James Robert Flynn (28 April 1934 – 11 December 2020)

Remembering James R. Flynn: scholar and free speech advocate

Paul du Quenoy offers an appreciation of the late scholar and free speech advocate James R. Flynn

Artillery Row

The eminent political philosopher James R. Flynn died on 11 December 2020 at the age of 86. A couple of years before his death, the scholar of intelligence research learnt that his book, originally titled In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, had been cancelled by a British publisher that had reviewed it, accepted it, and even advertised its imminent release in a catalogue that it had embarrassingly printed just before the cancellation.

The publisher gave the following reason for cancelling his work at such short notice: “Its publication, in particular in the United Kingdom, would raise serious concerns. By the nature of its subject matter, the work addresses sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender … it is with regret that [we have] taken the decision not to publish your manuscript.”

Flynn was twice fired from university posts for speaking out in defence of intellectual freedom and civil rights

The situation’s absurdity was even more readily apparent than the usual run-of-the-mill cancellation stories that we now hear almost daily. This was not a book by an obscure professor on an abstruse academic topic; this was a book by an internationally recognised scholar of major repute about the foundational principle of free speech itself, and that fundamental human right’s sad fate in institutions of higher education. Several months later the book appeared under its new title, A Book Too Risky To Publish: Free Speech and Universities, with Academica Press, which I own. At Professor Flynn’s suggestion, the book’s cover shows a missile marked “Speech Code” rocketing toward a generic neo-Gothic edifice that could be almost any established university.

Jim was no stranger to free speech issues. A lifelong man of the left who once belonged to America’s Socialist Party, his early academic career had been bedevilled by hidebound administrators in the United States. He was twice fired from university posts for speaking out in defence of intellectual freedom and civil rights. Finding the early 1960s American intellectual scene oppressive, he emigrated to New Zealand where he taught at the University of Canterbury before becoming a professor at the University of Otago, from which he retired last year. Although he was a philosopher by training, he built a distinguished academic career studying the more scientific phenomenon of human intelligence.

This research focus proved fundamental in Jim’s late-life trouble, for it inevitably involved participation in decades-long debates over the relationship between intelligence and race. Jim did not believe that there was any genetic correlation between race and intelligence, but rather argued that intelligence is shaped by environmental factors that tend to correlate with the socio-economic status of social groups, including groups defined by race. A logical corollary of that assertion is that when a group’s socio-economic conditions improve, average intelligence within that group correspondingly rises. Jim’s empirical research strongly supported that conclusion.

There was no attempt to silence Jim in the remaining year of his life

Indeed, an entire concept known in cognitive science as the “Flynn Effect” derived from Jim’s broad observation that material improvements in the human condition have caused a substantial increase in human intelligence across the board. Taken over a century, he found that average intelligence today would have rated at near-genius levels a hundred years ago, while average intelligence a hundred years ago would rate at borderline developmentally disabled levels today. This rise was simply too fast and too dramatic to be explained by genetic change or natural selection – processes that takes eons rather than decades – while marked short-term rises in intelligence among historically disadvantaged groups occurred alongside rapid improvements in environmental factors that benefit intelligence.

Interacting with those who posited or, more accurately, were accused of positing a racial or related genetic component in variations of intelligence exposed Jim to brutal assaults against his colleagues, particularly the social scientist Charles Murray, whose work has been mischaracterised as racist and eugenicist. In 2017 Murray’s invited appearance at Middlebury College ended in a violent confrontation that shut down his guest lecture and concussed the unfortunate professor who invited him.

In those simpler times, the verb “to cancel” was not yet applied to people, but what happened to Murray at Middlebury presaged much of what Anglospheric intellectual life has suffered since, right down to Jim’s cancellation two-and-a-half years later. Jim was rightly horrified by what happened to Murray; the episode is the subject of an entire chapter of his book. More recently, we have seen the same phenomenon unfold in the vaporisation of others, including academics, authors, editors, journalists, politicians, cultural personalities, business leaders, and even long dead historical figures whose views as stated, or even merely as interpreted, have offended some modish sensibility among the militantly woke of 2020. Drawing on arcane critical theorists, many of whom later repudiated their own work, those militants have tried hard to recast free speech and free inquiry, along with logic, rhetoric, grammar, and even good manners and correct attire, as tools of oppression that should be undermined or done away with, unless of course they are the ones talking.

