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Seoh ’14: Not all free speech is created equal

Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Between 1839 and 1849, Samuel George Morton published results of an ongoing study on differences in brain size between races. His now widely discredited theory of craniometry asserted that different races had differing brain sizes that correlated directly with intelligence. He concluded that because blacks had smaller brains than whites, they were intellectually inferior. Quide popular in his day, his now spectacularly falsified research was cited again and again to dehumanize blacks, thereby assuaging the white guilt involved in the practice of human beings owning other human beings as property and helping to justify the continuation of slavery in antebellum America.

Freedom of speech is important. Defending this freedom is defensible. It is true that exposure to opinions that we disagree with can force us to reconsider our positions or even reinforce them. But what Professor Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 and his colleagues fail to mention is that giving blatantly false or harmful ideas an elevated platform — such as an endowed lecture or a place in the most-read campus newspaper, albeit one whose credibility is justifiably declining — can be detrimental to society and other freedoms and liberties. The uninformed will take the platform itself as an indicator that an argument is legitimate, leading more people to adopt these false and harmful beliefs and slowing down our progress as a society. People will support an argument based on the prominence of its platform alone.

Regarding the op-ed “The white privilege of cows,” published two weeks ago, and why it is indefensible: It is a hallmark example of an author citing the ethos of science, its explanatory power, to support an unfounded harmful belief.

More importantly, the train of logic that says, “Science supports my argument, so I’m right,” is too easily exploited. It was used to justify slavery in Morton’s day, and it has repeatedly reared its ugly head throughout history. It was used to strengthen the Nazi movement in Germany, legitimizing its obsession with the concept of racial hygiene. Today, biased executions of the scientific method are used to convince the French that gay couples can’t raise a child as well as a heterosexual married couple. Complicated economic metrics are flattened in order to feed Americans the facile argument that Mexican immigrants are taking away all of the country’s decent-paying jobs.

Last week, the tactic was strangely employed to invoke an old eugenics argument. What makes “The white privilege of cows” so unforgivable, so beneath even the work of Morton, is that it cited science that has long been shown to be false at worst and dubious at best. Race has no biological basis. That very suggestion has no place in any form of journalism. The fact that Miller, a scientist himself, came to defend this malpractice is appalling.

We must recognize the consequences of giving a platform to harmful ideas. Think of all the people in this country who believe that women are biologically less suited to excel in science because of what former Harvard President Lawrence Summers infamously suggested 10 years ago, when he suggested that female brains may be less apt at spatial reasoning and math. Think of how this has slowed progress toward a more equitable participation rate of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, as each young girl absorbs cultural beliefs that a weakness in or aversion to math and science is rooted in her second X chromosome.

When you defend harmful speech, you are not just a bystander. You are a barrier to social change. Whether you ultimately delay the realization of civil rights and gender equity by weeks, months or years, you are delaying our progress, and you will be on the wrong side of history. Freedom of speech should be valued but not when it infringes upon the freedom of others. It is clear how “The white privilege of cows” infringed upon the rights of people of color here at Brown. It’s impeding the progress of a more racially aware America. What’s also clear is the blatant lack of regard for others born to a color-based caste system in this community. Don’t equate the freedom of speech with the freedom to oppress.

Alex Seoh ’14 is a humble physics teacher in New York City and hopes none of his students will ever use biased science in the way described in this column. He can be reached at

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  1. You say the Maier article “infringed upon the freedoms of others.” NO IT DIDN’T! You sound like those religious wingbats who say that gay marriage infringes upon their religious liberties! NO! Freedom means free!

    Defending free speech doesn’t make you a proponent of those ideas. Since you brought up the goddam Nazis, I’ll tell you the difference between a free society and a censored, oppressive, tyrannical society. The Nazis were allowed to protest in Skokie, Illinois. The protesters in Nazi Germany got train tickets.

    When you defend “harmful” speech, you stand for free speech! Free speech necessarily includes speech we don’t like, no matter how ghastly it is! That’s the speech that needs the most protecting. It’s not free speech unless you don’t like it. It’s free for everyone, from MLK to the neo-nazis.

    Censorship only proves the genuine weakness of your own point of view – it can’t stand up to rational scrutiny, so you must use force instead. Free speech is the best friend of the oppressed and the enemy of the oppressor. Censorship only makes a martyr out of every silenced voice.

