NYT defends free speech at Middlebury College

The New York Times should defend free speech—after all, it’s the country’s best newspaper—but I was still surprised to see today’s editorial, “Smothering speech at Middlebury“, as the Times also has a leftward slant. And it’s a good defense of free speech, though that defense starts, oddly, by saying that the “shutting down” of Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College in Vermont—he later gave it livestreamed from a private room —is bad because it feeds into the Right’s narrative of the easily-offended Left:

Now, [Murray] says, Middlebury may prove an “inflection point” — where colleges yield the lectern to intolerant liberals, hastening a bastion of free thought toward its demise.

It’s an outcome that many on the right seem to be aching for. Though speakers of all ideologies regularly appear at colleges without incident, a few widely publicized disruptions feed a narrative of leftist enclaves of millennial snowflakes refusing to abide ideas they disagree with. From the president to Fox News, right-wing voices wail, through their megaphones, about how put upon they are, like soccer players collapsing to the turf and writhing in pretend agony.

That seems more than a bit gratuitous. We don’t need to defend free speech because if we didn’t it would just would empower the Right. We need to defend it because it’s a cornerstone of American democracy—indeed, something essential for all democracy. If you think the truth will out, a basis for Enlightenment philosophy, then you give it a chance to “out.”

After that slap at the Right, though, the Times mounts a ringing defense.

A letter like the one sent by Middlebury alumni assailing Mr. Murray does not help. “The principle” — of free speech — “does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship.”

Hey, hey, ho, ho — heck no. The principle does not distinguish between great minds and mediocrities. Mr. Murray is an academic with an argument to make about class in America — from his 2012 book “Coming Apart” — and maybe it is flawed. But Middlebury students had no chance to challenge him on any of his views. Thought and persuasion, questions and answers, were eclipsed by intimidation.

True ideas need testing by false ones, lest they become mere prejudices and thoughtless slogans. Free speech is a sacred right, and it needs protecting, now more than ever. Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, did this admirably, in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves.

 I’m wondering whether Middlebury will discipline any of the disrupters or those who are identified as having mobbed Murray and his host at the College. I’m betting against it, but I think the surest way to stop the censorship of college mobs is for the students to realize that they’ll pay a price for their actions.

36 Comments

  1. Cindy
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    A letter like the one sent by Middlebury alumni assailing Mr. Murray does not help. “The principle” — of free speech — “does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship.”

    “Quality of scholarship” eh?

    I wonder if the authors of that letter would find fault with any of the ‘scholarly’ articles presented here: (somehow, I doubt it)

    https://twitter.com/RealPeerReview?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

    • Jacob
      Posted March 7, 2017 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      This was misleading by the Times. If you read the letter, the students are saying the principle here is, “the core liberal arts principle that contact with other intellectual viewpoints and life experiences than one’s own is integral to a beneficial education.”

      They explicitly say it is not an issue of free speech in their minds. Now, they are wrong about that point, but the Times should have not distorted what they said.

      • Posted March 7, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

        It is, however, a frequent tactic of the illiberal left to excuse something as not an issue of speech, but an issue of hate in order to shut down speech they disagree with. I think distortion is a strong term to use when it is rightly pointed out that a group is anti-free speech. I don’t think it matters one wit whether the group actually thinks they are.

  2. Aelfric
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I find myself simply gobsmacked at this new normal where people seem intent on denying people the right to disagree. Here it’s in a forthright physical way, but it’s akin to the allegation that protesters are being paid–that is, “this disagreement with me is illegitimate ab initio.” I find Charles Murray’s work unconvincing and seemingly very badly skewed by implicit biases. That being said, I will absolutely stand up for his right to say dumb things. I don’t want anyone silencing my own dumb pronouncements.

    • eric
      Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      I find myself simply gobsmacked at this new normal where people seem intent on denying people the right to disagree

      The heckler’s veto is not a new thing the far left invented. They’re just the latest users of it.

      What *is* new is their argument that speech one disagrees with is the functional equivalent of violence done unto you – that proposing ideas is a personal assault that makes you ‘unsafe’, etc. That crap is alllll on them. Though I guess one could argue that even that aspect of the leftist position has its origins in the concept of ‘fighting words,’ I think it’s sufficiently different from that idea that the far left should get ‘full author’s credit’ for their new version.

      • Aelfric
        Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Of course the heckler’s veto isn’t new — but it’s being applied in what seems to me a new way. Maybe it’s better to say an accelerated way. We have gone from “don’t invite Charles Murray” to “physically prevent Charles Murray from speaking.” Likewise we have gone from “these are astroturf protests organized by some nefarious force” to “some nefarious force is directly paying these protesters to protest.” The move to me is interesting. In the past, it seemed like speech restrictions were substantive, result oriented. “Fire in a crowded theater,” the oft-cited-but-legally-superseded chestnut, came about via fear of espionage and wartime sedition. We’ve gone from “we must prevent this speech because it will result in X” to “this speech must be prevented because it is illegitimate and the result of fake news.” If it isn’t obvious (and I think it is), I am still trying to figure out just what the heck is happening.

