Sullivan understands that just because the Nazis made bad use of this stuff doesn’t make it untrue, or unimportant. I get that. But I keep coming back to a point that seems to be the one TNC is making: of what use is this field of study, anyway? Where do we propose to go with it? Andrew’s view is that it’s worth knowing for the reason all truth is worth knowing, and pursuing. In an abstract world, that makes sense. But we don’t live in a world of pure disinterestedness. If I were a geneticist, I doubt I would want to work in this field, only because the experience of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust, makes me deeply mistrustful of what human beings will do with the scientific knowledge that this race is intellectually inferior to that race, and we can prove it genetically.
The only possible good I can see coming out of it is to knock down affirmative action programs as unjust — but you don’t need genetics to do that. The possible evils coming out of it? Legion.
TNC's final thoughts on the subject, which are difficult to excerpt and should be read in full, are here. They deserve a final response from me.
Let me first suggest he is conflating two separate issues. The question of whether the taboo against research on intelligence between racial groups has hampered research into intelligence in general does not rely on any position about the validity of the racial research. It's an empirical claim. My first stab was an over-reach. Sometimes that happens when you respond as a blogger to a story. But I've walked back that empirical claim (run, I might add, on a hyper-lefty site), and run several posts explaining why, and fail to see how that claim in particular is offensive. What is offensive to some is my refusal to assume that research into racial differences in IQ is inherently racist. Sorry, but I don't. I regard it as an empirical question, as I do for many human differences.
But Ta-Nehisi points to a deeper question and it is one I have wrestled with. How do I live with the knowledge that writing about such things as merely empirical matters, when they are freighted with profound historical evil, will deeply hurt many, and could help legitimize hateful abusers of information? What responsibility does a writer have for the consequences, good and bad, of good-faith pieces he writes? Is merely citing the massive amount of data showing clearly different racial distribution for IQ an offensive, cruel and racist provocation? Is raising this subject worth anything anyway?
This is not the only time I have encountered this moral problem as a writer. Was I wrong to take reparative therapy seriously as an argument and accord some respect to its claims as to the origin of homosexuality, as I did in Love Undetectable? Was I aggravating sexism by writing my essay on testosterone for the NYT Magazine? Am I encouraging anti-Semitism by writing what I think is the truth about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in hobbling US interests in the Middle East? Did I encourage unsafe sex by writing "When Plagues End," in 1996, or undercut funding for AIDS research by revealing the breakthrough in treatment? Have I exacerbated the polarization I decry by calling those who approved or imposed "enhanced interrogation techniques" war criminals? Is "Christianist" too offensive a term even if it can be defended as a legitimate way to contrast it with live-and-let-live Christianity?
My core position is that a writer's core loyalty must be to the truth as best as he can discern it.
That's especially true in considered essays or books. On blogs, where sudden real time judgment can lead you to occasional overstatements or errors, it is important to ensure that corrections, adjustments or clarifications follow, and that dissent is open. (In publishing an extract from The Bell Curve in TNR, I also insisted in the same issue on publishing 19 separate dissents.) The point is the truth. I believe that part of the role of the public writer is not to self-censor for fear of social or cultural stigma. And that's one reason I took to the blogosphere before many others: because it was a place where I felt the limits on total freedom of speech were the least powerful. It was a place where taboos were weakest.
In my mind, I regard my work as a writer as existing in a different mode than my everyday living. I am writing not with respect to any individual but for the general public – which I envision stripped of its particular racial, gender, religious or whatever identities. If the truth hurts, so be it. In my role as a truth-seeker – and it is a role not my being – compassion and empathy are irrelevant.
Except they aren't.
The abstraction of the disinterested writer in pursuit of truth is an abstraction. And as a human being, I do not live in an abstract world. That I have wounded someone – like Ta-Nehisi – whom I revere as a writer and care about as a human being distresses me greatly. The friends I've lost from my recent Israel posts also grieve me. The friends I lost during the AIDS crisis – when I wrote things that violated the gay p.c. consensus – hurt me even more deeply. And to tell you the truth, I wonder whether my Christian faith is, in fact, compatible with the work I do. My compulsion to get to the bottom of highly contentious issues and my fixation on subjects where others smartly conclude the costs outweigh the gains ensure that I will continue to hurt people's feelings.
At one level, I wonder if this gift of freedom is not poisoned by my attraction to controversy rather than truth. I mean: questioning a woman's own pregnancy is an act of profound hurt. My defense in that case is that the person in question was a potential president and therefore merits more scrutiny than others. Nonetheless, it must have been deeply hurtful to Palin's family and herself even to raise the subject if there was nothing to it. In my conscience, I concluded that what drove me was my simple inability to believe the story on the surface, and that a possible president of the US who might have done such a thing was inconceivable. Similarly, I never believed that gender is entirely a social construction. Or that homosexual orientation is entirely genetic. My curiosity gets the better of me often.
I just know that it is hard for me to be a writer any other way. It seems to be in my nature – a querulous, insistent curiosity that sometimes relishes the hostility it often provokes. What I remain committed to is a constant re-evaluation of these arguments and complete openness to new data. But the hurt remains.
One justification is that the truth counts, and that even if we are able to ignore it for a while, it won't become less true. What I fear about liberal democracy is that if it rests itself on untrue notions of substantive human equality – both individually and in groups – it will one day fail. Covering up resilient inequality merely kicks this can down the road. And at the rate neuroscience is going, the empirical research – using far more powerful techniques than IQ testing – could up-end a lot of assumptions. Liberal democracy is better defended if it rests on formal civic moral equality, and not substantive, skills-based human equality. So, for example, it's a great argument for gay equality that homosexuality is 100 percent genetic. But I have never used that argument because the evidence isn't there for it. I think one should be careful about resting arguments on wobbly truth-claims.
One resolution to this conflict is to quit the public arena for areas of life where general truths are not so central; to find another way to make a living, and live it without the danger of hurting so many feelings. Throughout my life, I have considered doing this, for spiritual, moral and religious reasons. I fear there are too many times when I hurt more than heal, even though I don't intend to hurt. I fear that insisting on finding out reality at the expense of charity and empathy is not something a Christian should do lightly, if at all.
And so I ask TNC for forgiveness; not as a writer, where good faith and honesty alone matter; but as a friend and human being, where empathy counts.