Are some ideas not worth debating?

In an article in  the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom, noted historian Joan Wallach Scott draws a distinction between the protections afforded by Academic Freedom and the First Amendment. The distinction is an important one: the claim to protection for academic freedom  rests on a claim to expertise in one’s discipline. In contrast, the First Amendment protects speech that is based in ignorance. There are ideas and topics that are not worthy of time and attention in the classroom and there are papers that journal referees are justified in not  forwarding to reviewers. But the line between what deserves protection under the claim of Academic Freedom vs. the First Amendment is not so easily drawn: though the concepts can be distinguished, there is significant overlap between the two. Furthermore, not all speech on college campuses necessarily needs to contribute to academic discourse. And by declaring some views acceptable on college campuses, but not others, we incur the risk of creating and enforcing orthodoxies cemented by the arbitrary, bureaucratic enforcement of University administrators.

In some cases it is relatively easy to draw the line between what is worthy of protection under academic freedom and what is not.  But this is not always the case. For all intents and purposes, disciplinary standards and what counts as a warranted claim to knowledge in Mathematics, as well as the Physical and Natural Sciences is settled. This is not to say however, that it is unthinkable that we may in the future make significant revisions to our claims to knowledge in Mathematics and the Sciences. We should be wary of efforts to preclude genuine inquiry in any area. To take one example, there is legitimate academic debate between  Classical Logic  and Deviant Logic. But that does not imply that all ideas stand on an equal footing. We are warranted in rejecting Lysenkoism out of hand as pseudo-scientific nonsense. That noted, there is no shortage of quasi-Lysenkoist claims circulating in Universities these days: provided one is not promoting Lysenkoism as good biology, there are times and places where advocating that sort of thing falls under the general rubric of academic freedom.

Outside of those areas however, what counts as a settled issue in the discipline is  murkier where overarching visions of the world, ideology and competing claims to the appropriate disciplinary method cloud matters in ways they do not in Mathematics and the Sciences. As I have discussed in previous posts on this blog, economics in particular is an area where genuine academic dissent from orthodoxy has often been squelched, even as the claim of more orthodox economists to be doing good science is often at best suspect.

In addressing claims to protection under the First Amendment on college campuses, as opposed to claims to protection under academic freedom, these issues often surface when a professor or a student says something deemed offensive to someone in the course of a public statement as is the case in multiple recent cases (e.g. Steven Salaita , John McAdams or most recently Randa Jarrar) or when a student group invites a speaker. And it is the latter issue which often winds up as the most difficult. A good education requires not just that one be able to wade through the ideas that have academic merit, but that people also have the chance to hear as wide and varied perspective as possible since Universities have a critical role to play in preparing students for public life and civic participation.

On the one hand, there is a normative argument to be made that Universities are not required to allow those whose speech skirts the line of inciting violence and hatred like Richard Spencer. What the First Amendment should allow is in some cases an issue on which reasonable people can disagree, though as a matter of actual law, the matter is settled. Those who advocate the banning of speakers who promote hatred should consider that those very same standards can and will be quickly turned against speakers on the left. If we can and should ban apologists for fascism and Nazism, then there is an equal case for banning apologists for Stalin and Mao and those who advocate revolutionary violence from the left. Still, I think that in many cases, conservative groups on campuses would  better promote their cause by disassociating from trolls such as Milo Yiannopoulos. Tempting as it may be sometimes to poke fun at and enrage your political opponents “just because”, does not mean that is an effective way to advance one’s agenda

But it is not the attempt to prohibit speakers such as Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopolous that is vexing. What vexes is the extraordinarily broad brush that is used to paint any person who is critical of the identitarian left as homophobic, racist and misogynistic, while promoting one’s self as “woke”.  Hence critics of Black Lives Matter such as Heather McDonald have been deemed not simply to be wrong (which in my view she is) but as a person not even worth hearing or debating with. And in some instances it goes farther such as the actual disruption and physical assault on a faculty member who wished to engage in a debate with Charles Murray.

It is indeed tempting to dismiss these stories as just part of a vast right wing conspiracy intended to discredit and silence leftists on campuses. And it should be noted, that the effort by some on the right simply silence real and imagined “leftists” on campuses while demanding free speech for conservatives is real, as evidenced by such groups as Turning Point and the recent campaign to demand the firing of Randa Jarrar for speaking “disrespectfully” of the recently deceased Barbara Bush (note: my defense of Jarrar’s First Amendment rights is not an endorsement of her views). For the most part, these efforts come from outside the academy, while the efforts to silence conservatives come most often from inside the academy, in the name of refusing to tolerate intolerance. But alas, the extent to which the combination of activist groups and campus bureaucrats have created a chilly climate for open discussion of ideas is not an exaggeration. It is real.

The distaste by some who wish to claim the mantle of “leftwing” at times reaches absurd extremes in which intolerance for healthy debate can be seen in this post on the site 3WF Third Wave Feminism which begins as follows:

“White Dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas. You’re supposed to be able to have healthy debate and disagreeing shouldn’t harm your friendship. That’s gross and stupid.”




2 thoughts on “Are some ideas not worth debating?

  1. That quotation at the end is amazing. And you are right that right-wing attacks on campus speech tend to come from outside the university, while left-wing attacks come from inside. I’m inclined to think that means in general that the left-wing ones are actually more dangerous to members of the campus community, since the university will generally close ranks to protect against attacks from outside the university. The Steven Salaita case you mentioned is an interesting counterexample to that, though.

    Your point that it is hard to draw the line is also true and a good one to make. I don’t know where the line should be drawn, exactly. But I think we agree in saying (1) right now the pendulum has swung way too far to the side of excluding speech that shouldn’t be and (2) this is especially a danger in softer sciences and the humanities, where fads are often mistaken for settled fact. (I think that can happen in disciplines like biology, though, too.)


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