    That you’ve arbitrarily deemed the speech “harmful” only indicates you don’t understand what the word harm means. You cannot force people to be moral by censoring immoral ideas – nothing could be more self-defeating. The creationists have their own damn MUSEUM – how’s that for hijacked science? And do you know how they maintain that crap? By viciously socially persecuting anyone who questions the faith.

    It is not Miller etc. who fail to grasp anything, it is you who is failing miserably to grasp this basic concept.

    • “Harmful speech” is in the eye of the beholder. For some, #Blacklivesmatter is harmful speech. Some feel gay rights including marriage is harmful. Shall we censor that kind of speech?

      The obvious answer is no.

      The typical retort to my point is that oppressed people cannot make harmful speech if it’s in opposition to power. But that’s semantics. If we endorse the argument that speech alone can be censored if deemed harmful, then it opens the door for all sorts of censorship – even of reasonable discussion.

      As a case in point, there was a male student at the University of Missouri who was accused of sexual assault and found not responsible. He posted on his facebook page how difficult the process was for him and then retracted that statement because it was deemed harmful to survivors.

      Even something as innocuous as mild criticism of how colleges handle sexual assault for those who are innocent of the accusation is “harmful” and in this case led to self-censorship.

  2. There is a striking irony in the case that Alex Seoh cites in this article. The skulls that Samuel George Morton used for his measurements still exist, and a careful study, using thoroughly modern methods, has re-examined them. It turns out that Morton’s measurements were largely correct, and not influenced by his racial biases. You can look it up: Lewis et al (2011) PLOS Biology volume 9, issue 6, e1001071. Seoh’s claim of falsification is based on Stephen Jay Gould’s book, “The Mismeasure of Man.” Unfortunately, it was Gould’s work that has now been shown to be biased and incorrect. I say “unfortunately,” because Steve was a good friend of mine, and I was saddened to see that his work on this matter was indeed very much in error.

    So, Seoh’s column begins with a demonstrably false claim. It then moves on to another, which is that I and my colleagues “defended” the BDH columns in question, which is simply not true. In fact, there are so many errors in that column that I would certainly have rejected it if I were an Editor at the BDH. We did not defend either of the columns written by Maier, and if Seoh takes the time to actually read our opinion piece, that should be apparent. Rather, what we took issue with was the Administration’s abject failure to defend the value of free expression on our campus, and especially with the way in which Administration statements have equated speech and writing with “harm.” In so doing, they present a rationale for suppressing speech we find offensive, mistaken, and politically objectionable. No university worthy of the name should take that position. Instead, it should encourage the campus community to respond to such speech and opinions by objecting to them, explaining why they are wrong, and presenting arguments that support the values they uphold.

    In objecting to Maier’s column itself, Seoh is doing exactly what we said we “strongly supported” in our opinion piece. Bravo! However, by equating error of opinion with harm and injury, Seoh is supporting the voices of censorship and suppression. That’s the problem.

    • It is hard to believe that the most important thing you sought to point out in this article is that Morton’s skull measurements were, technically, correct.

    • I believe you’ve misunderstood the man you claim has misunderstood you. He did not say that the measurements themselves were wrong; he clearly said that what has been discredited was Morton’s theory that brain size determined intelligence. “It turns out that Morton’s measurements were correct” is such a sad statement, in that it presents the reader with the imperfect idea that Seoh had suggested otherwise. In truth, the measurements are irrelevant.

      My daughter, a beautiful brilliant Black woman of 20, is a junior at Brown and has read with growing sadness the articles which defend hateful, intellectually bankrupt “positions” such as yours. It pains me that she and other students of color have come up against this at Brown; take away the flowery “eloquence” and strip your writing down to its rhetoric and it really does sound quite a bit like something we might hear coming from, yep, the Aryan Brotherhood. You don’t like to hear it, but hiding racism behind the language of the academy (something I know a little bit about, being an English professor here in DC specializing in linguistics and rhetoric) is just more of the same white supremacy people of color have always had to put up with in this country.

      If you don’t think all those pro-slavery pieces penned back in the day brought serious, sustained harm to slaves by prolonging their enslavement–that is, if you don’t think “error of opinion” can bring “harm and injury”–then you either don’t know the history of rhetoric’s inflicted damage or you choose to ignore it. That’s not THE problem, but it is problematic. .

      PS: Have you questioned why they dragged Morton’s skulls out of history’s ugly trashcan and carefully re-examined them “using thoroughly modern methods”? What exactly is modern science’s purpose in measuring size differences between Black and white people from centuries past?

