Charles Murray, an author and political scientist, was scheduled to give a lecture at Middlebury College earlier this month. Murray is best known for co-authoring The Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 in which he argued that blacks are less intelligent than white people. On March 2, a mix of students and “outside agitators” shut down Murray’s talk and forced him off campus. A professor was injured and hospitalized, and Murray’s car was mobbed.
On cue, a few gallant crusaders against political correctness sprang into action, delivering familiar critiques of campus intolerance to go along with their sensible condemnations of the incident’s violence. In the Atlantic, Peter Beinart argued that the confrontation with Murray reflected a threat even to mainstream figures like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose scheduled 2014 address at Rutgers was opposed merely because she had approved torture and promoted a dead-end war that killed at least a quarter of a million people. In the Washington Post, Danielle Allen compared Murray’s plight with the ordeal faced by the black students of the Little Rock Nine. The fact that the research Murray has endorsed is regularly deployed by racists to argue that the education of black students is futile went unacknowledged. And in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that the incident reflected the “dangerous safety” of higher education and endorsed the view that Murray’s critics can only learn he is wrong via engagement with his ideas. The millions who’ve found good reason to reject the notion of black inferiority without even an awareness of Charles Murray’s existence evidently have yet to be truly educated on the subject.
All told though, reaction to the Murray incident, compared with the furor inspired by, say, the Yale Halloween costume controversy or the protests at the University of Missouri, has been relatively sparse. “Where is the outrage from faculty at universities around the country, both towards this incident, and so many others?” Michael Strain asked at National Review.
The veteran critics on and off campus, like the rest of us, are a bit preoccupied. As you may have heard, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. In his first seven weeks in office, Trump has attempted to delegitimize the judiciary and the electoral process and condemned the free press. He has made two thinly veiled attempts to restrict the entry of Muslims into the country. The president’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who employed unabashed Islamophobes, sexists, and propagandists of racism as head of Breitbart, routinely cites a novel about an invasion of Europe by deviant, feces-eating minorities to explain his worldview. Given conditions on the ground in 2017, it’s easy to forget the thousands upon thousands of words expended not too long ago in the service of arguing that college students represented the most serious threat to liberal democratic norms and values. “American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state,” New York’s Jonathan Chait warned ominously in November 2015.
Trumpism’s present control of that machinery, as even the harshest critics of political correctness on campus must concede, offers more than a conjectural threat to liberalism’s animating principles, including the belief in the equality of all people before the law and in the eyes of others. But those principles, in truth, have always been threatened. Liberalism comes equipped with a very large self-destruct button. Under liberalism in its purest form, you are permitted to promote bigotry, to argue that certain kinds of people—black people, gay people, Muslims, Jews, women—should be seen as inferior or dangerous. You are free, even, to advocate for their mistreatment and oppression. This is part of the right to free speech and expression. This is also the open back door that Trump walked through, with the forces of a resurgent white nationalism close behind.
We are all wary, now, of normalizing the coded xenophobia and prejudice that hangs in the air. Talk of “globalism” and “law and order” rings familiar alarm bells. We recognize that the president’s offhanded comments may carry deep meaning, that his jokes are not just jokes, that the subtleties of the way he addresses certain communities carry great import. This is not so far removed from the vigilant posture of student activists who have warned us—to loud guffaws from the discourse’s responsible adults—about the small and often imperceptible ways bigotry can penetrate our lives and habits of mind. Those students have also warned that granting people like Charles Murray prominent platforms on our campuses in the spirit of open discourse may be counterproductive. “For too long, a flawed notion of ‘free speech’ has allowed individuals in positions of power to spread racist pseudoscience in academic institutions, dehumanizing and subjugating people of color and gender minorities,” Middlebury student Elizabeth Siyuan Lee told the New York Times on Tuesday. “While I defend Murray’s right to speak his mind, the fact that the college provided an elevated platform for him did more harm than good.”
Is this such an outrageous point of view? Is it inherently misguided to suggest some speech ought to be restricted not by law but by informal rules? Is the space in the discourse that liberalism has granted to bigots emboldened by the Trump era a real problem or not?
The critics of political correctness have largely shirked opportunities to explore these questions seriously and open-mindedly, instead preferring to render student activists as uncharitably as possible. “The modern college student thinks he or she (or xe) is uniquely oppressed, mistreated, and unsafe,” Robby Soave wrote in a characteristic piece for the Daily Beast last June. “They think a university education is too hostile, triggering, and difficult.” This is the conclusion that Soave and other writers have comfortably drawn based on the handful of some 20 million college students who are controversial enough to make for screaming headlines. One can find pockets of extremism and silliness in any category of people and amongst the adherents of nearly any ideological doctrine. Outright violence of the kind that broke out in Middlebury has been rare among today’s activists, whose militancy, it should be said, pales dramatically in comparison to the literal terrorism of some college students in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When you pare away the sensationalism that characterizes much of the reporting on the campus scene, political correctness doesn’t seem to be as powerful a force as its critics want us to believe. Take the panic over trigger warnings. In 2015, the National Coalition Against Censorship released the results of a survey of more than 800 professors in the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association—professors who, as teachers of literature and art, would be among the most likely to use warnings. More than 92 percent said they were unaware of any student efforts on their campus to require trigger warnings, 85 percent reported their own students had never asked for them, and 88 percent of those who did not offer trigger warnings said their students hadn’t complained about their absence. The report concluded that reports of a trigger warning epidemic were “difficult to substantiate.”
