April 27, 2021 - 7:00am

Of all the initiatives taken in response to the free speech crisis in academia, one of the most interesting is The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

This is how it describes itself:

The journal is neutral with respect to moral, political, philosophical, religious, and social views. Papers defending ideas commonly considered controversial by liberals or progressives, and those defending ideas considered controversial by conservatives or libertarians, are equally welcome.
- Journal of Controversial Ideas

Its editors and editorial board include Peter Singer, Nigel Biggar, Susan Blackmore and Christina Hoff Sommers — a wide spread of viewpoints. 

The first issue has just been published, but seekers after sensation will be disappointed. Certainly those looking for things to be offended by will be wasting their time here — unless, that is, they’re outraged by the very idea of academics discussing and debating ideas deemed controversial instead of condemning or censoring them. 

One of the most interesting articles in the first issue is by Michael Veber and it’s about the practice of ‘no platforming’ in universities. There are many reasons given for stopping someone from speaking at a university. The most infamous cases involve allegations of hate speech or that students are being made to feel ‘unsafe’.

However, Veber looks at a very different set of excuses for silencing certain ideas on campus. To use an example he uses throughout his article, the idea that the Earth is flat is unlikely to be regarded by anyone these days as hateful or frightening. On the other hand, it’s nonsense — so there an epistemic justification for no platforming a Flat-Earther?

Veber goes through the various arguments for doing so — and knocks them down one by one. For instance, trying to protect students from obvious rubbish is paternalistic — infantilising even. That doesn’t mean that universities should start appointing professors of Flat Earth Geography, but equally it isn’t the function of a campus to serve as an epistemically pure refuge from which all forms of wrongness are banished. After all, that’s a rather dangerous thread for them to pull on —  especially in the humanities and social sciences.

But isn’t it a little naive to expect students — however well taught — to recognise and refute every wrong-headed argument? Committed cranks develop their arguments to such a level of detail that it takes specialised knowledge to spot the flaws and deceptions. 

So how do university protect their charges from these pseudo-intellectual snares? Not by censorship, says Veber, but by teaching young minds not to be freaked out by disconcerting arguments that they can’t immediately deal with. 

Life — whether that of the mind or the everyday variety — is full of complications and inconsistencies. That doesn’t mean we have to spend our days in doubt and confusion; rather we have to choose a path and stick to it despite the stumbling blocks.

Therefore to protect students from every wrong idea isn’t just infantilising, it is enfeebling.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.