    • In the public realm, we do have free speech by law. But Brown is a private institution with its own guidelines and its own private rules. And, Maier and the Brown Daily Herald both are entitled to free speech, but they are not entitled to reputation. Some of the criticisms of the BDH and Maier are not because of free speech concerns, but rather because reputation. The BDH is seen as an ivy league newspaper, and not a tabloid or the work of a bunch of ex-high-school-editors-in-chiefs. Of course it is not the New York Times, but it shouldn’t be a tabloid either. If the BDH were merely held to the standard of free-speech, then it would be held to the same standard as any grocery store tabloid.
      Isn’t, after all, the Brown Daily Herald the most common news source for most students? As such, it should at least have in mind the goal of developing the intellects of the student body in a positive way. Aside from finding out what’s at the V-dub tomorrow and publishing egg-donation ads and international news, the BDH should try to publish “ivy-league” topics. Where are the articles about things like the economy, politics, and new developments in science? Instead of articles about cows, how about articles about an interesting lecture someone sat in on? When is the last time a student wrote about her experiences exploring providence? When is the last time a student wrote about an interesting class he took? How about someone’s experience as a Rhodes scholar? What was that like?
      Isn’t anyone else sick and tired of controversial articles and events? Articles about rape, race, sexual assault… while they are important… why are those the ones that generate so much discussion?

    • biol0200 alum says:

      i think prof. miller fundamentally fails to understand the magnitude of pain he has caused students in his community. as so many hurting students of color have gone out of their way to contribute to this conversation, despite the clear disregard for their humanity and their histories, it’s painful for me to continue to read a former professor of mine *consistently* going out of his way to shame the students he is supposed to be supporting and learning from. prof, i don’t doubt that you know that these pieces of writing exist, and i don’t doubt that you’ve at least pretended to have considered them, but i’m gonna put them here because this “conversation” should have ended by now.

      • Lucky_Rabbits_Foot says:

        I really wish I cared. I really wish I had it in me to have some empathy or compassion for the minority students so harmed by Prof. Miller and Maier’s articles. However, I cannot reconcile painful articles and traumatized students with the vicious bullying Maier (a student with Autism, not less) has had to endure. Those who find themselves so injured are lashing out like wounded beasts. You’ve got nothing left. What does that say about you? What does that say about your humanity? your commitment to reason? Holster thy knuckles, shut your mouths for a moment, and think. Think about what you have done. Traumatized minority students at Brown, I don’t care about your pain. I can’t care about your pain. You have ruined Maier’s reputation. She will be forever branded a racist, a eugenicist, and a white supremacist. All over an OPINION article that contained no hate speech, that called for no race warfare, nor riots, nor violence of any kind. You’ve done a member of your community wrong. You do the most esteemed professors at this university wrong. You’ve done yourselves wrong. So no. You do not have my empathy. You do not have my compassion. The world is wising up and turning against you. I await your demise.

        • You are aware that Maier’s article has been cited in the news like the huffington post? It’s not merely fellow students who are paying attention to her, but also the outside world. She chose to write that article, no one forced her to do it.

          • leaky_faucet says:

            Maier’s articles only caught the attention of news sources outside of Brown when the BDH pulled them. Its the censorship that caused them to blow up. Regardless, personally, I am very glad that Maier chose to write the articles. They state ideas that most reasonable people agree with, but no one dares say out loud. Its high time to break the taboos surrounding race, behavior, and human variation.

      • We can’t stop a masochist from hurting themself.

  3. Another op-ed beats the war drum of certainty and moral absolutism. Far-right political thought in the sheep’s clothing of liberalism. They chide us as oppressors for defending the marketplace of ideas. The notion that some enlightened group has a monopoly on ideas is dangerous. Should we believe that they’ll selflessly and wisely separate the intellectual wheat chaff? What makes them the smartest people in the room, the only ones stalwart enough to resist the siren song of naughty speech? Even now they draw battle lines, courageously placing themselves on the side of angels while attacking speech itself. Their speech is a valuable, precious thing. Many of us believe it’s harmful.

    An idea unexpressed is an idea unchallenged. Maier wrote a column and lay bare her ignorance and prejudice. So to have Seoh and those before him demonstrated a baffling contempt for thought and discourse. More than anywhere the university is forum for ideas, both good and bad. Would it be better if they kept their mouths shut and waltzed through life unchallenged? Yes, the BDH probably shouldn’t have published what she wrote. It was intellectual refuse. Hiding it away after the fact is embarrassing.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t take pleasure at this, but Seoh’s byline gave me a real tickle, “[he] hopes none of his students will ever use biased science in the way described in this column.” In light of Professor Miller’s rebuttal: that’s rich.

    To Seoh’s supporters, let’s all get together and burn a few copies of Mein Kampf. If you can’t find a copy in your local bookstore, just grab Knausgård’s My Struggle. None of you will know the difference.

    • Man with Axe says:

      I agree with the point of your comment, but I wonder about your description of anti-free speech as “far right.” So far as I can see it is the contemporary left that is anti-free speech, going after people who express “incorrrect” opinions (or even facts) about race, sex, sexual orientation, transgenders, or climate change.

  4. “Race has no biological basis”

    yeah. tell that to anyone who has ever needed a bone marrow transplant.

  5. I’m so glad that my peers who have no more life experience or knowledge or education than I do get to arbitrarily tell me what is up and what is down. That’s not an arrogant concept at all…..Praise be praise be selfless Brown students…you know best…i am your lowly follower. Tell me what to think. Tell me what I’m allowed to think about. Because that’s why I enrolled at a university. To have my PEERS educate me on morality.

    This is not up to you. You do not know best. I reject your totalitarian notions of speech and rhetoric. I can think for myself and so can everyone else.

  6. “The uninformed will take the platform itself as an indicator that an argument is legitimate, leading more people to adopt these false and harmful beliefs and slowing down our progress as a society”

    um..but…aren’t you…

    “It is clear how “The white privilege of cows” infringed upon the rights of people of color here at Brown”

    Clear huh? I’ve heard this over and over again. I’ll be waiting for someone to explain this to me.

  7. “it cited science that has long been shown to be false at worst and dubious at best. Race has no biological basis. That very suggestion has no place in any form of journalism.”

    Are you sure about that? really really sure? Its one thing to get upset when a settled issue is reconstituted (i.e. the shape of the earth, that sort of thing), but it is the hight of arrogance to talk about an active controversy as if the issue is settled. Race and biology is still an active controversy and not a settled issue. Don’t talk about it as if it is.

  8. Man with Axe says:

    I agree with Alex Seoh that harmful speech should not be allowed. I recommend the creation of a “Harmful Speech Commission” with the authority to imprison anyone who engages in harmful speech, with Alex Seoh as its chairman. I think he would be a good chairman for this commission because he clearly knows what is true and what is false, what is harmful speech and what is not.

    This commission would not allow the Marine Corps to publish its findings that male units perform better than coed units. It would not allow the publication of test results that show blacks scoring worse than whites or whites worse than Asians. It would not allow the use of terms to describe groups that the groups themselves don’t like. For example, use of “colored people” instead of “people of color” would be a death penalty offense.

    I look forward to the day when just the thought of being brought in front of Mr. Seoh and his commission will strike fear into the hearts of anyone who challenges climate change orthodoxy, who suggests that there are differences of any kind between the sexes, races, sexual orientations, or religions, or who dares to criticize the government if it is liberal.

    It is time for the public discourse to be purged of harmful speech. I for one, welcome our new speech overlords.

  9. NaturalSelectionIsReal says:

    “His now widely discredited theory of craniometry asserted that different races had differing brain sizes that correlated directly with intelligence.”

    “spectacularly falsified research”

    Is it either willfull ignorance or intellectual dishonesty on your part? The corellation between brain size and intelligence is far from discredited, rather strengthened through large-scale metastudies. “The strength of the association of brain volume and IQ has been overestimated, but remains robust even so.” And that different ethnic groups for which the construction of race is an excellent approximation have different brain sizes on average is also firmly established. Crucially, the effects are very low, but they are there. Do you know who has been discredited for “spectacularly falsified research”? Stephen Jay Gould, who falsified date in order to disprove the correlation.

    “Race has no biological basis. That very suggestion has no place in any form of journalism.”

    We’re at that point in history where the enormous biological contribution to human behavior, gender, and overall culture, for which racial categories are an excellent, frequently almost precise approximation, is so irrefutable that denialists are resorting to extreme force to silence it. Any denial of race as a biological category by a “scientist” is an exercise in obscurantism and politically correct semantics. These people are the ones who looked through Galileo’s research, and said, “nah, nope, don’t see it” and threw him in prison. They are no better than any creationist, but far more dangerous, because they have more social capital.

