Thursday, May 06, 2010

race, free speech, and the harvard spat

By now everyone has heard of the Harvard 3L who e-mailed a friend that she would "absolutely not rule out" the possibility that African-Americans were less academically competent than the rest of the population, or something like that (she since apologized). I don't have much to add on the event itself, and so I won't. What concerned me more were the comments, especially those that defended her.

This defense took two tacks. The first of these was look, this was a personal e-mail, she's only a student, and anyway people have a right to say dumb things if they want to. This struck me as a reasonable defense--I wouldn't want my personal e-mails all over the blogosphere--and I don't have any particular problem with it.

A second line of comments made a "political correctness" argument. Instead of a person saying silly things these portrayed the student as some kind of conservative hero. raising issues that needed to be discussed but that the PC crowd didn't want to. The assertion that race might be linked to intelligence was thus implicitly or explicitly linked to resistance to feminism, criticism of Israel, or other areas in which a supposedly dominant group had intimated debate on important public issues, especially in an academic environment.

I don't know quite what to make of this. Sure, people should be free to express opinions without fear of censure. But the idea that one race is better or worse than another has almost nothing to recommend it. Neither "race" nor "intelligence" is subject to scientific definition, and nearly all the so-called "studies" in this area come out (surprise) with the person conducting the study in the superior group. Besides, we had a debate on this issue in the 1940s (in Europe) and 1960s (in America) and it seems to have been pretty much resolved. If there's any issue we don't need more discussion of, this is probably it.

For liberals, of course, this is easy: another chance to embarrass conservatives with their narrowmindedness and intellectual sloppiness. For conservatives, it is a bit more complicated. Yes, we should resist political correctness and demand debate on issues including, or perhaps even especially, when they make people angry. But they have to "issues" in the first place for this to apply. Like Holocaust denial or the search for Obama's birth certificate, this one isn't: and pretending that it is doesn't do us or our cause any credit.


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