Why I’m Declining AEI’s “Invitation to Argue”

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I know that the people who penned “AEI invites you to argue” are good, well-meaning people. I understand the premise: a college should be a place for rigorous academic discussion, where students should argue, disagree, learn from their disagreements and thereby learn from each other. It’s why at Middlebury we try to keep classes small and lectures few — so that students have opportunities to engage with each other as well as the material. My hope is that this piece contributes to rather than sabotages this ideal.

I can understand the perceptions that would lead the AEI to invite a controversial speaker such as Charles Murray. Indeed, when I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them — or rather, as I didn’t — I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: “I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored.” However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. I had fallen into the trap of false equivalence.

False equivalence is simple: just because two sides are opposed does not mean they are equally logically valid. When Bill Nye agreed to debate Ken Ham, a Young Earth Creationist, on the legitimacy of evolution, he hoped the livestreamed event would be a perfect platform to disabuse Ham of his ridiculous and false views of life on Earth. Indeed, Nye’s arguments were sound and Ham’s were absurd. However, as a scientific education event, the debate was a failure since, for two hours, a man preaching reason and a man preaching absurdity were given a podium of equal height, a microphone of equal volume and an equal amount of time to speak. Yes, the event illustrated “both sides of the issue,” but the existence of an opposition does not necessitate its validity. The event was irresponsible and played right into Ham’s hands, lending his brazen denial of fact a much-needed veneer of validity.

And yet Charles Murray’s views are even more dangerous than Ham’s. Ham disavows a scientific theory; Murray disavows the fundamental equality of all human beings. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center: “In Murray’s world, wealth and social power naturally accrue towards a ‘cognitive elite’ made up of high-IQ individuals (who are overwhelmingly white, male and from well-to-do families), while those on the lower end of the eponymous bell curve form an ‘underclass’ whose misfortunes stem from their low intelligence. According to Murray, the relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups.” In other words, Murray is a eugenicist who blames the unprivileged’s misfortunes on them being too stupid. You have not wandered onto the set of Django Unchained — the year is 2017 and a person who earnestly believes these things is being invited to Middlebury College.

Is this the “discourse” and “debate” and “intellectual diversity” we want on our campus? Are we back to the 18th Century — debating the equality of human beings? When Murray spews his ignorant bullshit, are we supposed to listen attentively and nod our heads and have a “dialogue” with these ideas? How can we possibly entertain his ideas? Doing so is a) not only grossly disrespectful to our peers who Murray targets and b) a waste of time because eugenics is a debunked pseudoscience. This is a classic tactic of fringe thinkers — “if you disagree with me, don’t protest, debate me.” This “debate” will never go anywhere since we defend our ideas with facts and they defend theirs with “alternative facts.” When we try to engage these ideas, suddenly the burden of proof will fall to us to debunk what has already been debunked. And when we do disprove it, suddenly we have to prove the validity of our proof. Ken Ham did the same thing to Bill Nye — when Nye demonstrated that carbon dating disproved him, Ham challenged the validity of carbon dating. No amount of proof will ever be enough for these people to conquer their own prejudices.

And this is not even to go into what a flagrant middle finger Charles Murray’s presence on this campus means to the students he has targeted with his inflammatory work. Once again, it’s up to women and POC to convince white men that they deserve to be on this campus and that they deserve equal opportunity. As a white man, I am privileged to have never had my human worth up for debate, let alone be studying in the same building as someone who advocates for this very notion. And yet here we are — Charles Murray is coming to campus, and the only way you can express how aggravating it must be to have to defend your human worth is through the proper, respectable channels, all of which ensure that you will never succeed. And, god forbid, you get visibly angry about this fact, you are a “snowflake” or “coddled millennial” or some other insult targeting young people with the perceptiveness of realizing that this whole situation is fucking bullshit and the integrity to be enraged by it.

Surely this country is in a crisis and some of the most divided it has ever been. Indeed, there should be discussion. However, I will not be using the human dignity of my peers as a bargaining chip to achieve this discussion. So, thanks for the invitation, but I’ll pass.

Nic Valenti ’17  writes in about Charles Murray’s 3/2 talk.

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