Sunday, April 16, 2017

The New Charles Murray, For Those Who Don't Know Him

A group of researchers decided to circulate a copy of Charles Murray's Middlebury College speech -- without saying who it was by -- in order to measure how readers gauged its political valence (did they think it was a liberal speech, a conservative speech, or a centrist speech?). They found that, without knowing who it was by, their sample of college professors viewed it as rather middle-of-the-road (5.05 on a 1-9 scale, where 1 is very conservative and 9 is very liberal). They also sent different portions of the speech to a random online sample group; averaging their responses together the speech got a 5.22 rating. Finally, they sent the speech to another group of college professors -- this time telling them Murray was the author. With that knowledge they rated the speech at 5.77 -- still basically "middle-of-the-road", albeit apparently more conservative by a statistically significant amount.

I'm actually not too surprised by this: my understanding is that Murray's recent work on American class divisions is not particularly conservative and certainly not as inflammatory as The Bell Curve's musings on race/IQ linkages. I would genuinely be curious about how readers would label the controversial portions of The Bell Curve under this methodology, mostly because I'm curious how most of us would "code" of that sort given contemporary political dynamics.

I do think there was some obscurantism -- sometimes deliberate -- regarding what Murray was going to be talking about at Middlebury and in other lectures. His challenged lectures were not going to be about The Bell Curve, which is widely discredited in the academic literature, but about this new class-related research, which has not been the subject of such scholarly disdain and which seems on face to fall well within the normal range of academic discourse. My initial instinct is that there's something off-putting about protesting a speaker not for what they will say, but for what they had said years ago that they will not be talking about in this lecture.

That said, I suspect part of what's going on is the idea that for a certain type of white conservative intellectual, it is impossible to discredit yourself such that you're no longer deemed a worthy entrant into public conversation; whereas for many outgroups there's a "one strike and you're out" standard where they are forever haunted by bad speeches, books, or ideas they propagated years ago (witness the treatment of Keith Ellison). The protests are an expression of the frustration that -- as Matt Yglesias put it -- "Charles Murray ... manages to be a best-selling author, in-demand speaker, have a think tank gig and be a free speech martyr."

None of this excuses illiberal modes of shutting down speech (see my endorsement of Jill Filopovic's column following the Middlebury event). But I think we can hold multiple thoughts at the same time:
  1. That Charles Murray's Bell Curve work is widely discredited and generally thought of as racist claptrap;
  2. That Charles Murray's present work -- what he currently lectures on -- is not particularly politically polarizing (and -- perhaps this is the more controversial point -- that someone who produces racist claptrap can also produce interesting arguments which fall entirely into the accepted range of ongoing political controversies);
  3. That many people are not like Charles Murray in that we have no interest in ever looking past bad statements, and it is not shall we say random who gets to make comebacks and who is permanently haunted by their past; and
  4. That, however we choose to manage the tensions elucidated by observations 1 through 3, certain types of remedies (like governmental censorship or censorial disruptions) are off the table as violations of free academic inquiry.

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