to accuse Charles Murray of racist pseudoscience and white nationalism, which you escalated by calling him a white supremacist. Now I’m hearing protesters defend their actions by saying it’s okay to punch Nazis. So Charles Murray is equivalent to a Nazi? Rhetorical escalation often backfires; if it sends you into a rage, your opponent will look more reasonable than you do. That’s certainly how Murray looked, standing patiently at the podium for half an hour, as the halo of free speech descended upon his brow.

Calling Murray a white supremacist is like calling an abortionist a baby-killer. Eighth- month abortions kill viable infants. But if you label abortion providers as baby-killers, you make a false generalization and dehumanize them. This is to be avoided if you want to avoid violence. In the case of Murray, his use of psychometrics to characterize broad populations has made him popular with Republicans who feel that government handouts encourage anti-social behavior among low-income Americans. This puts him on a slippery slope that can quickly lead to white supremacy; it is possible that Murray enjoys being on this slippery slope; but neither this nor white nationalism nor scientific racism are positions that he articulates. Murray is better defined as a bio-determinist or genetic fatalist, the limitations of which are easy to explain.

Those of you who race-baited Murray as a white supremacist put yourselves on your own slippery slope. You dehumanized him, which made it easy to justify violence against him, which is exactly what happened. You are also on a second slippery slope, which I care about just as much because I do not want to see Donald Trump win a second term in the White House. If having conservative attitudes about poverty is tantamount to racism, are you now going to label all the American voters who think this way as racists?

Cultural conservatives, whose attitudes strike liberals as backward, include tens of millions of Democratic voters in the last election, and they are not all white. You can accuse as many people as you want of being racists, but don’t expect them to vote for you in the next election. Of course, maybe you’ve stopped caring about elections. Look how badly the last one turned out. If American elections are inextricably linked to white privilege, what do they matter? If free speech is inextricably linked to white privilege, what does that matter either?

About ten years ago, Charles Murray came here to talk about the controversy over “The Bell Curve”. There was no campaign to disinvite him and faculty members held a debrief the next day, to ensure that any interested parties understood the weak points of his argument. What has changed to make him so unacceptable now? Is the difference Donald Trump in the White House? Certainly Trump’s use of invective has inflamed the atmosphere, but how about our own local production of racial classification?

Ever since the Nazis fed anthropology texts into their bonfires, my profession has argued that race is a cultural fiction with no more basis in genetics than being French or Morrocan. There are no genes that make the behavior of a black race differ from the behavior of a white race. Far more important in shaping behavior and outcomes are cultural programming and social conditioning. And so as far as anthropologists are concerned, race is little more than a fetish or disguise for social class, ethnic or cultural differences.

Our arguments won over many American liberals, but we were not as successful with American conservatives. One conservative rejoinder was … what? What do you mean there’s no such thing as race? As far as they can see, racial determination of behavior and outcomes is common sense. For evidence they still appeal to the IQ scores that Charles Murray and his co- author deployed in their 1994 book. A second conservative rejoinder also became popular … you’re saying race is fictional? Wonderful! Now that we’ve outlawed discrimination, let’s treat everyone equally, so we can stop worrying about race.

This second conservative rejoinder put liberals in an awkward position. Our only possible response was … wait, wait, wait! We can’t stop thinking about race because racist attitudes are still strong. Think about all the inherited inequalities — structural racism. And so the same liberals who argued that race is a cultural fiction now also had to argue that race is the hidden reality behind other forms of injustice. And so we learned to sing a complicated tune about race — or perhaps we sing two different tunes at the same time. Some of us (including myself) stress that any form of racial classification is a way of misleading ourselves. Others of us (including many who study race for a living) focus instead on uncovering its insidious impact in many realms of life.

At elite colleges like Middlebury, the challenge of making underrepresented minorities feel welcome has prompted many initiatives organized around the concept of race. This includes hiring faculty who, quite understandably, interpret their mandate to include identifying hidden racial agendas in a prevailing white environment. Judging from what some of our students now publish regularly on the oped pages of The Campus, race saturates every issue at Middlebury College. But does it really?

Long ago in 2001, in “Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensititivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn pointed out that race activists increasingly perceive “a world of endless slights. Here racist crimes and social faux pas are one and the same — all inspired by a monolithic, unabated white racial hatred. All whites must confess to their inherent racism, or they are, in the words of the recovery movement, ‘in denial.’” Yet if racial classification is a cultural fiction, if it is always a disguise for what’s really going on, can anti-racism scholars and activists fall into the trap of propagating it rather than undermining it?

That they indeed can is argued by the sociologist Frank Furedi in “What’s Happened to the University?” Interestingly, campus episodes that Americans might attribute to our penchant for racial divides, lawsuits and psycho-babble are, according to Furedi, also very common in Canada, Australia and Britain. What’s shared by universities in each of these countries is the rapid spread of the “vulnerable groups” concept. This leads to what Furedi calls “the weaponization of emotions,” that is, the public display of fragility and anger as political bargaining chips. Becoming offended has become an irrefutable rationale for ending discussion, which makes it a claim to entitlement. What’s being demanded is administrative paternalism, Furedi concludes, which guarantees further cycles of infantilization.

Could a spiral of dependency and anger explain how, on our campus, the demand for inclusion and safe space has become a demand for intolerance? Is this why our anti-racism activists last week were hurling racial invective? I heard racial insults, not just against Charles Murray, but against white women, white liberals and students of color whom shut-it-downers accused of racial disloyalty. Racialism is what I think I was hearing. Racialism is the insistence that one’s primary loyalty should be to one’s own racial group. If this is really what you think, white supremacists agree with you.