Can Academia Be Saved From The Mob?

  • Date: 05/12/18
  • Debra Soh, UnHerd

Anonymity is the only way to save free thinking from dictatorial campus views

When we think of academia, we think of an idyllic landscape where fresh, young minds embark on a fearless pursuit of intellectual inquiry and knowledge. Well, we need to think again. Because the university climate has changed so significantly in recent years, it now stands in stark contradiction to these goals.

Such is the temperature on campuses today, that academics are having to self-censor, with fears of retribution dictating the kinds of scientific questions they pursue.

The culture of fear and intimidation they face at the moment impedes academic freedom and the ability to conduct meaningful work. Scientists in the field of sex research, for example, are terrified to pursue questions pertaining to sex differences, gender, and sexual orientation, for fear that any politically unpopular findings will end their career.

When news broke regarding The Journal of Controversial Ideas, which is launching in early 2019 and will allow scholars to publish their work pseudonymously in it, my academic colleagues, among them many liberal researchers, gave a collective sigh of relief: since they will able to publish their work pseudonymously in it.

This new journal, though, would allow academics to avoid the ugly fallout that currently comes from having your name attached to controversial views – treatment ranges from public shaming and job loss to death threats and harassment directed at you and your family. Perhaps predictably, though, barely 24 hours after plans for the journal were announced, a fleet of media articles were published questioning its launch.

Annabelle Timsit wrote one for Quartz. In it, she expresses concern that submitting work under a pseudonym “risks creating a free-for-all wherein any idea, no matter how discriminatory, unethical, or repugnant, might be considered worthy of debate”.

The journal will, however, be peer-reviewed and so evaluated by experts in the relevant fields, ensuring that papers will meet a rigorous standard. Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford and one of the journal organisers, has also said that it will be intellectually and politically diverse.

Timsit voices fears that such a journal would house “a bias toward publishing particularly controversial ideas in the interest of freedom of thought”. This has echoes of the Left’s argument that the Right invented the term “political correctness” in order to defuse attacks on their “no longer acceptable” and “bigoted” views, rather than because liberals were stifling free speech. But academics need to be able to think and speak freely when conducting their research; unfiltered speech is grounded in good faith – not the desire to seek out controversy for the sake of it.

Which brings us to the question of why those on the Left aren’t celebrating the arrival of the launch. Freedom of speech isn’t solely of concern to the Right; academic freedom has, after all, allowed those on the Left to call into question issues such as climate change denial and creationism. They remain silent now, though, because they know they are winning the culture war.

Good scholarship, however, should stand regardless of an academic’s identity and political position, and McMahan points out that “[it] should make no difference who the author is”. We must have faith in the process of academic debate. If ideas without merit are submitted, then academics should be counted upon to call them out — that’s how the model is supposed to work, not by silencing these perspectives and preventing them from being heard.

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