    Maier’s article was not a complete success. It written in a confusing way and needed a much better editor, and she seems to have highly misstated information about animal domestication, but she grappled earnestly and honestly with how evolution shaped us. In the meantime, by denying ethnicity and gender as biological categories with huge effects, which could make profound differences in medical breakthroughs, education reform, crime prevention and rehabilitation, people like Seoh are literally complicit in extreme inequality, suffering, preventable causes of death, and horrific violence throughout the world.

    And enough with the sickening resort to crying “Eugenics!” whenever grappling with these issues. Be careful, because by now it is like crying wolf, a terrible thing for such a serious issue. (Why does modern environmentalism not always hark back to Stalin’s massacres and Lysenkoism? And what of the eugenics of aborting all those Down Syndrome babies so much that they are rarely ever born nowadays, pro-choicers?) It is such a hypocritical, dishonest, hysteria-driven way to shut down scientific inquiry, and we see right through it.

  10. Thank you to all that have responded. Most have raised valid
    points concerning the construction of my argument, and I will attempt to
    address them.

    To those critiquing the statement “race has no biological basis,” I should have
    been more clear. I can see the stark irony in presenting something still in
    debate as fact while simultaneously arguing for the practice of ethical
    science. My intended point was that the social and cultural variations attached
    to race have no biological basis. I’m arguing that ones genetics should not
    make one more biologically prone to listen to hip-hop, say y’all, or to have an
    affinity towards eating kimchi. Of course I recognize some populations are more
    prone to be susceptible to certain diseases and phenotypic traits and that
    researching these is important. Geography and localization have made certain
    regional populations possess significantly differing frequencies of certain
    alleles. That is science. What inherently is a social construct though, is
    where we choose to draw the lines between different races. What makes someone
    race A, race B, both? It depends on the situation and it’s arbitrary. I
    apologize for making an unclear statement about my position on race and

    To those who brought up evidence suggesting that brain size is indeed
    correlated to IQ. The largest study on the meta-data seem to imply, yes, there
    is a correlation, but with an r-squared value of .06, the data suggest brain
    size is by no means a reliable indicator or predictor of intelligence—the
    authors of the study themselves say it is not warranted to use brain size as an
    isomorphic proxy of human intelligence differences—and by no means are Morton’s
    conclusions correct. We cannot conclude that Whites are inherently smarter than
    Blacks. That is what is false about his research. I however acknowledge that my use of Morton’s study to highlight bad science was done so in an unclear fashion. I was not trying to illustrate an example of fudging data to confirm a bias (something Morton was not guilty of), but rather an example of using hand-wavy science to extrapolate a conclusion and support a prejudiced belief.

    For those identifying me with the movement to “censor all speech I happen to
    disagree with or is politically incorrect,” This is false. This is a straw man
    argument. What I argue for is not censorship of speech that hurts feelings. I’m advocating for the practice of due diligence needed by gatekeepers of credible platforms regarding decisions to publish ideas that are extremely likely to cause harm or further oppress a minority population, particularly those proven to be scientifically false or inconclusive (the debate about which I hope have clarified in the preceding
    paragraphs). Now who gets to decide what speech actually is conflated with
    physical harm or oppression is a slippery slope, and that should be acknowledged,
    but we must recognize that some speech has the potential to incite harm. This
    issue is not black and white. There is enough gray area to admit that some
    speech masquerading as “adding to the free exchange of ideas and intellectual
    discourse” can cause real harm to someone.

    This debate should not first tackle the question surrounding
    the issue of free speech and censorship, but rather first this question: Are
    there certain forms of speech aside from threats, inciting riots, etc. that can
    physically harm or oppress someone? If the answer is yes, then we can move on to debating whether or not preventing this actual harm is worth the deprivation of
    intellectual discourse a university would suffer from.

  11. It’s a shame we don’t all have your absolute, fool-proof understanding of what ideas are good or harmful, son. I’m glad that you can rest easy in the knowledge that you are a Good Person who has never, not once, expressed a viewpoint that someone found offensive, wrong, or even (heaven forbid) hurtful, and therefore you have nothing to fear from the erosion of freedom of speech.

    Free speech is the best friend that the oppressed have ever had. Without it, the tyranny of the majority rules the public sphere. With it, everyone can play the game if they choose to.

    As a society pursuing knowledge and understanding, we can either work out our disagreements with words, or we can work them out with knives and bullets. There isn’t an option for “neither.” Which would you prefer?

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