Don’t Cut the Rattle Off the Rattlesnake

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.

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walter smith
walter smith
1 month ago

Waiting for the apology from the CD and from President Ryan for not defending the BOV nominee and repeating his oft-quoted (but I don’t think really believed) line – “the answer to speech that offends is more speech.”

What was done to Bert Ellis was a travesty.
So was the official silence, instead of advocating the support of the democratic process by which the Governor gets to appoint the BOV members.

Methinks the “Save Our Democracy!” crowd has some other meaning…

The Bootstrap Kid
The Bootstrap Kid
1 month ago

The Nazis also opposed free speech and open debate. They also silenced their opposition.

Peter LeQuire College '65
Peter LeQuire College '65
1 month ago

The era in which I attended the University may be considered somewhat antediluvian by people who can’t fathom wearing a jacket and tie most of the time, an almost all male student body, road trips, and the honor system, but I believe that the University and the student body were considerably more open to frank discussions of controversial topics when I attended than it is presently. My memory may not be a totally faithful servant, but it seems that, in the early 1960’s, Gus Hall was a speaker, as was a Grand Wizard of the KKK, as was Martin Luther King: each was controversial. I would guess that, of those three, (and there were others) Dr. King would be the sole invitee for a return engagement. We may not have agreed with them, but we were not afraid of them or their ideas.

It saddens me to see the acceptance of the present cultural malaise and deficient (as in partial) teaching of history destroy the University’s mandate to pursue truth (“Truth”), in the process succumbing to demands of the narcissistic, affectively-schooled and those seeking the “fundamental change” being worked by the political class – and we’re not supposed to talk about it?

John Buckley
John Buckley
1 month ago

I have a slightly different take. There’s logic to the proposition that some policy positions are so beyond the pale that putting them up for public debate amounts to giving them credibility. Each of us would have our own take on such topics and none of us would likely care to be forced to financially subsidize such discussions, even if in the form of a “debate.”

The problem on most all college campuses is that students are required to pay mandatory fees that fund speaker programs. If the speakers hosted are hostile to one’s social, cultural, religious, or political views, it is not sufficient to justify the required fees by arguing that one should put up with the “rattle” on the grounds of “free speech.”

The lefties took vicious issue with Bert Ellis’s role in the speakers’ program in the 1970s, but care not a whit about the consistent leftwing bias in the selection of visiting speakers today (and back then). Bravo to the Jefferson Council for helping bring conservative speakers to the University in a private capacity.

In 1975, the University wouldn’t fund the normal college speaking fee of William F. Buckley, Jr., so he was implored privately to reduce his fee significantly in order to pass muster as a visiting speaker. Thankfully, he agreed. Ralph Nader, I believe, had no such limitation place on his speaking fee.

It would be much better if ALL such college speakers were privately funded. The inherent bias in mandatory “activity” fees has been a source of funding for leftwing speakers for decades. I proposed legislation to ever so slightly rein in the use of these mandatory fees for political purposes, but couldn’t even get fellow Republican legislators to give it the time of day. It certainly wouldn’t pass muster today, but the problem needs to be recognized. Mandated funding for someone else’s “free speech” is “sinful and tyrannical.”

Walter smith
Walter smith
1 month ago
Reply to  John Buckley

Yes, it essentially boils down to left wing money laundering. Student Council ponies out all sorts of money, but only to favored groups. Then you have $14 billion in foundation money, which is called independent, and therefore not subject to FOIA, but in reality controlled by the Admin.
it is a disgrace how oblivious (I think intentional) UVA is to bringing in speakers from all sides.

Wahoo74
Wahoo74
1 month ago

To follow on Walter Smith’s point, another inexcusable slur on Bert Ellis was committed by the Faculty Senate. They unanimously condemned Bert for confronting Hira Azher and her infamous “F-UVA” sign but would not let him go before them to both set the record straight and defend himself.

In other words, guilty as charged, trial without jury. As a UVA History major, I’d offer that kind of behavior should have gone out with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.