Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some Inconvenient—Politically Incorrect—Truths?

Tibor R. Machan

The famous Nobel Laureate, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA with the
late Francis Crick, got into hot water in the UK recently for suggesting
that blacks may have some problems with coping with the enormous
challenges faced in Africa. Yes, this suggests that many blacks may suffer
from some deficiencies, an idea that has been bandied about for two
hundred years not always out of racism but out of a certain kind of
physical anthropology. Even Karl Marx believed that those who live on
infertile land, Slavs (in Siberia) and Negroes (in Africa), would suffer
from malnutrition and other maladies and this could have an impact on
their brains, which is, after all, part of the body and the body responds
to nutrition big time.

Watson was roundly condemned and felt the need to apologize. On this
side of the Atlantic Justice Department official John K. Tanner got
roundly attacked, in particular by Senator Obama, one of the main
Democratic presidential contenders, for pointing out that “minorities
don’t become elderly the way while people do. They die first.” This, too,
is an old idea, one that had been aired often during the social security
privatization debate not long ago. It points to the very likely and
uncomfortable fact that a great many black citizens will never receive the
money they paid into social security because they do not live long enough.
The reasons are many, including the poverty that is increased for them by
way of taxing them to death, liberally in this case.

But never mind about the truth or falsity of Watson’s and Tanner’s
remarks. In a free country one is supposed to have one’s freedom of speech
vigorously protected, even when it is a prominent (partly) black
presidential contender who would want to shut someone up. Yes, if one
misrepresents official policy in an official capacity, it may not have
first amendment protection. But what if one is saying what is actually
true or at least widely believed among professionals and academics who
address an issue?

Back in the heydays of academic feminism there was a similar attack on
speech from one Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon of the University of
Michigan School of Law. She argued in her little book Only
Words—published very prominently by Harvard University Press—that
pornography is a form of assault and should not have First Amendment
protection. And there is a theory that is fairly influential that certain
types of speech involve “fighting words” and thus must be viewed
differently from normal speech that can be ignored and thus cannot
justifiably be considered injurious and therefore criminal. Never mind
that pornography assaults no one even if it may insult and denigrate
women. Speech, of course, and art can do that aplenty but given that
these are nonetheless peaceful activities, they should not be made
criminal in a free society.

One might say the same thing about the unpleasant and perhaps even
offensive findings about the death rate among black citizens and the
difficulties Africans may face because of malnutrition. More generally,
factual hypothesis advanced, especially in good faith, ought never to be
banned, nor should anyone be penalized for considering them—which is what
was so wrong about the firing of ex-Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers
when he suggested that maybe women don’t embark upon scientific careers as
much as men do because there is something about their brain that is less
suited for science or math than the brains of men. Maybe all wrong but to
consider it unacceptable in the world of academia is absurd.

There are dozens and dozens of cases of hypotheses
being advanced, considered, and eventually rejected or accepted throughout
the history of science, including the sciences that bear on human affairs.
To politicize this process is unbecoming of a free society. (Remember, by
the way, that it was the very famous and much beloved-by-liberals Supreme
Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a serious believer in

Maybe the lesson is that we are still suffering from the influence of the
kind of thinking that makes issues of values incapable of rational
consideration. This is what positivists argued in the early parts of the
20th century. So when values enter a discussion—and they do all the time
during political disputations—many people resort to ad hominems instead of
rational arguments. They charge their opponents with having the wrong
biases! But they do not see a way to showing that those biases are bad, any
more than to showing that their own are good.

Positivism, however, is dead. Values can be rationally discussed and
it is possible to conclude in favor of some and against others. So instead of
banning controversial ideas, politicians and others ought to just argue with them.
If they win, that’s to their credit. If they lose, it civilized thing is to admit it.

No comments: