February 26, 2021

Whenever a person is “cancelled” or “no-platformed”, a public battle is inevitably waged. On one side, there are those who uphold the value of free speech; on the other, those who insist free speech depends on what is being said, or believe the whole debate is some kind of smokescreen for smuggling extremist ideas into society. What goes unnoticed, however, is that there is a pattern to these eruptions.

The recent cancellation of Professor Gregory Clark at the University of Glasgow is a case in point. Yesterday, it was reported that Clark — a professor of economics at the University of California and visiting professor at the London School of Economics — was last week unable to give a lecture in Glasgow because of its title: “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls: A Lineage of 400,000 Individuals 1750-2020 Shows Genetics Determines Most Social Outcomes”. The reference to John Donne’s poem, later appropriated by Ernest Hemingway, was not the problem. The allusion to the work of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein clearly was.

The Bell Curve, a 1994 book by Murray and Herrnstein, remains one of the most controversial pieces of analysis in the modern era. Though its critics tend not to have read the work, they insist that it not only argues for but positively rejoices in the idea that intelligence is largely determined by a person’s race. It is a misunderstanding that has rumbled on for over a quarter of a century, and every discussion of the book usually ends in acrimony. And so when Professor Clark hinted at the work in his lecture’s title, the university asked him to change it.

In some ways, this was to be expected. The University of Glasgow had recently published a new report titled “Understanding Racism: Transforming University Cultures”, which sets out an action plan to make the university “an inclusive space for all”. As Clark himself put it: “My talk was regarded as a provocation in this situation. I had a half-hour Zoom meeting with the dean. He would reschedule the talk if I agreed to change the paper title to not have any reference to ‘bell curve’. I have refused.”

As soon as the disagreement was publicised, the online mob did what it always does and swiftly became an expert on a person previously unknown to them. Clark was slandered — just like Noah Carl and other academics before him — as a “eugenicist”, with one critic suggesting that the talk was due to be “a thinly disguised piece of book promotion by an economist who manipulates and misrepresents genetics to advance his pseudoscientific opinions”.

Indeed, the claim of Clark’s critics to know not only the content of his undelivered talk but also his intentions is all too characteristic of contemporary pile-ons. Today, it is not enough just to claim foresight, it is also necessary to pretend that you have complete insight into the motivations of those with whom you disagree.

No doubt this row will continue to roll on, with the university continuing to deny that it had “cancelled” Professor Clark’s lecture; its administrators claim that they will “continue to be in discussions” with him about finding “a suitable event” for his talk. Meanwhile, critics of cancel culture will add his name to the growing list of academics who have been uninvited from events due to their views.

Yet it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect that, following this most recent incident, a pattern in the cancel-culture conflict has started to emerge.

If today’s censors only attempted to cancel events about one particular subject or historical individual, it would be easy to discern their motivations. But because the prevailing ethos of the age is so all-pervasive, we appear to be less able than we should be to discuss it and dismantle it in turn. However, as Professor Clark’s treatment shows, that ethos has become increasingly clear. It goes something like this: human beings are born with equal abilities, and any sub-optimal outcomes in their lives are caused by societal factors beyond their control but which can be adapted with enough collective effort.

The fact that this mantra prevails goes a long way to explaining why transgenderism has become such a focal point in the culture wars in recent years. For if you are able to move between the sexes at will, then it’s only natural to conclude that nothing about the situation we are born into can or should limit us. You may have been born with male chromosomes and have male genitalia, but if you wish to become a woman any day then you can. And vice versa. Whether you are male or female isn’t determined — it’s something you can choose.

And this is where Professor Clark’s cancellation is extremely revealing. Given we know little about his speech beyond its title, you could be forgiven for thinking that the university’s fearful authorities were simply scared about the prospect of activist pressure and a toxic fall-out.

But this approach fails to explain why a talk that references Murray and Herrnstein’s book would inspire such vitriol in the first place. The university was not simply concerned that the content of Clark’s lecture may have been racist. It is about something far more profound: the fear that he would touch on another aspect of the The Bell Curve’s thought that goes against the emerging ideology of the time. The reason why so much energy is dedicated to shutting down any discussion of the issues addressed by Murray and Herrnstein in their book is that, just like with transgenderism, it raises an undeniably fearful spectre — the possibility that our life-outcomes are to a great extent reliant on factors over which we have no control.

Of course, there are dangerous avenues in discussions over the relationship between race and IQ. Eugenics poses one of the worst moral nightmares imaginable. But there are only two things you can do to tackle it. The first is to shut down all debate; a prospect incompatible with modern democracy. The other is to allow responsible discussion of it, along with many other uncomfortable subjects. And if this cannot take place in a university, it is hard to know if it can take place at all.

Still, Professor Clark’s cancellation reveals there is also a deeper discussion that we need to have — one that questions what our attitude should be towards the situation we are born into. The ethos of our era holds that if we organise society well enough, everyone can be whatever they like. And ultimately, the fact that the counter-position — that we are all to some extent dictated by factors outside of our control — is so little heard is an ominous sign. For if it is false then we need not be troubled by it. But if it is true, surely it is better that we find out now, while some semblance of rational discussion is still possible.