Friday, 21 January 2022

Am I a canceller? Free speech, institutional boundaries and healthy academic culture

Last year an old friend of mine gave me a book for my birthday. Not an unusual occurrence; but this relatively short and conversational volume has kept bouncing around in my mind over the last few months. It was written by an American academic named Zena Hitz and is called Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures Of An Intellectual Life. It is an endearingly enthusiastic and unashamedly personal paean to “the life of the mind”, i.e. wide and deep reading, careful thought and contemplation, serious conversation, and the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

The gift was well chosen. This was partly because, although the friend in question is not quite on the same page as me politically or philosophically, we are united in our belief in the value of open discussion and friendly disagreement. But in addition, the book caused me to partially reconsider my position on a topic which hardly ever seems to leave the headlines nowadays: the meaning and significance of free speech.

Last November saw the announcement of the University of Austin – a planned new private university, based in Texas. Its founders, including high-profile names such as Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, intend it to be an oasis of free inquiry and open debate amid a desert of censoriousness, groupthink and political dogmatism.

I’m instinctively sympathetic to such a project. Only the most obtuse or dishonest of observers would deny that recent years have seen a clear narrowing of the limits of acceptable opinion in many areas of public life. You can call this cancel culture if you like; it doesn’t really matter. What is important is not the name we give to the phenomenon, but the phenomenon itself, and so I can quite understand someone wanting to pursue their discipline in an institution where they can be confident of minimal ideological interference with their research, teaching or public statements.

Usually, when people talk about the ideal that such academics are seeking, they call it “academic freedom”, understood expansively as the ability to pursue the data or the evidence or the facts wherever they lead, even if the conclusions upset established authorities, people in power or vested interests. There is certainly something very attractive in such a vision. Particularly in the sciences, important breakthroughs have often come from dissidents chipping away at great edifices of received wisdom; one thinks of Barry Marshall, the Australian doctor who proved the true causes of stomach ulcers after years of patient research, or Edward Jenner, the pioneer of vaccination.

The debate over academic freedom has become entangled with the wider political and social argument over free speech. We saw this when Professor Kathleen Stock, formerly of Sussex University, came under vicious personal attack for her criticism of some aspects of the transgender movement. The fact that she had been intimidated by some students, betrayed by her union, and only halfheartedly defended by her employer, was framed as a failure to respect her right to speak her mind.

However – and here I circle back to the insights of Lost In Thought – we ought not to get too fixated on free expression alone as the supreme academic virtue. If you pay close attention to their arguments, defenders of people like Kathleen Stock are not simply arguing for free speech as an abstraction, but in favour of a whole host of overlapping norms about the exchange of ideas: rational and factual argument, respectful disagreement, and civilised co-existence with people who see the world very differently from us. “Free speech” is used as a kind of shorthand for the need to sustain this idea of higher education, which is under assault from many quarters.

The problem is that the shorthand can lead to a certain confusion about what we are saying. For a long time, I have framed my objections to injustices like those suffered by Professor Stock in terms of a near-absolute concept of academic freedom. But if I’m honest, I’m not sure I do believe in this maximally expansive idea of academic freedom. It doesn’t, for example, seem right that a Catholic university is obliged to employ in a teaching role someone who argues in their books and lectures that Catholicism is not true, or that a Muslim who converts to Christianity has much cause for complaint if an Islamic university does not renew his contract.

Am I, then, one of the dreaded cancellers? Is my position indistinguishable from the hooligans who intimidated Stock, picketed her lectures and demanded her resignation? No, and no. Stock’s critics were not motivated by a well-developed, coherent and defensible idea of what a university should be. Their position was fundamentally rooted in irrational animus against an individual; even on their own terms they could not provide a good explanation for why she should be expelled from the community. They ignored key academic norms of persuasion, reasonableness, respect and civility. It was these failures that made their position absurd in a way that the position of someone who wants to create a Catholic or Islamic institution is not absurd.

The life of careful thought and intellectual discovery in collaboration with others that Zena Hitz praises is not incompatible with membership of an organisation that sets certain intellectual boundaries for those who work within it. There is no contradiction between on the one hand believing in certain institutional barriers, and on the other seeking to create within those boundaries an open, respectful and scholarly atmosphere.

Indeed, universities cannot escape a moral vision – there is no view from nowhere. Even a university with no religious affiliation, with a self-consciously “neutral” stance on moral issues, is thereby picking a side on some of the big questions of existence.  In the words of GK Chesterton, “there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't know it.”

The American author and columnist Sohrab Ahmari made similar point in a striking piece explaining why he was involved with the Austin project despite his traditionalist Catholic objections to the idea of free inquiry as the highest goal of the university. In it he wrote, “The quest for knowledge will always be carried out within some substantive moral framework, and it can’t be abstracted from what we believe about man’s origins, nature, and ultimate destiny.”

This is perhaps less true for the hard sciences, where data and experiment and observation still more or less rule the roost and theories are generally amenable to solid proof or disproof (although as soon as scientific discoveries start to be applied, those applications can and must be assessed using the tools of moral judgment). But in the human and social sciences, where definitive empirical proofs are not normally available and there is greater reliance on quantitative judgments about inferences and interpretations, the philosophical framework which researchers bring to their work will very often affect their conclusions.

Hitz, of course, is not simply writing about the academy. Part of the whole thrust of her book is that the culture of the contemporary university is often hostile to the life of the mind properly understood, because it is overly bureaucratic and rewards careerism, ideological fads, and over-specialisation. Yet she is nevertheless offering a picture of what life in a university could and should be, and it is highly notable that academic freedom is not picked out as some master-key to the whole enterprise. It is mentioned, but always as part of a dense web of other values and expectations.

At the heart of this web, in Hitz’s account, is deep knowledge of our subject and enjoyment of learning for its own sake, rather than as a means to professional advancement or status. It is from this basic truth that all her other conclusions about intellectual life are drawn, and it is an important reminder that there is a great deal more to such a life than academic freedom, narrowly understood. It is one thing to lambast censoriousness with stinging rhetoric, to own the libs; and quite another to come up with a positive account of how to live against the new puritanism in a way that celebrates thought, dialogue, reason and depth. As Lost In Thought has it: “Intellectual life essentially involves a reaching out past the surface, a questioning of appearances, a longing for more than is evident.”     

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