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Seoh '14: Not all free speech is created equal

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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