Charles Murray — controversial social scientist — delivered a speech on campus Oct. 11, despite somewhat significant protest. This, once again, raises two questions we seem incapable of escaping for the foreseeable political future: What are the limits of free speech, especially on college campuses? And who and what deserves to be protested?
To immediately undermine myself, I don’t think free versus censored speech in a traditional sense is actually the interesting question. Murray is allowed to speak on this public university campus, whether or not the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans invite or sponsor him. What we as students, and many of us as activists, seem to be concerned with, though, is whether one should try to silence someone who, at best, walks the line between academic science and racism.
There is a distinction — and a majority of college students agree with me — between intentionally offensive rhetoric (such as racial slurs) and legitimate academic discourse, even over contentious topics. My resistance to protests designed to silence one’s opposition applies only to this sort of dialogue, where our primary question can safely be “What best checks speech we disagree with?” In this case, I think the answer is often counterspeech, not protest.
One of the forces keeping Murray’s ideas alive well past their expiration date is the allure of dangerous or forbidden ideas. I presume we’ve all met at least one person convinced that feminism is a grand conspiracy against men or that trans rights are just the result of wild liberal overreach. The same principle applies here: Some faction of people will believe individuals protest Murray’s ideas because they undermine the liberal lie, not because they’re relics from a worse part of our history.
A response designed to produce converts, then, meets the ideas of Murray and others like him directly. There is a definite place for general protest and I want to reiterate that this is not a condemnation of those who prefer that method; I only want to argue that when people frame themselves as trying to bring up opposing arguments in a world of political correctness, meeting one idea with another will be more effective than trying to drown them out.
Physical protections of the University and University security aside, there are few places as well structured for counterspeech as a university. There were several professors among those protesting Murray; would none of them have been willing to make a counterpresentation, debunking Murray’s claim or defending an alternative philosophy? What about our student activists, who have proven themselves in the past to be quite persuasive? A parallel speech would offer interested parties the critical opportunity to show up for, rather than against, something.
It’s impossible to guarantee complete safety. One group divided, though, seems obviously more apt to dissolve into ugliness than two groups looking to be swayed. Each speech’s audience, thus, would be united in their demand from the speaker: Persuade me that you’re right, whether it’s for the first time or the fortieth time.
Protest asks whether certain ideas are “permitted”; counterspeech asks what ideas are more persuasive. The ability to mobilize is important, but — and I think this is fairly universal — the end goal is persuasion. Our highly monitored — especially in public spaces — environment here, along with the ideal of academic freedom, creates a safe space for dangerous ideas. What do we have to gain from forfeiting a chance to convert rather than contain?
Anger in response to people like Charles Murray is justified, and there are times when containment is the only rational course of action. Enabled here as we are to act politically, however, that anger might more effectively be directed toward winning the conflict of ideas. I don’t think Murray’s claims are hard to succeed against, but one cannot win a debate without first having one. If we are right, what ideological threat does a debate pose?
The effectiveness of otherwise feebly constructed arguments comes from their framing. As long as one gives their opposition grounds to claim that they are being silenced for speaking the uncomfortable truth, not for espousing bankrupt ideology, they cede their strongest tool for argument. In the context of a university, winning debates will be more effective than preventing them.
Hank Minor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.