All free speech proponents need is courage backed by the realisation that they are not alone

Jim worked in science, which he regarded as a long-extended “holiday” from his work in philosophy, but he was a man of principle before all else. He firmly believed that the best way to deal with an opponent with whom one disagreed – as he disagreed with Murray and others in his field – was simply to present a better and more persuasive argument, regardless of the subject. Ousting opponents from public discourse, whether by “de-platforming” disfavoured ideas, “cancelling” them and their work, resorting to physical violence or intimidation, or, needless to say, refusing to publish their books, smacked uncomfortably of the authoritarianism he had suffered as a young academic. By the time of his book’s cancellation, this point of view placed him decidedly, if not for him comfortably, on the right, at least in cultural politics. Despite having in effect been a liberal who was “mugged by reality” when his book was cancelled, he still preferred to maintain an independent posture. He wondered, for example, if today’s right-wing paladins of free speech would maintain their principles if they ever recover the intellectual high ground, or if they would merely disregard free speech and impose their own orthodoxies with the same rigidity of today’s leftist commissars.

Jim wrote about his cancelled book in a frank and very moving piece in Quillette just after it happened. By discussing his misfortune in a popular forum, he did the best possible thing. He exposed the false logic and bullying tactics of his persecutors for what they are. He did not hide from the pall of controversy and blithely take his lumps in the naïve belief that Anglo-American academia had his best interests at heart. He did not debase himself in a degrading apology ritual to express sorrow to those whom his views may have hurt and display contrition before those who sought to humiliate him. He shed no tears to bait his cancellers to attack him further. He did what had caused him so much trouble 60 years before but gave birth to a career that lasted a lifetime – he spoke out.

And he won. Dozens of high-profile colleagues publicly defended Jim, including Charles Murray and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, both of whom glowingly endorsed his book as “invaluable” and “essential”. Murray will discuss it in an online event that the National Association of Scholars will host next month. Pinker, whose magnum opus is a compelling defence of the Enlightenment, recently eulogised Jim as a “defender of Enlightenment ideals”. The New York Times, once the paper of record but hardly the heartiest defender of free speech these days, honoured him with a lengthy and laudatory obituary. Even Jim’s shamefaced original British publisher “liked” our Twitter post announcing his book’s publication.

By standing up to his bullies, Professor Flynn helped restore the ideal of free debate

After Jim’s Quillette article appeared, he received offers from no fewer than fifteen publishers, all of whom were eager to rescue his cancelled book. When my house released it in the final days of 2019, it attracted much positive attention but no adverse criticism of which I am aware. There was no attempt to silence Jim in the remaining year of his life, and there has been no pressure on my company or on me to withdraw, modify, or otherwise diminish his book, which continues to attract considerable international attention. If there were, we would promptly tell any bumptious critics what to go do with themselves and then, following Jim’s sterling example, expose them for the cheap bullies they are. This, more than anything, is how cancel culture will lose. Bullies, when resisted, are fundamentally cowards who will back down, disappear, or simply become irrelevant. Like any tyranny, theirs cannot withstand ridicule. All free speech proponents need is courage backed by the realisation that they are not alone.

Several of the presses Jim turned down were right-wing outfits that he feared would weaponize his book to score political points in our new culture wars and cause it to be tarred as propaganda for the Trumpian hordes. Indeed, books released by such publishers frequently do suffer that fate. All too often, their logos are practically bullseye targets that cause serious and thoughtful writers to be accused of every kind of social and ideological misdeed and excluded from mainstream public discourse. This is, of course, the opposite of what Jim believed in and of what Academica Press, which has no political orientation, proudly supports: an open and uncensored society in which debate and disagreement flourish in the pursuit of truth. By standing up to his bullies, Professor Flynn helped restore that ideal and has already encouraged others to do so. May he rest in peace.

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