by James A. Bacon
Robert Grayboyes, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center in George Mason University, has penned a post on his Substack account, Bastiat’s Window, about the importance of free speech — even offensive free speech. As evidence, he points to his recollections of a controversial debate that took place during his days as a student at the University of Virginia.
Faithful readers of this blog will find the controversy familiar, for it is one that the enemies of Bert Ellis twisted during their campaign to block his elevation to the UVA Board of Visitors. Writes Grayboyes (his bold):
“In 1975, William Shockley, Nobel physicist-turned-white supremacist crackpot, was invited to the University of Virginia (UVa) to debate Richard Goldsby, an African American biologist, on “The Correlation between Race and Intelligence and Its Social Implications.” Some argued fiercely then (and argue still today) that the university should never have offered him a platform from which to disseminate his ignorant bile. My 2022 Bastiat’s Window essay, “Shockley versus Shockley,” explored why the university was wise to allow Shockley to speak and why those who attended the event (including me) were wise to sit quietly and let him speak. As I wrote:
“I believed—correctly—that nothing would destroy him and his message more effectively in the eyes of my fellow students than simply allowing him to speak. I attended the event and got precisely what I hoped for. If Shockley had worn a clown suit and sprayed attendees with a seltzer bottle, he would not have damaged his credibility any more than he did simply by standing at the podium and sharing his thoughts. Someone asked me afterward why the university shouldn’t ban scoundrels like Shockley from its podiums. My response was simple: ‘Don’t cut the rattle off the rattlesnake. The silence is more dangerous for you than it is for the snake.’”
That was Ellis’s logic back in 1975. Exposing Shockley’s crank ideas to the light would effectively discredit them among the wider population. And that, in Grayboyes’ recollection, is exactly what happened at UVA, and what Ellis’ critics have steadfastly ignored.
Free speech and open dialogue are the best ways to drive pernicious ideas into oblivion. Sadly for UVA, as the Ellis-nomination controversy demonstrated, there is widespread support among professors and students not only for banning ideas they find offensive, but for shaming and shunning those who support the right of people to even hold and express those ideas.
There is much talk these days of populist, demagogic threats to democracy in America. But there are threats as well from cultural elites who, convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority, actively suppress ideas contrary to their own.