In part thanks to the recent dust up at Middlebury, there seems to be a lot of talk once again about Charles Murray, The Bell Curve, and whether or not there is a correlation between race and IQ. And as usual, whenever people venture towards this third rail, tensions and passions run high, as it is one of the most forbidden conversations to even initiate within polite, liberal society.
The reasons for people considering this conversation dangerous aren’t totally unfounded. It’s certainly true that in past generations, a supposed statement of “inherent” inferiority, backed up by bogus pseudo-science, was one of the many tools of justification that members of the powerful majority used to oppress the disempowered minority. It’s certainly understandable why some would want this to be one of those truths best left untouched, as the ramifications for subjecting the question to even the most rigorous, dispassionate scientific scrutiny would, in their view, still become a weapon too dangerous for any faction with an agenda to hold.
This raises an interesting philosophical question — are there some areas of inquiry where we really are better off simply not exploring it?
Is this one area where the best acquired scientific truth won’t set us free, but instead will become the whip of the slavemaster?
There is a similar air of emergency around similarly skeptical treatment of the modern cult of identity. Are there 37 genders? Is someone really a different race by simply identifying as such? Many of the same justifications are given as to why we simply cannot subject such claims to scientific evidence and scrutiny, as if a straight line can be drawn between the idea of proving Rachel Dolezal’s status of white or black and giving a green light to fully oppress marginalized people who depend upon this view of identity, most notably transgendered people. Many academics, with the best of intentions, do all they can to fully insulate such topics with an armor of ideology against such inquiry, attacking the very nature of scientific investigation itself as just yet another tool of powerful interests that does not deserve any special consideration — or any consideration at all — in illuminating these questions.
Does it really do society a service if certain topics are given the mandate of silence like a religious blasphemy law, similarly in the name of serving some greater good?
Lost in all of these conversations, I believe, is the real crux of the matter as to why many believe such inquiry is dangerous, and what in fact has caused it to be dangerous in previous generations — the link between the “truthfulness” of claims as a kind of binary switch as to whether or not people deserve equality before the law and full civil respect as an individual in society.
Phrenologists of the 19th century spread many bogus claims as to the supposed inferiority of African Americans. Of course such claims are embarrassing under the light of modern science — but perform a thought experiment where we lived in a possible universe where such claims were true. Under what scenario therefore does it still become morally justifiable — when it is abundantly clear that African Americans are still shown scientifically to be full human beings — to therefore infringe on their rights? Even if this spurious claim were shown true, their rights are not therefore subject to any change.
Some really believe you can change from male to female based solely upon “identifying” as such, while others believe this to be a mental illness or delusion. But ironically, many of the people taking the latter position also profess a belief in an all powerful God that is supremely interested in our masturbation and sexual habits, one that sends burning bushes to talk to us but cannot be bothered to extinguish genocidal modern dictators. If we run a thought experiment where trangenderism is a delusion, how would it be any more delusional than the fairy tale that so many religious Americans worship on Sundays? Indeed there is far less evidence for their magic sky man, and yet in the case of religious belief our modern moral zeitgeist has perfectly separated out debating the claims of believers from whether or not the truthfulness of their claims would in any way affect full access to their equal rights within society and under the law.
It is perfectly clear to us as to just how respecting one’s beliefs is fundamentally different from respecting the right to hold such beliefs. Every religious believer in America believes in a set of truth-claims that are fundamentally at odds with all of the other truth claims, and they similarly regard the other claims as incorrect, delusion, dangerous, or some linear combination of all of these possibilities. And yet nobody thinks declaring a talking burning bush to be laughable delusion is the very singular thing that opens the door wide to anti-semitism, or the hatred or oppression of Jews as individuals within our society.
Once we understand how immutable the granting of universal rights is and must be within our modern liberal democracy — a position that, in all truth, certainly was not so for much of our history — and provided we fully dedicate every ounce of our political will towards that proposition, the untouchable areas of exploration are no longer demons hiding in the mist. Is homosexuality natural? It doesn’t matter, even in a universe where it was the most unnatural choice possible, it would have absolutely no impact one iota on the access that person has to their universal human rights and full equality before the law. (Homosexuality is of course observed in a plethora of other species, making this debate about its status moot and more or less settled).
Can one change their race or gender simply by virtue of how they identify? This is, again, irrelevant as to whether or not individuals who do so should in any way have their full equality curtailed. Believing in magic Prophets on flying horses — a belief shared to varying degrees by approximately 1.6 billion people — or in a socialist Jew magically rising from the dead after three days — shared by 2.2 billion Christians to varying degrees — are far more ridiculous than changing one’s race or sex could ever be. And yet the cornerstone of our civilization is built upon universally respecting the freedom to live in such beliefs, a foundation that makes it possible for the old warring tribes of of the Middle East to settle in a place like Dearborn Michigan and manage to go about their days without any fear of rocket attacks or theocratic massacres, despite being racially and culturally identical to those who suffer ceaselessly form such scourges in their countries of origin today.
Even if every claim Charles Murray made turned out to be completely true — a position I do not share — this has absolutely no impact on whether or not racial minorities deserve every measure of equality within our society, nor does it in any way diminish the need for continued political action to make such equality more and more the reality of our time. Room for blasphemy does not by definition make room for bigotry. Disagreeing with your Muslim or Jewish friends on the truth claims of their religion in no way gives a green light towards infringing upon their rights as people. Both using the truth-claims of their beliefs to oppress and insulating such beliefs by conflating the two as the same only hinder the progress of our civilization, and the furthering of the project of maximizing human flourishing.
If non-binary genders or changing racial identities are similarly faith claims based upon experience, and not necessarily based on empirical evidence, those that espouse these ideas too deserve the same protection and freedom we grant to all other believers. Fighting to separate out rights from truth claims only aids both the defenders and critics of such beliefs. Areas of exploration are only dangerous if rights depend on them — the elimination of this dependency is the only project that makes the title of “universal human rights” worthy of such description.