I’ve written a few posts about my Chicago colleague Dorian Abbot, who got in trouble here on campus for making YouTube videos criticizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. College members demanded punishment, but that didn’t occur because the University of Chicago considers Abbot’s videos free speech, and we don’t punish that. Abbot continued his attacks on DEI; as I wrote before:
[Abbot] and Ivan Marinovic published an op-ed, “The Diversity Problem on Campus“, in the August 12 issue of Newsweek. It was also an attack on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Unfortunately, the pair ended their piece with a comparison of these initiatives to conditions in Nazi Germany:
Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.
Saying that was a mistake, of course, for playing the Hitler card when you’re discussing American DEI is unproductive and invidious. More important, the comparison was inapt, for the Nazis were trying to reduce diversity by getting rid of Jews, while in the U.S. we’re trying to increase diversity.
While I disagree with Abbot on the need to get rid of affirmative action (I favor some of it), I will strenuously defend his right to criticize DEI, which in principle should (but doesn’t) lead to productive discussion, and I oppose any punishment he gets for his views.
One such punishment was the cancellation of Abbot as the presenter of this year’s prestigious Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (DEAPS) at MIT, scheduled for October 21. The lecture, as Yascha Mounk’s new Atlantic article notes (click on screenshot below), is intended to “communicate exciting new results in climate science to the general public.” And indeed, that’s what Abbot was going to do: his topic was going to be ““climate and the potential for life on other planets.” But MIT canceled the lecture (by phone) after its students and staff protested Abbot’s views on DEI. Note that his lecture, as I pointed out earlier, had nothing to do with the reason for the social-media campaign.
The disconnect between why Abbot was demonized and the topic of his MIT talk is one reason why Mounk sees this cancellation as different from previous ones—and more dangerous. (He also reports that “in a belated attempt to save face, MIT invited him to give a scientific presentation to a much smaller audience of EAPS professors and graduate students”.) I’m not sure I agree with Mounk’s conclusion, which seems a bit hyperbolic, but I’ll give his reasons briefly below.
Mounk first notes, perhaps by way of lightening some of the opprobrium leveled at Abbot, that most Americans agree with Abbot’s views on DEI:
. . . Abbot’s beliefs about affirmative action, right or wrong, are similar to those held by the majority of the American population. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 74 percent of Americans believe that, in making hiring decisions, companies and organizations should “only take qualifications into account, even if it results in less diversity”; just 24 percent agreed that they should “also take race and ethnicity into account in order to increase diversity.” Similarly, in a 2020 referendum on affirmative action, 57 percent of voters in California—a very liberal state that also happens to be majority minority—voted to uphold a ban on the practice.
I’m not sure why this is relevant; as Mounk says, “right or wrong.” If you’re an ardent proponent of DEI, then they’re wrong, and what most of America thinks is also wrong. Remember, most Americans once thought segregated schools were okay, but they were wrong, too. Whether Abbot’s views on DEI comport with those of most Americans is interesting, but irrelevant to why he was canceled and why he should not have been canceled. Those who got him canceled are of course holders of minority views.
Mounk eventually gets to the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation was “different”. First, though, he also defends others who have been invited to speak on topics that are related to the lecture, and here I agree with the view that once you’ve been invited, and the inviters have an idea what the person will say, it’s wrong to disinvite them. (Not inviting them in the first place, however, is okay.)
Campaigns to cancel public appearances by controversial figures are in many cases motivated by the expectation that they will express some of their offending views at the event. When violent protests stopped far-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at UC Berkeley in 2017, for example, the organizers had every reason to believe that he would repeat his most inflammatory claims.
Even when protesters oppose appearances by controversial public figures who are set to speak on topics that are not in themselves controversial, they normally object to them because there is some connection between a speaker’s controversial views and their general area of professional expertise. Those who oppose talks by Charles Murray about topics that are unrelated to race, for example, argue that his writings on the supposed differences in average IQ between racial groups call his expertise as a social scientist into doubt.
Even though I strongly disagree with Murray’s views on race and find Yiannopoulos to be a trollish provocateur, I have also disagreed with attempts to stop either of them from going through with their talks. As the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis succinctly put it, “There is no right to be invited to speak at a college. But, once a person is invited, a college should never yield to demands to withdraw an invitation.”
Why is that? Largely because it gives the mob the right of censorship over the university folks who asked for the talk, and presumably asking for a good reason. This is an abrogation of free speech. Though the censors are not the government (the First Amendment stricture), they are disaffected people who want to silence a speaker—in this case for his “extracurricular” views. If you don’t want to hear someone who’s been invited to speak, you have better recourses than cancellation: don’t go to the talk, picket it peacefully outside, or organize counter-talks (that would have been hard given that Abbot was speaking on climate change!). Colleges, which should be bastions of free speech, should never suppress invited speech when the social-media mob comes to town.
As for Murray, well, he’s cancelled everywhere because of The Bell Curve, regardless of his topic. I hadn’t heard of people object to him speaking because his views render him incompetent as a social scientist. What I heard is that he gets canceled (and roughed up at Middlebury College) because he has racist views which, say the protestors, are expressed in The Bell Curve. Thus, when Mounk reveals the real reason why Abbot’s cancellation is different and more dangerous, I see a complete analogy to Charles Murray.
Mounk (bolding is mine, as it’s the main reason Mounk sees a difference in this cancellation):
But Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture. “Omg how did *anyone* in @eapsMIT think this was ok?” read one tweet calling for the cancellation of Abbot’s lecture, referring to MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “As an alum, I’m asking you to fix this—now. Totally unacceptable and sends a message to any student that isn’t a white man that they don’t matter and that EAPS isn’t serious about (and is actively hostile towards) DEI.”
MIT did not rescind its invitation to Abbot in the expectation that he would repeat his views about affirmative action. Rather, he was disinvited from one of the most important research universities in the world because it could not tolerate that a scientist be permitted to speak about his uncontroversial research after daring to express unrelated views that, although controversial, happen to be held by a majority of the American public.
As I said, I think that whether Abbot’s extracurricular views on DEI are held by most Americans is irrelevant. He should have been allowed to speak even if most people didn’t share those views. The only thing that’s relevant is that he was going to talk about what he was supposed to—climate change. It may be relevant that his extracurricular views are a matter of debate—after all, the man is not a Nazi—and that’s even less reason to cancel him. But the sole issue here is inviting someone to give a relevant talk, and then disinviting him as a way of suppressing views he wasn’t going to express in that talk.
Abbot’s cancellation seems to me of a piece with the kind of cancellations going on everywhere. If you’ve expressed unwoke views on anything, you’ll be widely demonized, even if you’re talking about something else, as Murray was going to do at Middlebury. When Steve Bannon was invited to the University of Chicago, people objected violently even though they had no idea what he was going to talk about. (Bannon was not disinvited, but never came to campus.) So I don’t think something new happened with Abbot; it’s a slight escalation of what’s happening everywhere. However, Mounck is absolutely right about the consequences if this kind of behavior continues:
. . . the principle that MIT has effectively established is deeply worrying. For it would, if other institutions should follow the university’s example, amount to a severe restriction on the ability of Americans to disagree with a specific set of beliefs about how to remedy injustice without raising the risk that they might no longer be able to carry on their work, even if it is completely unrelated to politics. In effect, this would create a prohibition on controversial political speech for all academics—and eventually, perhaps, professionals in other highly visible domains.
MIT’s decision is not just another in a long series of campus controversies, then. It sets a precedent that will, unless it is forcefully resisted, pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a free society.