What Nice, Moderate Liberals Are Getting Wrong Abo...

What Nice, Moderate Liberals Are Getting Wrong About Middlebury’s Protests

I took a psychology class in high school. This was 2008, and in one of those “move there for the schools” suburbs. The class itself was an afterthought of the social studies department, an introductory survey just called “Psychology” that only one teacher offered: a man everyone called Max. After a few months of the typical intro curriculum—Maslow’s pyramid, Skinner’s diagrams, Freud’s weirdness—Max did something I did not immediately recognize as unusual. He taught Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve.

For those not around for the book’s brief success in the early 90s or one of its several unfortunate refluxes, The Bell Curve is a sociology tract that argues race determines intelligence. Its breathtaking racism is only matched by its shoddy research, and the whole thing has been thoroughly debunked. Still, it periodically makes its way back into the news with the help of pundits like Andrew Sullivan who, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, use it as a symbol of “truth under fire by political correctness” and not just “discredited bullshit.” Most recently, it was the protests that his speech at Middlebury College inspired, especially when a confrontation left his faculty sponsor in the hospital.

I haven’t felt the need to find out what conservative commentators are saying about the demonstrations because I already know: death of free speech, end of academic freedom, the truth at last about the violent and intolerant left, so on, so forth. For the same reason, I also haven’t had the impulse to seek out what nice, moderate liberals are saying, but I’m finding that harder to avoid. I’m hearing that violence is never the answer, and an honest dialogue is important, and rowdy demonstrations only give him free press. I’m hearing it in my Twitter feed and Facebook feed. Far too much, I’m hearing it from myself.

I don’t love violent resistance. I don’t love the danger or the moral uncertainty. I don’t love the strategic questions, the fear that, no matter how justified, violence will alienate the nice, moderate liberals who aren’t actively trying to kill that part of themselves. Ideally, I’d want every injustice solved by honest debate and a free exchange of ideas, even as I know that’s not realistic. I could justify the violent demonstrations at UC Berkeley—Milo Yiannopoulos was going to out undocumented students and the school itself could not legally turn him away—but even then, I wasn’t thrilled that people were hurt, even if they were cops. And this milquetoast impulse frustrates me, but even now, as engaged and furious as I am, some deep part of me wants justice without throwing a punch.

So  I was uneasy when protests ended with a college professor in the hospital. Murray wasn’t as direct a threat to student safety as Yiannopoulos. Hell, Murray didn’t even seem relevant: as much as I hate this pearl-clutching thinkpiece, I agreed that Murray was all but a relic. He was safer to ignore than Yiannopoulos, and while I’m personally grateful to every student who shouted him down, I worried that bodily harm would just give him publicity and a moral high ground. I was (and still am) worried about that  professor, because she’s objectively less deserving of the pain than Murray. I couldn’t justify the violence as easily I had for UC Berkeley’s protests, and I was afraid all the nice, moderate liberals would feel the same way.

At the time, I wasn’t thinking of that psychology class.

Max had given us a handout on The Bell Curve. It included a few counterpoints to the book’s thesis, then counterpoints to those counterpoints. It made the same argument as Andrew Sullivan when he was defending the book: the numbers don’t lie. It painted the idea of racial equality as dogmatic, getting in the way of an honest discussion. The book and Sullivan and Max all insisted that the reasonable, rational thing was to trust the numbers, and those who wouldn’t were clouded by emotion. They were arguing, literally, for eugenics, but they told us they just wanted a frank debate in good faith. That they were reasonable and intelligent people who only concerned with the truth.

Max took us on a field trip of sorts. It was just down the school’s hall, towards its main entrance. On the wall were pictures of each class’s valedictorian for the past decade. Most of them were Asian.

“What do you see?” Max asked us. The numbers didn’t lie, he said. The photos on the wall didn’t lie, he said. This was just about finding the truth, he said.

And he was, to his own mind, magnanimous: when we got back to the classroom, he explained that different races had different types of intelligence. Black people, for instance, were brilliant athletes and musicians. He turned to the only Black student in the classroom.

“Right?” he asked.

And so here’s the thing: Charles Murray’s indignant, tweed-jacketed, racist misinformation isn’t just objectionable in the abstract. It’s not just a dreadful thought experiment. It spills over, spreads, seeps through shoes and stains the carpets. It’s backed by teachers like Max, by people in power, by power structures themselves. I’m white, and it’s relatively easy for me to let this be theoretical, even laughable, but not everyone has that luxury. Some people get singled out, in class, by the person who will determine their grade, and be asked to validate racism. Not in the 1950s, or the deep South, or a school district struggling for resources. This was 2008, in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Max only retired in 2016.

So to every nice, moderate liberal wringing our hands about the violence at Middlebury: please, just stop. Just stop, because Max isn’t the only racist with authority emboldened by The Bell Curve and work like it, and a million protest scuffles would still be less dangerous, insidious, and destructive than the structures those works prop up. He isn’t in the innocent victim of the “intolerant left” but a shill for an evil system, faced with students who know exactly what he is. Their demonstrations might not cater to my privileged sensibilities, but that does not mean they’re any less appropriate.

And they are appropriate, because as much as I would like the solution to be honest debate and free speech and whatever, that won’t stop The Bell Curve. Its appeal isn’t its scientific rigor or brave truth-telling, because it lacks both: Its appeal is telling white people that our biases are valid, that the world is fine as it is, that inequality is inevitable and we don’t have to give a shit. No wonder, then, that junk science like The Bell Curve keeps showing up. For all its pretensions of radical honesty and unwavering rationalism, it’s a book that sells on emotional appeal alone. There’s no argument that can convince its fans that they’ve been lied to because the lies offer a feeling of accuracy, superiority, and legitimacy. It can’t be debated away.

I’ve been worried about the nice, moderate liberal response to what happened at Middlebury, so it’s the nice, moderate liberals I’m writing to. Violent resistance to structural violence makes perfect sense. Hari Ziyad makes a moral argument for letting protesters protest how they choose. A recent history of economic inequality shows that injustice is almost never reasoned away. Please read them if you’re at all uneasy about what happened at Middlebury and understand that your unease—our unease—is a choice, at least partly a reflection of privilege, and always a hindrance to people doing the work that will sit on the right side of history. When the opposition is people like Murray, people like Yiannopoulos, people like Max, we can commit to decorum.

Or we can commit to justice.


About Stewart Finnegan

In a perfect world, I'd be a professor who teaches poetry using episodes of mediocre sci-fi procedurals, but for now, I'm just a tutor who watches a lot of TV. I got my BA from Kalamazoo College in English with a focus on creative writing, and someday soon I'd like to go back to academia. Most of my formal teaching training was as a creative writing TA, but I've used those skills professionally more to tutor math and write data entry training materials. And though I'd like to focus my work on what I'm really passionate about (which is Netflix binges and outdated video games, mostly), it's the craft of teaching and writing that keeps me coming back. That's why I'm excited to be a part of High Faluter: I'm finding that academia doesn't just stay in academia. And if I can bring crappy midbrow entertainment into academia too, well, all the better. You can find me on Twitter: @StewartFinnegan