That brings us to the most difficult part of this essay, in which we consider the moral content of Murray’s racial arguments, and the motivation for Harris’s astonishing willingness to showcase them so uncritically. Murray presents himself as coolly rational and scientific as he proceeds to his conclusion of genetically based racial differences: People differ in behavior, groups of people differ in behavior, people differ genetically, groups differ genetically. One way or another, genes are associated with behavior, so of course some group differences in behavior occur because of genes. No big deal. “This is what a dispassionate look at decades of research suggests,” Harris blithely says.
It is a big deal. The conviction that groups of people differ along important behavioral dimensions because of racial differences in their genetic endowment is an idea with a horrific recent history. Murray and Harris pepper their remarks with anodyne commitments to treating people as individuals, even people who happen to come from genetically benighted groups. But the burden of proof is surely on them to explain how the modern program of race science differs from the ones that have justified policies that inflicted great harm. Is it simply that we now have better psychological tests, or more sophisticated genomics?
Asserting that the relatively poorer intellectual performance of racial groups is based on their genes is mistaken theoretically and unfounded empirically; and given the consequences of promulgating the policies that follow from such assertions, it is egregiously wrong morally.
Finally, let us consider Sam Harris and his willingness to endorse Murray’s claims — his decision to suspend the skepticism and tough-mindedness we have come to expect from him. There is a fairly widespread intellectual movement among center-right social theorists and pundits to argue that strong adherence to the scientific method commits us to following human science wherever it goes — and they mean something very specific in this context. They say we must move from hard-nosed science of intelligence and genetics all the way — only if that’s the direction data and logical, unbiased interpretation lead, naturally — to genetically based differences in behavior among races.
Some of you may have seen Denial, Mick Jackson’s dramatization of the Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel suit against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt. If you haven’t I strongly recommend it — it’s a terrific movie, well-written and beautifully acted. (My only regret is that it doesn’t show the disgraceful role the the most overrated public intellectual of his generation played in propping up the fiction that Irving was a serious historian, granting that Timothy Spall — who would be perfect to play Hitchens — was already cast as Irving.) In addition to its aesthetic virtues, the film effectively demonstrates the core insight both Irving and Lipstadt had — you can’t “win” a public, one-on-one debate with a Holocaust denier. If you put Irving and Lipstadt in the same forum, as two historians representing points of view that are both worth hearing, Irving wins, even if most of the audience concludes that the latter has a better grasp of the facts. The lawsuit was dangerous for reasons beyond the potential of a fine historian being ruined financially for telling the truth about a Nazi, and the tension results in the best coutroom thriller I’ve seen since A Civil Action.
The applicability of this to Murray should be obvious. Nobody is entitled to any public forum. I don’t advocate or defend violence against Murray (let alone third parties), and in most cases when a speaker has a forum they should be permitted to speak. But nobody is entitled to any particular forum, and Murray’s white supremacy should not be given any legitimate forum. Members of a college community are eminently justified in ex ante criticism of choices to bring Murray to campus. Presenting Murray’s views as subject to reasonable debate — even if you, like Andrew Sullivan, also include multiple critical challenges — is extremely pernicious. To present him as a serious intellectual and victim of political correctness, as Harris apparently did, is simply beyond the pale.