Shout Down, Walk Out

Once again, students are rejecting on-campus speakers who don’t toe the politically correct line. At Brown University on October 29, a group of students shouted, chanted, and booed as New York police commissioner Ray Kelly began a lecture on “proactive policing,” which includes the controversial policy of “stop and frisk.” Kelly was unable to continue. The speech was called off 27 minutes after it was supposed to begin, the Providence Journal wrote, and Kelly left the stage without comment.

The day before, students at Duke University walked out on the social scientist Charles Murray, who was there to speak on his latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

The event at Brown made national news, but in some ways it was less disturbing than the action at Duke. After all, the response from Brown‘s president, Christina Paxson, was appropriate. She roundly condemned the students and created a committee to investigate (whether the students will be punished remains to be seen, however). An article in Inside Higher Ed cited only one comment in favor of their actions, by an alumnus who called them “civil disobedience.”

The Brown protesters were just bullies and got no respect.

The incident at Duke—silently walking out on a speaker—fell short of the insult (and violation of free expression) of halting a speech. Charles Murray was able to speak. Yet Duke’s event was preceded by several days of discussion in the college newspaper, the Duke Chronicle. Those comments might worry Duke alumni and others who think that students ought to value the exchange of ideas—especially with someone who has been a major figure in social policy for nearly thirty years.

Let’s look a little more carefully at the incident and its backstory.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., and his talk was sponsored by the Duke chapter of AEI. His purpose was to discuss the ideas in his 2012 book, Coming Apart, in which he argues that the U.S. is splitting into two distinct cultures. One he calls “Belmont,” composed of affluent people who succeed (and whose children succeed) by following the virtues of hard work, good education, and networking. The other is “Fishtown,” composed of lower middle-class people who are giving up traditional habits and values—and thus are increasingly falling into poverty.

Those ideas are not all that controversial; it is doubtful that any of the Duke opponents had read the book. Rather, Murray was treated shabbily because of two previous books.

In the first, Losing Ground, Murray argued persuasively that welfare creates dependence and thus harms the recipients themselves, not just taxpayers. Published in 1984, Losing Ground changed the debate over welfare and contributed to welfare reform. President Clinton even praised Murray, saying that “he did the country a great service.”

Ten years later, Murray had what qualifies as a smash hit in the policy world—the far more controversial book, The Bell Curve, written with Richard Herrnstein. The subject was the role of intelligence in determining success in life—a subject eschewed in intellectual circles because of its connection with discredited eugenics policies.

Foreshadowing his latest book, Murray argued that in today’s society the “cognitive elites”—those who are more intelligent—tend to be well-off, to marry one another, and to perpetuate the elite. Those who are less intelligent stay within their own group, too, thereby perpetuating their lives of mediocre success. The result is a growing separation between two major groups in the United States, stemming from the impact of intelligence.

That 845-page book also provided evidence of differences in intelligence among racial and ethnic groups, and that is the reason for Murray’s castigation by many.

On October 23, Prashanth Kamalakanthan, a senior at Duke and a columnist for the Duke Chronicle, urged Duke students to walk out of the upcoming lecture. Kamalakanthan argued that Murray shouldn’t be heard because of the policy implications of his work.

“He has built a career espousing a hierarchy of humans in which babies born poor, brown or female are responsible for their own miserable lot.“ (Presumably, that was Kamalakanthan’s interpretation of Murray’s claim that the intelligence that people inherit can have a major impact on their success.)

Kamalakanthan said he didn’t want people to think that he has “a desire for silence,” even though, as he noted, he had also opposed General David Petraeus’s appearance. Instead, he wanted to express “dissent.” He wrote:

Daylight as disinfectant for odious views, free and fair exchange, goes the refrain. Where, though, is the disinfectant for the exploitation excused by these views, the fairness in the vast sums spent by those who profit by turning them into policy?

In this young man’s lexicon, dissent means not engaging and not even listening.

They could have had a good exchange. Murray is deliberately controversial—even provocative—and Kamalakanthan must consider Murray’s ideas to be important, since they lead to policies of “exploitation.” But Kamalakanthan chose silence and a highly visible walk-out, violating the fundamental rules of engagement of academia.

More broadly, he is disdainful of the Western tradition of free exchange of ideas, classically expressed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion….”

Kamalakanthan’s letter spurred a response from Jonathan Anomaly, assistant visiting professor of political science, who defended Murray’s arguments and challenged the walk-out recommendation: “Denying people the opportunity to speak about controversial research does little to promote the equal right of persons to express unpopular views.”

A second student, Andy Chu, then went after Professor Anomaly, first by belittling Anomaly’s defense of Murray, and then challenging freedom of expression with a Marxist tone.

The free market of ideas serves those exceptional few with the most intellectual and social capital…only by subjecting everyone else to even higher levels of social control and intellectual scrutiny, all the while asserting these same people’s ‘liberty’ and ‘equal right to speak.’

His words reflect a feeble understanding of a foundational aspect of Western civilization, labeling free expression as a tool wielded by a powerful class over a powerless one. Take that, John Stuart Mill! 

The executive council of the Duke chapter of AEI also issued a statement in favor of free speech. They invited Kamalakanthan “to take the road less traveled. Choose to stay at the event. Muster the best arguments”—but to noå avail.

Does this contretemps represent the state of free speech on our campuses today?

Certainly, something is off-base. Juan Williams, the Fox News commentator who was fired by National Public Radio for speaking too plainly, was recently interviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) on the subject of free speech. Among his comments:

Shouldn’t young people—especially our very best and brightest who are in our colleges and universities—shouldn’t they be the ones who are engaged in the most vigorous and dynamic exchange of ideas and testing out the flaws in their lines of thinking with each other and with their professors? Shouldn’t they be reading everything they can get their hands on? Shouldn’t they be engaged in the most lively and wacky and sometimes even offensive debates? Because that’s what your brain needs.

That does not seem to be what college brains are getting these days.