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Monday, Dec 5, 2022

Charles Murray round two: A chance to get it right

“If people are determined to be offended — if they will climb up on the ladder, balancing it precariously on their own toilet system to be upset by what they see through the neighbor’s bathroom window — there is nothing you can do about that.” — Christopher Hitchens

In 1755, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson published his famous dictionary of the English language. Shortly after his work was distributed, many people in London sought him out to praise him for his work. As the story goes, one group of ladies congratulated Johnson on excluding any inappropriate or indecent words from his dictionary. “Ladies,” Johnson replied, “I congratulate you on your diligence in searching for them.” 

It’s easy to hear this story and connect it to contemporary occasions in which individuals go out of their way to find offense with a given author or speaker. Despite my best efforts, I cannot grasp the inner workings of the minds of those who embark upon these kinds of searches.

In some cases, the sought-for offense is more easily found than in others. “The Bell Curve” by the re-invited Charles Murray arguably represents a more obviously controversial publication (as is the case with his newest book). However, the actions of those at the 2017 protest who found offense in Murray’s work were far more serious than those of the ladies of London. They were so extreme that, when I was the treasurer of the American Enterprise Institute Club and co-president of the College Republicans in 2017, I could not have envisioned the outrage his presence generated on campus, which culminated in protests governed by a mob mentality the afternoon of his talk.

Would you return to a place that greeted you with, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away?” Perhaps the hundreds of student and non-Middlebury protesters should have been more diligent in the search to be offended — as the ladies in London were with Johnson — because they didn’t appear to be relying on accurate information. For example, one could choose to counter their chants by pointing out that Murray was one of the most forthright conservative intellectuals in favor of the Republican Party modifying its platform to support both gay marriage and abortion. Or by pointing out that Murray’s calls for a more socially liberal stance on those issues were made in 2013, when gay marriage and abortion were even more unpopular among Republicans than they are today, within just months of President Obama’s own 180-degree switch on the issue of marriage equality. But I suppose the protest chant had a nice jingle to it and seriously engaging in a dialogue with “sexist and anti-gay” Murray was much less convenient than reading a half-page summary of Murray’s work on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.

Can I understand why some people were offended by Murray’s visit? Certainly. I came to Middlebury with a worldview that was challenged, shattered, built up and shattered again multiple times throughout my time there. But I sought out guest lectures on race, equity, religion; worldviews that often made me uncomfortable in my own skin, clothes and head. My time at Middlebury popped the bubble in which I was raised and forced me to encounter issues on my own through the free expression and engagement of ideas. Patting myself on the back through conversations with ideologically identical friends whose views echoed my own was of no interest or value to me.

Yet, despite running towards these challenges, I not only found the Murray protesters uninterested in engaging with any contrary viewpoints (or even understanding what they were really opposing), but found myself running away from the event. Literally. I still recall that evening in vivid detail, when my brisk pace turned to a full-on sprint as a masked protester (who I assume was not a student) holding a large sign chased me back to my dorm room from the event. I was wearing a suit and tie; I had to be with the bad guy, they figured. 

If you didn’t feel that the protesters’ response — effectively shutting down the Murray event, as well as the events which occurred immediately afterwards — was an embarrassing moment for the college prior to reading this op-ed, I doubt I’ve convinced you. But for those who are on the fence, having Murray back provides an opportunity to engage without shutting down and redeem the college’s stained image in the eyes of many alumni, donors and the general public. Rarely do such second chances present themselves.

If you don’t agree with me, I want to leave you with this thought: Consider what would have happened if, instead of attending those lectures to challenge my viewpoints and gain more information, I had simply taken offense to paragraphs posted on Facebook. Imagine if I had organized a group of dozens, or even hundreds, of students to shut down that event. Or pulled the fire alarm three times. Or stood in front of a car carrying Murray and college staff. Or protested with outside professionals on campus, culminating in the concussion of a professor. Imagine if my gut reaction was not to engage, but to resist forcefully something which I hadn’t read about and based on my opinion of a speaker whom I heard third-hand. Now, imagine if this was done again. And again. And again. Would that be helpful to anyone? Would it further the college’s mission? Would it reflect well on my own (and my peers’) cause? Most importantly, would it right the supposed wrong embodied in the offense that was taken? 

The views you cherish and express today might be offensive to someone else tomorrow. And if a precedent is set that offense justifies the cancellation of the exchange of ideas on the basis of offense, then you’ve cut off the very branch upon which you sit. My advice: Be careful not to make yourself a victim of your own actions.

Hayden Dublois '17 helped organize Charles Murray's 2017 visit to Middlebury. Dublois currently works at the Foundation for Government Accountability.