Photo: Otago Daily Times
Photo: Otago Daily Times

BooksSeptember 28, 2019

The book that isn’t banned

Photo: Otago Daily Times
Photo: Otago Daily Times

Otago University professor James Flynn says the ‘banning’ of his book by the publisher that rejected it is an attack on free speech. That’s an obtuse understanding of what free speech really is, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.

James Flynn, an emeritus professor at Otago University, is one of New Zealand’s most renowned social scientists. His work ranges widely, but he’s particularly noted for his research on intelligence. ‘The Flynn Effect’, the finding that intelligence test scores showed significant and sustained increases over the 20th century is named after him. He’s published dozens of books and papers about intelligence, politics, philosophy and psychology.

Earlier this week Flynn published an article on Quillette ⁠— an online magazine associated with the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ ⁠— announcing that his latest book In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor has been banned. By this he means that his UK publisher Emerald Press has decided not to publish it. In a letter to Flynn, excerpted in the Quillette article, Emerald’s publishing director wrote:

Emerald believes that its publication, in particular in the United Kingdom, would raise serious concerns. By the nature of its subject matter, the work addresses sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender. The challenging manner in which you handle these topics as author, particularly at the beginning of the work, whilst no doubt editorially powerful, increase the sensitivity and the risk of reaction and legal challenge . . . the work could be seen to incite racial hatred and stir up religious hatred under United Kingdom law.

In response to this, Flynn has changed the title of his book to A Banned Book: Free Speech and Universities, and he ends his Quillette article with a defense of free speech, declaring:

Discussing why free speech should extend to questions of race and gender necessarily involves presenting views (such as those of Jensen, Murray, and Lynn), if only for purposes of rebuttal, which upset those who believe that racial and sexual equality is self-evident. If upsetting students or staff or the public is a reason for banning speech, all such discussion is at an end. I end the book by quoting from George Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm, which was itself rejected by Faber and Faber for being too critical of Stalin: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Firstly: Flynn’s book has not been banned. The publisher has declined to publish it ⁠— as publishers do to writers every day, albeit less frequently to writers of Flynn’s stature ⁠— and they claim to have done so to protect the firm from legal costs and reputational damage. That’s a decision that sits outside most free speech claims. There’s no freedom of speech argument that can force a private company to publish a book they don’t like. Flynn’s book can and probably will be published by a more controversy-friendly publisher and if it isn’t he can self-publish, sell it on Amazon, or stick it on the internet for free. No government or censor will outlaw or ban the book ⁠— unless it’s even more controversial than it sounds. The ‘Banned Book’ has not banned.

But, Flynn and many of Quillette’s readers might argue, doesn’t the publisher’s decision amount to a heckler’s veto? If a world-renowned expert on intelligence can’t publish a book on the subject because the publisher is worried about reputational damage and lawsuits, doesn’t that amount to a de facto erosion of academic freedom of speech? Isn’t it deeply ironic that a book about freedom of speech should be subject to this kind of self-censorship? Doesn’t that sum up our cultural moment? Isn’t this the slippery slope to Savonarola and the Gulag Archipelago?

And maybe it is! We don’t know what’s in Flynn’s book because it hasn’t been published. To put some context around all this: Flynn has a background as a civil rights activist in the US. He campaigned for Parliament as a candidate for the Alliance, a far-left political party. In the past he’s spoken out against racism and argued that racial IQ differences are environmental, not innate. At the same time he’s also a contrarian and provocateur: a critic of Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, the post-structuralist turn in the Humanities and Social Sciences, ie most of the arguments, culture and values of the modern social justice movement.

So the question is: has Flynn’s book been cancelled because it’s likely to incite racial hatred in the UK, or because it’s likely to provoke Flynn’s academic and intellectual adversaries (who are, it should be noted, famously easy to provoke)? Again, we can’t know until we’ve read the book. But when you’re dealing with acclaimed scientists writing about their area of expertise you generally want to take a maximalist free speech position.

On the other hand . . .

There is a disingenuous and dangerous quality to this specific debate about intelligence and racial differences, especially when it appears in outlets like Quillette, which champion ‘free speech and dangerous ideas’. It’s a debate centered around Charles Murray, the most controversial social scientist in the world, whose book The Bell Curve is the ur-text of the modern racial IQ controversy, and who has endorsed Flynn’s ‘banned’ book.