Naturally, these findings were mostly ignored—the anti-PC narrative admits precious little change or nuance. Its central argument, after all, amounts to little more than a knuckle-dragging grunt: More speech good. Those who disagree—those who dare suggest that the utility of speech may in fact be dependent on content, context, speaker, and audience—have unfailingly been deemed oversensitive and closed-minded. They are beholden to, in Jonathan Chait’s words, “philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism.”
Incompatible? Really? As of 2014, laws criminalizing offensive hate speech were on the books in 89 countries, including 84 percent of European nations. Is Spain, which bans racist speech, not a liberal state? Should we consider the state of Israel, where one can face criminal penalties for denying the Holocaust, intellectually stunted and fragile?
This is not a call for the criminalization of speech in the United States. It seems probable that the stringent protections for speech afforded Americans by the First Amendment have created a uniquely open public sphere that yields unique benefits to our discourse. But the argument that politically correct standards of etiquette or speech restrictions on campus are delirious, unprecedented absurdities that will set us on a slow, steady path toward the snuffing out of free society is unhinged.
The PC critics, one suspects, are dimly aware of this reality and understand too the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse. Every now and then, they show us that their true views on speech are more complicated than their condemnations of students let on. In his 2015 essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” Chait scolded student activists for writing off their white, privileged opponents as irreconcilable enemies. “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree,” he wrote. But in a post responding to the “deplorables” fracas a year later, Chait’s views on the utility of discourse and engagement appeared to have undergone a mysterious transformation. “Trump enjoys a hard-core support that lies beyond persuasion, utterly immune to even the starkest factual evidence,” he wrote.
Also consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, booted from a scheduled appearance at the University of California–Berkeley in February by protesters uninterested in hearing from a man who claimed the mass shooting at Orlando, Florida’s Pulse nightclub was “an expression of mainstream Muslim values.” Yiannopoulos was in turn invited to speak at the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “We think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective,” ACU chairman Matt Schlapp tweeted. It was soon discovered that Yiannopoulos believes children as young as 13 can consent to sex with adults more than twice their age. His speech was canceled.
Why was Yiannopoulos’ invitation to CPAC rescinded? Because he held beliefs that offended and disgusted. When students oppose speakers on similar grounds, hacks shriek about thought-policing. Let’s imagine he had taken the opportunity at CPAC to expand on his controversial views—surely attendees could have learned something valuable from a free, open, and lively debate on whether raping children is in fact OK. Alas, the illiberal totalitarians who demanded that the American Conservative Union reverse course denied us a chance to find out.
The notion that speech could be sensibly regulated was the central idea of one of the conservative movement’s ur-texts. God and Man at Yale, authored by the then 25-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., is little more than an extended plea for speech restrictions on campus. “Question: What is the 1) ethical, 2) philosophical, or 3) epistemological argument for requiring continued tolerance of ideas whose discrediting it is the purpose of education to effect,” Buckley asked. “What ethical code (in the Bible? in Plato? Kant? Hume?) requires ‘honest respect’ for any divergent conviction?”
These are sound questions, as much as a campus liberal today might find fault with the targets of his ire. Yale for Buckley was, among other things, insufficiently religious. Members of the faculty, he alleged, had been using “pernicious techniques to undermine the tenets of Christianity.” These “pernicious techniques” included the deployment of one-liners like, “All I can tell about heaven is that it must be awfully crowded there!” This is perhaps one of the earliest documented instances of students being triggered by a professor.
God and Man at Yale, which is subtitled “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’ ” is also likely one of the first texts by a student arguing that campuses should be safe spaces. “I believe it to be an indisputable fact that most colleges and universities, and certainly Yale, the protests and pretensions of their educators and theorists notwithstanding, do not practice, cannot practice, and cannot even believe what they say about education and academic freedom,” Buckley wrote. “I should be interested to know how long a person who revealed himself as a racist, who lectured about the anthropological superiority of the Aryan, would last at Yale? My prediction is that the next full moon would see him looking elsewhere for a job.”
Today, National Review, the publication Buckley founded, rails against such arguments. “[Liberals] have declared academic freedom an ‘outdated concept’ and have gone the full Orwell,” Kevin Williamson wrote in 2015, “declaring that freedom is oppressive and that they should not be expected to tolerate ideas that they do not share.”
But the politically correct do not argue for an end to all extant academic and political debates. Like Buckley, they call for a recognition that politics, morality, and practicality create inherent bounds to discourse. Few demand that anti-vaccination advocates be granted equal time to express their views. And if a movement emerged on college campuses to promote a kind of fashionable, refined Islamic fundamentalism—an alt-Qaida, if you will—we can be assured that critics of restricted speech would discover an enthusiasm for no-platforming. But when student activists, particularly minority activists, argue against the permissibility of certain speech on the grounds that it enables prejudice, we’re suddenly told that universities must always be free marketplaces of ideas.
The critics of political correctness flatter themselves with paeans to their putative open-mindedness and cluck sadly at angry outbursts. Yes, certain ideas are wrong, they tell activists. But when you allow people to examine the various sides of a debate, those with the best command of facts and reason—that is, those who agree with us—will emerge victorious. The race scientists will go the way of flat-earthers. Islamophobia will be found contemptible. Hillary will win.
But this moment in American politics and American life proves that the victory of reason cannot always be assured. The purveyors of logic, of facts dutifully checked and delivered to the public, lost big league in November. The cost has been an erosion of our national character that we will be powerless to stop unless we fight prejudice wherever it lies. The critics of political correctness have argued that shutting down certain conversations may bear political costs and alienate potential allies. This is a certainty. Morality is alienating. But the costs of being moral have been borne successfully by innumerable movements for social change. This is, to borrow a phrase, a time for choosing. In the Trump era, should we side with those who insist that the bigoted must traipse unhindered through our halls of learning? Or should we dare to disagree?