        • Cindy
          Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          I am still trying to figure out just what the heck is happening.

          Thought control.

          • Aelfric
            Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            Honestly, I don’t believe it’s “thought control,” to the extent that phrase demands a conscious controller. I think it’s more akin to massive, hegemonic groupthink.

            • Cindy
              Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              I was thinking of post-modernism in the sense that, they believe that if you control what words people use, and what knowledge they are permitted to access, that they can be molded into perfect automatons. 1984ish

              But groupthink works too.

              Actually, I posted this article yesterday, by Gad Saad, he considers it to be some sort of mass hysteria:

              https://areomagazine.com/2017/01/23/gad-saad-on-hysteria-and-collective-munchausen-around-donald-trump-speaking-out-as-an-academic-and-evolutionary-psychology-101/

              No doubt it’s a combination of things, many of which he reviews in the article.

              • Cindy
                Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                As usual I hit enter before fully fleshing out my thoughts.

                In POMO-SJWland, words *are* violence. Impure thoughts and ideas cause real world harm. If people can just be forced to stop using bad words, such as the N word, racism would go away! If the ideas of those with whom we disagree are suppressed, those ideas will disappear and we will all live happily ever after in a utopia.

            • Posted March 7, 2017 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think ‘thought control’ necessarily implies a ‘thought controller’. Social psychology is more subtle than that.

              I suspect it’s more akin to the murmuration* of starlings: order emerging out of apparently random behaviour.

              * I love that word.

              • Aelfric
                Posted March 7, 2017 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                I honestly don’t mean to quibble, but it’s fascinating how individual ideolects work. I think a murmuration is a perfect analogy! But I would argue quite stridently against describing any starling therein as “thought controlled.” That doesn’t make it wrong, of course!

            • eric
              Posted March 7, 2017 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

              At least some people have been trying thought control via access to ideas, and have been for decades. The Language Police details how interest groups on the left (as well as the right) actively seek to modify text books and change things like SAT test questions to remove words and reading assignments that refer to concepts they don’t like, in order to prevent kids from thinking about them…and that book was written in 2003.

      • Timothy Fuller
        Posted March 7, 2017 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s helpful to rank the relevant parties from worst offenders to least:

        1. The students who used violent intimidation
        2. The professor who invited peddler of fake racist pseudoscience Charles Murray
        3. The non-violent students who attempted a heckler’s veto over Charles Murray

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    There is, on the internet, an idiots guide to free speech. One wonders why more do not care to look.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I was still surprised to see today’s editorial …

    I wasn’t. I don’t recall the nation’s newspaper of record ever advocating an anti-free-speech position.

    Plus, The Times has its own skin in the game. The constitutional protection for a free press is snuggled together with the one for free speech, sharing the same participial phrase (“abridging the freedom of …”). I doubt The Times would want to put too fine an edge between them.

  5. Canoe
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with your criticism of The Times for leading off with the argument that muzzling free speech is bad because it empowers the opposition. The editorial seeks to convince the muzzlers to change their tack, and that just might be the most persuasive argument they can make to that end.

    • Posted March 7, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      If the Times intent was to point out that “muzzling free speech is bad,” why did its board bring up the right-wing angle? It makes no sense; Fox News can pick up on Middlebury and drone on about it for days while complaining about how put-upon conservatives are, but that should not justify essentially ignoring harassment out of concern over political advantage.

  6. DrBrydon
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    In their original article on the fracas at Middlebury, the NYT barely mentioned the violence there, burying mention of it at the end of the piece. They mentioned it earlier here, but again fleetingly. The headline for this story is not ‘speaker shutdown’, but ‘professor assaulted at speaker event.’

    • Filippo
      Posted March 8, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Professor assaulted, battered, and injured, requiring medical treatment.”

  7. Posted March 7, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    “That seems more than a bit gratuitous. We don’t need to defend free speech because if we didn’t it would just would empower the Right. We need to defend it because it’s a cornerstone of American democracy—indeed, something essential for all democracy.”

    Bravo! I have mentioned the same many times. E.g. after the New Year 2016 in Cologne, leftists said that such events must be reported, because attempts to cover them up gives ammunition to the far right. The logical conclusion would be that, if there were no far right, it would be OK to cover up sexual abuse.

    • BJ
      Posted March 7, 2017 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

      Notice how the NYT went silent on free speech during the Obama admin and the college campus riots? It only cares about these civil liberties during conservative admins. GWB and now Trump.