The notion that there might be inherent differences between races isn’t just an abstract and super-interesting intellectual idea that woke social justice warriors want to cancel because political correctness has gone mad. The subject of racial superiority is inseparable from that of white supremacy, an ideology that inspired and justified centuries of unimaginably evil acts, incomprehensible suffering, mass slavery, genocide. And it is a belief that is not dead. There’s an active global white supremacist movement routinely carrying out terrorist attacks against minorities that they perceive to be their racial enemies.

You don’t have to be a white supremacist, or even remotely sympathetic to their cause to be interested in the race-IQ issue (there’s a lot of junk science associated with the debate, and Flynn has played a key role in debunking it). But I do think most of this debate plays out behind a certain willful blindness to their existence, a serene confidence that the white supremacist movement isn’t even a remote threat, combined with a contrarian impulse common to a specific type of intellectual, perfectly articulated in Flynn’s Quillette article; a compulsion to say the things they think they’re not supposed to say and a self-congratulatory sense that they’re being terribly brave by saying them.

But the white supremacists are out there. They’re engaged with this debate and they’re not paying attention to all the nuance and caveats social scientists bring to this conversation. They don’t accept that by race you’re really talking about, say, biogeographic groups marked by variations in single nucleotide polymorphisms, or that there’s more variation within racial groups than between them, or whatever. They have non-scientific definitions of race and intelligence and they draw energy from the public validation of debates about racial superiority, especially by respected scientists.

And there are non-white people out there too, albeit mostly in that hazy but theoretically real world somewhere beyond campus politics; people whose lives, families and cultures have been devastated by the crimes and legacy of white supremacy. There are thousands of people in New Zealand whose friends and family members have been murdered by a white supremacist in the very recent past.

The protagonists of the race-IQ debate like to pretend the discussion takes place in an abstract intellectual realm of pure ideas, that none of that history or either of these groups exist: that our society does not contain sociopaths looking for reasons to kill and minorities terrified by the validation of public debates about racial supremacy. But it does, and that’s why people get very, very angry about this specific issue. It’s not about taking offense or hurt feelings, it’s awareness that public debates about racial superiority can have deadly real-world consequences, and that the people who promote them in the name of free speech are almost inevitably members of a demographic who are least likely to suffer those consequences.

It’s good to have contrarian social scientists, just as it’s good to have smart chemists and inventive physicists. But dangerous ideas can be dangerous. You don’t see chemists running around publishing easy-to-follow recipes on how to make poison gas because they want to make a really provocative statement about freedom of speech, or because some rival department has asked them not to and they want to antagonise them. If they did do that – and this is the point I really want to make – that would be terrible for freedom of speech.

There’s a tragedy of the commons dynamic here. Free speech is a public good. Everyone benefits from it. That’s why so much of the radical left’s no-platforming, cancel-culture style is so corrosive. But when people say provocative, potentially dangerous things because they want to incite a response; when you set out to burn down free speech because free speech gives you the right to do so, that is also corrosive. It’s an attack on the commons. It’s turning a universal principle of our society into a partisan and divisive issue for reasons of personal self-interest.

People often misattribute Voltaire in this debate: ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ It’s a catchy line but nobody actually believes it. Western states ban statements from Islamic terror groups like ISIS on a routine basis ⁠— like, actually ban them ⁠— and none of our brave heroes of free speech even blink. No one wants to defend ISIS’s right to free speech, because all those noble ideas about defending absolute free speech to the death instantly melt away when someone is calling for your death, and others are listening and trying to carry it out.

James Flynn is a (very) smart guy. He knows his book hasn’t been banned, but he knows it’s smart marketing to pretend that it has. He knows that presenting himself as a hero of free speech and a victim of oppression is good for publicity and future sales. And I’m sure he’s written an interesting and thoughtful book. Maybe it makes the same points I’ve made right here! People should be able to read it, and they can, and they will. But I also want to defend the right of publishers not to publish books they think will be harmful of the public good, and the right of people to get very, very angry about the fake civility of the debate about race and IQ, and to suggest that people who present themselves as champions of free speech when they promote this debate are doing it more harm than good.

Keep going!