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Ideas worth engaging: A reflection on last week’s Cardinal Conversations event

Last week, as we all know, social scientist Charles Murray was on campus to discuss “populism and inequality” with Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama, as part of the new Cardinal Conversations initiative. Murray’s invitation was deeply controversial, sparking debate in student publications and a protest outside the event itself.

I am on the student steering committee for Cardinal Conversations and am therefore responsible in part for inviting Murray to campus. I don’t align with most of his views, and like many others, find offensive and unproductive his belief in immutable genetic differences between ethnicities. I don’t think it was necessary to invite him, specifically, to speak on populism and inequality; if I had been more familiar with conservative political scientists as a category (or political scientists at all) when we drew up lists of potential speakers, I would have pushed harder for an alternative.

I disagree with the reasons presented by some of my fellow committee members for inviting him. Those on the Review’s editorial board, for example, have decided to take Murray at face value, unnecessarily disparage protesters and, generally unproductively, provoke for provocation’s sake. But some really interesting conversations have come out of our differences, and some disagreements are not worth letting get in the way of common goals.

I would not have invited Charles Murray, but I stand by the invitation that was extended and the event that was held. Here are, as best as I can articulate them, my reasons for doing so.

First off, to get the free speech question out of the way: If students on the committee — though the committee is not perfect — want to hear a speaker and the speaker isn’t someone who actively incites violence or spreads hate speech, then, as the President and Provost have written, they should get to hear that speaker and those students who disagree should get to speak out in opposition. Setting wide latitude in this way is the right thing to do. As the administrators of a well-known educational institution, what the President and Provost do has far-reaching consequences, and overlimiting is far more damaging than underlimiting.

But this isn’t an issue of free speech, really — it’s a question of engaging with ideas, of what kinds of ideas we present and exchange and of the ways in which we do that. So let’s talk about that.

I care deeply about the critical thinking process: the way we take in and analyze information to shape our beliefs and search for answers. It’s important to me to be able to hear an idea presented in a convincing way and understand how to support it if I agree, refute it if I disagree or shift my viewpoint because I’ve learned something new. I think it’s valuable to be able to question my basic assumptions about the world. If I’m not willing to think about my core beliefs and discuss them with people that disagree, then how can I expect others — like those in my family who oppose trans rights, or the guys at work that don’t believe sexism exists in tech — to do the same?

I learned a lot last week. I read through most of “The Bell Curve” and picked out some flaws — the dependence on IQ score as an intelligence indicator, the lack of consideration for variance in culture, education quality and resources — and then read some critiques to learn more. I argued with a friend about the merit of having Murray on campus and had to figure out why I felt how I did. I had a fun discussion with another friend about whether Malcolm Gladwell or “Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt (just as abusive of statistics, less probably racist) would have inspired the same intellectual opposition. I thought about how similar misuse or misunderstanding of data might affect us through tech, as we give more and more weight to AI-driven decisions. And I went to the event itself and got to hear some interesting and less controversial ideas in the exchanges with Fukuyama; I don’t usually get a lot of discussion about politics and inequality in 2x-speed CS lectures. For me, this was an interesting and challenging exercise in my personal beliefs, which is something I came to Stanford to take part in.

The core idea behind this — that everyone comes from their own place and is searching their own way, that we should engage with each other to help that process along — is so often replaced by a sense of righteousness on both the right and the left. On the left, especially, there’s this sense that we don’t have to listen to those we disagree with, especially those bigots on the fringe, because the arc of history is on our side. But the kind of subtle, insidious racism underlying Charles Murray’s most controversial ideas is not a fringe phenomenon, in the U.S. or the world, and pretending otherwise doesn’t accomplish anything. You can’t just get tired, ignore the people who believe those things and expect things to turn out the way you want. It’s not fair, but fairness isn’t really the issue. The arc of history doesn’t move your way unless you go in, engage and bend it.

The critique of the event I find entirely valid has to do with the way Murray’s ideas were presented — the “platform” he was given. It bothers me that what I gained from the event came at the expense of some nonzero sum paid to fund the spread of ideas I don’t support and of pain and anger from other students who don’t deserve to feel delegitimized.

But I don’t know how to fix this. I would love to have had this discussion in, say, a class environment, based on readings and not speaker fees, but the whole point of events like these is to provide exposure to debate to, among others, students who don’t have the time to take the relevant classes. If anyone has suggestions — especially those that can be implemented in the existing program, like improvements to moderation or student input — I and the rest of the committee would love to hear them.

In an ideal world, the principle of the free exchange of ideas would never come into conflict with the principle of the dignity of our classmates, because we wouldn’t need to even entertain the idea of racial superiority. But the reality is that ideas like Murray’s are enormously impactful and present in this country and our world today. The way to fix that isn’t to ignore them; it’s to confront them head-on.

 

Contact Stephanie Chen at stephchen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Stephanie Chen

Stephanie Chen

Stephanie Chen is a senior from Cupertino majoring in computer science and minoring in literary translation. At The Daily, she was previously managing editor of opinions, managing editor of copy, and a member of the editorial board for Vols. 250 and 252. If "work-life balance" were a concept that made sense on this campus, she'd say that she enjoys spending her "free time" swimming, reading longform journalism, hanging out with friends, and making dinner plans that inevitably fall apart.