      • Posted March 8, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        In my experience, the most important part of free speech–the willingness to vehemently defend the right to speech with which you vehemently disagree seems to be a challenge on both sides of the aisle. Whether, it is the special snowflakes with their safe spaces on the left or the hardest of hard core Trump supporters on the new populist right, there seems to be a trend of sticking one’s head in the sand (or worse, throwing bricks).

  8. Posted March 7, 2017 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    The main point NYT opinion writer is trying to make is :

    “Though speakers of all ideologies regularly appear at colleges without incident, a few widely publicized disruptions feed a narrative of leftist enclaves of millennial snowflakes refusing to abide ideas they disagree with.”

    This is something that can easily be checked. How many campus talks given by controversial figures have been disrupted during the past few years?

    Disruption is not good. But given we are living in the real world, it is bound to happen. Apparently, some student thought they were protesting a Nazi advocate of Eugenics. They justified their extreme reaction by this view of Murray’s work.

    IQ nonsense (which Murray is obsessed with as some kind of source of all evil in the society) aside, Murray’s latest work is about the problems white middle class America is currently facing. Students would have actually benefited from listening to him on this topic.

    • Eric Grobler
      Posted March 8, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

      “IQ nonsense”
      What do you mean by IQ nonsense?
      There are IQ differences between groups and IQ is an accurate predictor of success.
      To what extend it is genetic or environmental is a complicated question.

      • Timothy Fuller
        Posted March 8, 2017 at 6:50 am | Permalink

        Murray doesn’t just talk about “groups” of any kind, but about races, and he claims modern genetics vindicates racial classifications as biologically objective.

        Murray doesn’t merely assert “it’s complicated” whether IQ is genetic, he positively asserts that intelligence, along with other cognitive traits, are known to be heavily genetically influenced.

        … Just in case you were under the impression that Murray’s reputation was merely based on making anodyne claims.

      • Posted March 8, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        I mean it is basically pop science mumbo jumbo and has very little to do with the reality of what is going on inside human brain.

        The IQ people claim that it cannot be a basis for judging individuals, yet they firmly believe IQ is a good predictor of future individual success and go about suggesting sweeping policies based on it. This is very misguided and very harmful.

        IQ is kind of like God for them. It gives you “ideas” about races based on some arbitrary number just like the concept of God divides people based on some arbitrary belief.

        If the students could just get over the sci fi stuff, Murray’s book seems to be about the decline in some sections of American society. This problem is worth discussing. IQ is not.

        • Eric Grobler
          Posted March 9, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

          “I mean it is basically pop science mumbo jumbo and has very little to do with the reality of what is going on inside human brain.”

          I am not sure you have a good understanding of IQ tests. Interpreting IQ scores sensibly is highly valuable as a diagnostic tool and has sound predictive value.
          You seem to suggest that if a student does exceptionally well in a mathematical or IQ test it has very little to do with “cognitive processes” in the brain?

          • Posted March 10, 2017 at 12:51 am | Permalink

            “Interpreting IQ scores sensibly is highly valuable as a diagnostic tool and has sound predictive value.”

            A very low IQ is a likely indicator of cognitive problems. Other than that, it does not show much and it does not predict much. It is also a harmful concept to employ in child education (growth mindset is the more productive one).

            As long as it is just a number game, I don’t have any problem with it. It’s fun and all. People from various nations can brag about their national IQ as they brag about their national sport. However, it absolutely gives no basis for policy making. One could oppose affirmative action, immigration, public education programs, etc. But claiming that this opposition has a scientific basis, namely IQ, is pure quackery.

            Less than a hundred years ago, German racial scientists went about observing how races behaved in public. It resulted in great “scientific” discoveries such as:
            Jews tend to be more greedy,
            Gypsy women usually sit with their legs open,
            Arian women hold their legs together when sitting”…

            IQ belongs to the same group. It is a useful tool for racists (racialists, race realists, whatever they like to call themselves these days) to feel “smarter” than others. That’s about as useful as it gets.

            • Eric Grobler
              Posted March 10, 2017 at 2:16 am | Permalink

              You make some valid comments but I think you are viewing IQ from a purely political viewpoint.

              ” It is also a harmful concept to employ in child education”
              I agree that it can harmful and should not be done by schools.
              I often say if a child scores 130+ you know he/she is intelligent and if they do poorly you wonder if they are intelligent.

              “But claiming that this opposition has a scientific basis, namely IQ, is pure quackery.”
              I am not sure what you mean.

              Using Nazi pseudoscience as an argument against IQ is like saying evolution is wrong because the Nazis were Darwinists.

