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Murray at Middlebury: the cost of disrupting ‘provocative’ speech

Cornell University professors of human development Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci report in The New York Times’ SundayReview column “Gray Matter” on an intriguing experiment they ran using the text of political scientist Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College. Wondering if his views were as “provocative” as the response seemed to indicate, they decided to put the speech he gave (by livestream, from another room, after he was disrupted from speaking in the original venue) to the test:

[W]e transcribed Mr. Murray’s speech and — without indicating who wrote it — sent it to a group of 70 college professors (women and men, of different ranks, at different universities). We asked them to rate the material on a scale from 1 to 9, ranging from very liberal to very conservative, with 5 defined as “middle of the road.” We also offered them a chance to explain why they gave the material the score they did.

American college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Still, the 57 professors who responded to our request gave Mr. Murray’s talk an average score of 5.05, or “middle of the road.” Some professors said that they judged the speech to be liberal or left-leaning because it addressed issues like poverty and incarceration, or because it discussed social change in terms of economic forces rather than morality. Others suggested that they detected a hint of discontent with the fact that Donald Trump was elected president. No one raised concerns that the material was contentious, dangerous or otherwise worthy of censure.

A different group, comprised of 44 respondents who had been told it was Charles Murray’s speech they were reading, gave it an average rank of 5.77, not too far away from the group who saw it anonymously. Then the Cornell professors decided to take it to the public:

Finally, we divided Mr. Murray’s speech into 10 portions and got ratings on each portion from a paid sample of 200 American adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for jobs and tasks. These participants identified themselves as having an average political orientation of 4.21, or leaning slightly liberal. When their ratings for the 10 sections were averaged, they too gave the talk a centrist score: 5.22. (Average ratings for the 10 portions ranged from 4 to 6.)

FIRE has no interest in the content of Murray’s speech, as we have not seen any reports that it touched on anything related to FIRE’s mission. But the fact that the speech itself, at least by the Cornell professors’ account, was viewed overwhelmingly by respondents as politically “middle of the road” highlights the fact that simply using the identity of a speaker as shorthand for that speaker’s message may lead you to a false conclusion about what the speaker is actually planning to say. It’s hard to see the good in that.

Indeed, potential problems abound when people forego demonstrating against speakers like Murray in a peaceful and non-disruptive fashion. Obviously, disrupting Murray’s speech, and then attacking his car and forcing him and Middlebury Professor-moderator Allison Stanger to flee from a dinner afterwards, directly harmed both Stanger, who ended up in the hospital, and Murray, whose speech was disrupted and who had to contend with protesters’ attacks.

But there are at least two other groups that have been harmed by this episode that should not be overlooked. The first is the group of Middlebury students and professors who would have liked to have a peaceful and fair opportunity to fully hear Murray’s views — whether to be convinced by them or to challenge him. If we are to maintain a liberal society, the ability of such people to speak and hear dissenting views must not depend on the mercy or apathy of those who are willing to be violent or disruptive.

The second group is the disruptors themselves, as well as those willing to engage in violence to keep Murray from speaking. They, too, were harmed, though not in a physical sense. As John Stuart Mill famously wrote in his 1859 treatise “On Liberty,”

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Every time an opinion is shouted down instead of contested, a heckler’s veto is allowed to silence a speaker, or violence prevents a person from speaking, the hidden cost to our society (including to the people doing the silencing), grows. Perhaps it is too much to expect those opposed to a given opinion to recognize this cost in the rush to score a political victory. Nevertheless, when it happens, we all pay the price.

Learn more about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education at The New York Times.

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