An ig-Nobel fellow, but one to be censured, not censored

By now many of you have heard or read about how the distressingly-zombielike Nobel laureate/DNA co-discoverer James Watson made an ass of himself by publicly opining on the supposed intellectual inferiority of black Africans. This led to worldwide condemnation, the cancellation of at least one sold-out speaking engagement, and now the termination of his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Now, Watson has actually gone and made things worse by trying to apologize, but doing so in the most intelligence-insulting way possible. (Perhaps he thought the hundreds of millions of black people he offended would be too dumb to notice.)

“To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief,” he said.

Watson has just one little problem here. His original remark is on record and still very fresh, and so it’s going to be a little hard for him to sell the whole “I didn’t mean to say black people were stupid when I said they were stupid” pitch.

The question which will arise now is: Is the inevitable piling-on going to go too far? PZ Myers has already weighed in on Watson’s getting the heave-ho from Cold Spring, pointing out that “it’s a declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly).” The case is similar to the Don Imus firing, back when he made racist jokes about that African-American girls’ sports team. That speech can and will be offensive is a fact of life, but should those who engage in offensive speech be automatically stamped with “pariah” on their foreheads and sent to the bleachers for good, no longer to participate in public discourse? Or should their asinine views be aired openly, the better to thus engage them?

Goodness knows, I’ve inveighed here against neocons and Christian conservatives who say stupid things, and have not been shy about being inflammatory myself in castigating them. Most recently, Ann Coulter’s anti-Semitic ravings. But as loathsome as I find Coulter or Rush or Falwell (well, okay, we don’t have him to kick around any more) or Robertson, I’d never want to see them barred from public speaking. Free speech, like free anything, is a two-edged sword. You cannot have a culture that nurtures and develops the highest and most noble ideas without the freedom that also allows for the most pathetic ignorance and arrogance. And as Watson’s case reminds us, it’s not always necessarily the religious fanatics, or the Coulters of the world, who lose their marbles (not to mention their fundamental human decency) and shoot off their mouths without first loading their brains.

So yes, we have to put up with racism, and anti-science, and religious fanaticism and intolerance, because that’s the price we pay for the privilege of living in a freethinking society where we can openly critique those ideas and, with luck, educate people away from them. Yes, Watson has become a senile old asshat. But even in his intellectual decline, maybe he can still teach people something.