              To observe for example that Ashkenazi Jews have a much higher IQ and subsequently are high academic achievers is not “pure quackery” and it might very well be that Jews are genetically more inteligent than many other populations. I say “might” because we do not really understand the interplay between genetics/culture/nutrition/education etc.

              There are of course bright and dumb individuls in any group and a fair society should give all individuals the opportunity to achieve their potential and thus we should ignore groups as much as posible in policy.

              Talking about Germans, Thilo Sarrazin wrote a book where he argued that Germany would benefit more from Jewish immigration than Muslim immigration because of IQ differences.
              I actually agree with him, and ironically the Nazis that were supposed to be obsessed with intelligence lowered the average IQ of Europe by murdering and expelling the Jews.

              In contrast consider the immense contribution European Jewish immigrants made to science and culture in the US.

              • Posted March 10, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                Using Nazi pseudoscience as an argument against IQ is like saying evolution is wrong because the Nazis were Darwinists.

                Nazis were “social Darwinists”. There is a big difference here. There is nothing in biological evolution theory to justify its application to social or cultural groups of humans.

                By insisting on higher IQ of this or that group, you fall back on your position. It is a chicken and egg problem. Were those people high academic achievers because they had high IQs, or was it because of the good environment or culture they were brought up in?

                “Germany would benefit more from Jewish immigration than Muslim immigration because of IQ differences.”

                Again, quackery in the name of science. Define benefit! And how amazing that suddenly religion also became a factor in IQ-based policy suggestions. Maybe Islam IS a race after all!

  9. Eric Grobler
    Posted March 8, 2017 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I have watched some videos by Murray on topics like Education, Social Mobility and Class and I think he has some interesting insights and is worth listening too.

    I have not read the Bell Curve (just skimmed through it ages ago) but to me it is obvious that there are group IQ differences and that both genetics and enviromental/cultural factors are at play.

    I think that terms like “Race and IQ” is inaccurate and unhelpful and that the topic is far too complicated and multi-factored for anyone to make definitive statements.
    To me it falls into to the “known unknowns” category.

    I do not know that much about Murray – why is he so much hated by the left?

    • Timothy Fuller
      Posted March 8, 2017 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Murray’s abhorred by the left precisely because he doesn’t treat the relationship between race, intelligence, and genes as a “known unknown” but speculates irresponsibly in ways that promote racism.

      For a recent example, see his glowing WSJ review of Nicholas Wade’s “A Troubling Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History,” denounced as pseudoscience by a multitude of eminent population-geneticists, which argues in its latter half that inferior genes explain lack of affluence, violence, and inferior social institutions throughout Africa and the Arab World.

      The common assumption on this site that the left’s objections to Charles Murray are based almost entirely on intolerant ignorance is itself anti-intellectual.

      • Eric Grobler
        Posted March 9, 2017 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        “, which argues in its latter half that inferior genes explain lack of affluence, violence, and inferior social institutions ”

        I assume the argument is that Africa and the Arab world do not have “inferior genes” and not the observation that low IQ correlates with poverty/crime.

        My issue is that just like some (racists) take it for granted that blacks for example have a lower genetic IQ, liberals believe a priori that genetics do not play any role or that IQ differences do not exist.

        At the time of the Bell Curve African Americans scored about 1 standard deviation lower on IQ tests than the general population.
        Recently I read an interesting article about recent black immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa that score higher than the US mean, in other words higher that the average white polulation (and higher academic achievement).
        That might be due too selective immigration or motivational/cultural factors – it would be an intersting subject to study closer.

        Obviously there exists large variability in IQ within any group and because migration out of Afica occured only around 100K years ago we are very similar. But in principle there has to be minor cognitive/personality differences between population groups else you reject evolution.
        However if the Finish for example are genectically more introverted than the Italians, the indiviual variance within the two polulations are still greater.

        • Timothy Fuller
          Posted March 10, 2017 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          “I assume the argument is that Africa and the Arab world do not have “inferior genes””

          Correct.

          “My issue is that just like some (racists) take it for granted that blacks for example have a lower genetic IQ, liberals believe a priori that genetics do not play any role or that IQ differences do not exist.”

          “Both sides do it” isn’t a helpful frame here, since it’s more irresponsible to promote views, in the absence of sufficient evidence, that are socially harmful.

          Consider what Murray’s saying. He positively asserts, without sufficient evidence, both that IQ is heavily genetically influenced and that it isn’t malleable by learning or training.

          Those two claims (coincidentally) buttress the view that IQ parity among races is impossible, as a matter of biology, to achieve via social policy.

          Meanwhile, denying significant genetic influence on IQ and denying its inalterability do not buttress socially harmful views. That’s why it’s warranted to object to Murray’s published work as uniquely irresponsible (and some of the dissertations he’s been advising have been downright trashy, c.f. Jason Richwine’s).


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