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Can academia be saved from the mob?

Berkeley. Credit: Max Whittaker / Getty

Berkeley. Credit: Max Whittaker / Getty

December 4, 2018   5 mins

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.

It is interesting that Timsit also tries to play down the troubles on campus at the moment. “[There] is,” she says, “also reason to believe that the panic surrounding free speech on campus in recent years has been overblown,” and that “freethinking academics are far from the only victims of the wrath of social media trolls; many people from across the political spectrum face vilification, harassment, and threats online”.

Anyone who spends a reasonable amount of time on a university campus will know only too well the extent to which free speech is under threat. The problem of censorship is not, however, limited to “conservative thoughts”— anyone voicing an opinion that is even remotely to the Right of far-Left orthodoxy becomes suspect, including centrists and those who are otherwise Left-leaning.

If you have any doubt as to how toxic the environment has become, you need only look at how frequently university campuses have been subjected to protests and mobbing behaviour in the last few years as a result of challenging Leftist dogma: University of Missouri, Yale University, UC Berkeley, Evergreen State College, Lewis & Clark College, Sarah Lawrence College. The list goes on. These instances are so numerous, they are on the verge of becoming the norm.

I recently interviewed Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College and self-identified Leftist and feminist, who in the spring of 2017, was viciously mobbed online after publishing an academic paper on transracialism — the idea that some individuals choose to identify as a particular race that is different from their racial background. She had asked whether there were parallels between being transgender and being transracial. It was a provocative argument, one that has been posed by some conservatives in the past, and I thought well within the bounds of legitimate academic discussion.

Instead of engaging with Tuvel’s points, however, other academic scholars took to social media to attack her, calling her “transphobic” and “racist,” and threatening her academic career. Hypatia, the journal that published Tuvel’s paper, issued an apology, and two members from Tuvel’s dissertation committee, Lori Gruen at Wesleyan University and Lisa Guenther at Vanderbilt University, signed an open letter denouncing the work. This is the level of shaming and ostracisation Tuvel faced for merely posing a question.

Tuvel told me what she endured has had lasting effects on her field, with academics steering clear of projects pertaining to gender and race. I saw a lot of this sort of thing during my time as an academic researcher — that in devising new research projects, some colleagues would intentionally avoid topics that could be interpreted as even potentially controversial. One such subject, for instance, is gender dysphoric children. Unless a researcher is supportive of the early transitioning approach, they have no hope of surviving in academia. In my case, writing about this issue led to my own decision to leave upon finishing my PhD.

It only takes a few loud voices, as we’ve seen, to send a wider trend of fear and intimidation throughout the ivory tower, silencing entire areas of inquiry. Higher learning is being killed by student activists, who claim they are doing what is best for society while dictating what professors are allowed to say in their classrooms.

In a given 70-hour work week, professors are conducting original research and writing papers, submitting grants, mentoring their graduate students, teaching classes, and fulfilling administrative duties. The last thing they want is to be pursued by a mob excoriating them on social media and in the press, and possibly showing up at their door. In its most drastic form, students will default to physical violence, as we saw during the 2017 protest at Middlebury College that left a professor concussed and in a neck brace as she attempted to shield Charles Murray from his attackers.

Of all people, academics should be protected from this behaviour, because we have no other way of vetting the truth. Instead, mobbing is not only encouraged, but celebrated. Even if an academic survives a bout with the mob, rarely is an apology issued. Many are instead hounded out of the academy, their professional reputations so tarnished that they have no alternative but exile.

This extends beyond publishing controversial work. Just look at those various academics who have voiced ‘unacceptable’ opinions, such as Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who was hung out to dry after making an innocuous joke about his experiences working with women, or Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who resigned from positions at Yale University after advocating that students choose their own Halloween costumes, and physicist Alessandro Strumia, who was suspended from his position at the European nuclear research centre CERN for presenting data suggesting the sciences have become sexist toward men.

An academic’s purpose isn’t to promote ideas that are crowd-pleasing and sanctifying. It is to interrogate our beliefs in order to come away with a better understanding of the world. When academic institutions are unable to facilitate honest discussions in search of this truth – the very thing they were built to stand for – the academy has lost its way.  Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable, but this isn’t a reason to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or to punish those who wish to explicate it.

In a perfect world, currently existing journals would stand up to the bullying, intimidation, and silencing, and academic institutions would protect their faculty. In our febrile, fearful world, anonymity will have to do.

Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy.com, the Globe and Mail and many others.


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