It is hard to think of another academic as controversial as sociologist Charles Murray. While his academic pedigree is strong and his books are well regarded by some, he was most recently shouted down for his ideas while giving a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont. You can read Murray’s account of the event here. The idea that Murray is racist is nothing new, but an event like the Middlebury Protest has once again brought his ideology into discussion.
While I have long taught what I see as the logical failings and sloppy work of Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), I think students should be aware of such work. It is terrible scholarship and only gets the attention it does because of its controversial subject matter. Yet, it clearly resonates with some people (a quick look at the reviews on Amazon is both enlightening and terrifying). I want my students to hear this ‘free speech’ and also learn the skills necessary to evaluate an argument’s merit.
I, like many others commenting on the Middlebury event, was disappointed with the students themselves for using such tactics to drown out Murray. One of the students involved with the protest, Elizabeth Sichuan Lee, a philosophy major, was quoted in the New York Times arguing that “a flawed notion of ‘free speech’ has allowed individuals in positions of power to spread racist pseudoscience in academic institutions.” She goes on to complain that students were not going to have time to refute Murray’s claims of intelligence and class/racial status. Slavoj Zizek writes of free speech in his 1997 book The Plague of Fantasies. “Today in the face of the emergence of new racism and sexism, the strategy should be to make such enunciations unutterable, so that anyone relying on them automatically disqualifies himself [sic]” (34, his emphasis). At first it may seem that Zizek is calling for tactics like those employed by the students of Middlebury College; what better way to make something unutterable than to drown it out with chanting? This is too simple a read however. Zizek’s “unutterable” strategy can only work at the site of the receiver of the message. Murray’s message is only diminished if those hearing it decide that he has “automatically disqualifie[d]” himself with such a reliance on veiled racist ideology. If anything, I think the shouting down of Murray bolstered his supporters. Would those not considering themselves racist, but still open to notions of biological differences amongst racial groups, really be swayed from Murray’s message by chanting college students? I sympathize with the students’ message, but I think their actions did more harm than good.
I will agree that a sponsored lecture is often a display of power/knowledge, but it is doubtful that The Bell Curve would be discussed unless brought up in a question after the lecture. I think it is important to note that this was to be a lecture on Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in which he appears to lament the decline of the white working class. I laughed at the premise of this book when it was first published in 2012 and ignored it as another white nationalist message in sociologist clothing from Murray.
And then the 2016 election happened and the world was shocked at how many angry white people voted for Trump and seemingly voted against their own interests.
I am reading the book now, simply to see what Murray has to say about what he sees as the white working class. The book is once again a weakly argued and nostalgic look at ‘the good old days’ and fails to sincerely acknowledge that twentieth-century America was not good for every American (I plan to produce a full critique of this book soon). The book is not good, yet it has tapped into an ideology of a better (white) America. Such a book should be “unutterable,” but we can only get to such a point through an intellectual dismantling of Murray’s ideas with those who are reading his work. I am not calling for Bernie supporters to invite Trump voters to dinner. Such a move gets us nowhere. Rather, I suggest we run straight into the ideas we find ‘deplorable’ and get our hands (and minds) dirty. I’ll be trying to make this unutterable by engaging with that very white working class so receptive to these ideas.