Features, Free Speech

What Drives Academics Who Oppose Free Speech?

One of the more dispiriting features of the current debate over the limits – or even the permissibility – of academic freedom is the eagerness with which some academics take the side of the censors. In the wake of the row that erupted when Germaine Greer was invited to speak at Cardiff University, a particularly fascinating example of this suicidal trend appeared on an Australian website called the New Matilda, written by one Dr. Timothy Laurie, described as “a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne”.

Laurie maintains that the student-led movement to disinvite Greer must be supported, not in the interests of good taste or some elastic definition of student ‘safety’, but in the interests of education itself. Generous to a fault, Laurie allows that Greer is “free to write books” but he also announces that, “the journalistic conception of free speech cannot be applied to universities”.

This, we are told, is because universities exist to disseminate truth and Greer is a peddler of falsehood. Greer’s ideas about trans issues and her belief in the existence of “real women” are, he avers, so uninformed and hare-brained that they constitute a form of cultural flat-Earthism. And a seat of learning should have no part in bestowing legitimacy upon a flat-Earther. “Like Greer,” he explains…

… many people hold the belief that there are “real women” and “impersonating” women, and only those classified as women at birth (cis-gendered women) are “real women”. This belief cannot be proven or disproven, because “real women” is a cultural fiction. The notion cannot be tested or improved upon, just as we cannot improve our true knowledge of wizards or unicorns.

Permitting Greer to speak – and permitting students to hear whatever it is she has to say – would therefore be a betrayal of the university’s duty to enlighten and inform.

“Real women” may or may not be a cultural fiction but, as a DNA test will demonstrate, they are an indisputable biological fact. And the observation of rare exceptions to sexual dimorphism, otherwise common to all mammals, does nothing to alter that fact. Germaine Greer’s error has been to persist in acknowledging this. Like Professor Laurie, Greer is a social constructionist. She’s just the wrong kind.

Laurie has taken a side in this obscure intra-ideological debate and then declared that the truth has now been established and the matter settled (it seems he found Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender decisive). It must be irritating to discover that a few obdurate souls are not persuaded. Some of these people even take issue with the whole idea of social constructionism.

Laurie’s advice is that such people be simply declared mad and then shunned. It is not enough to keep Greer out of the syllabus – she must be prevented from speaking on campus. “If Germaine Greer wants to speak about “real women” in an academic context” he concludes, “[then] she needs to revise and resubmit her recent work on a pass/fail basis.”

That is to say, she needs to fall into line.

Does Laurie realize that he sounds like a pantomime Stalinist functionary? We are not told who gets to rule on which views and topics are permissible for open discussion. But were his opponents on this issue (or any other, for that matter) to find themselves in a position to decide, and were they to retain whatever tribunal he would like to see established, then Dr. Laurie would be faced with a rather unappetizing choice: to either renounce his formerly-believed but now obviously flat-Earth views and conform to the new prevailing wisdom; or to resign his position, declare himself incompetent to teach, and get the hell off campus clutching an order to Revise and Resubmit.

If Laurie is vague about who would get to select and reject admissible opinion, he at least hints at desirable criteria for establishing what is and what is not to be considered truth:

Since at least the early 1980s, gender and sexuality studies has been perfectly capable of investigating and challenging sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, without recourse to “real women”.

As worthy as rooting out and challenging prejudice may be, it is the task of an activist not an academic. Unless, of course, one happens to believe that the pursuit of truth is the same as the pursuit of a political utopia, and that what is true is therefore the same as what is ‘inclusive’. In which case academia becomes indistinguishable from activism, and education becomes indistinguishable from indoctrination. Views held to be racist or ethnocentric, sexist or misogynistic, homophobic or trans-exclusionary are therefore necessarily false. And if a view is false, then it is highly likely to also be racist or sexist and so on. Laurie writes:

As Cordelia Fine has shown, scientific studies constantly try and constantly fail to discover a biological essence of “real woman”, and what they mostly discover are the sexist biases of other scientists.

In mitigation, Laurie is happy to admit that “academic knowledge must contain the conditions for its own improvement” which means that at least some discussion is allowed. But the parameters of that discussion ought to be strictly policed and Greer’s views about gender place her so far beyond the limits of the acceptable that she is not to be allowed to participate, even tangentially.

As she has been at pains to point out, Greer had not even been planning to speak about trans-related issues. Her lecture was to be entitled Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century. But an absence (or an ‘erasing’ in the lexicon of oppression) of trans figures in such a history is probably enough to make her opinions reprehensible – a sort of bigotry by omission.

The New Matilda twitter account describes the site’s content as “Independent news, investigative journalism, analysis and satire” which led some to wonder if the article was in fact a hoax. The absence of a tag denoting it as such suggests otherwise. But the mere fact that Laurie’s wretched brand of earnest authoritarian zeal is so hard to distinguish from a parody of same is a symptom of just how fanatical large parts of the academy have allowed themselves to become. Blissfully unaware of their own hypocrisy, they are ruthlessly clamping down on political heterodoxy in the name of a virtue-based dogma of cultural inclusion and diversity. The paradoxical result has been increasing ideological homogeneity at the expense of critical analysis and academic rigor.

In a recent report for the New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks worried aloud about the atrophy of intellect and scholarship produced by this kind of political groupthink.

[E]ven honest researchers are affected by the unconscious bias that creeps in when everyone thinks the same way. Certain results — especially when they reinforce commonly held ideas — tend to receive a lower standard of scrutiny. This might help explain why, when the Open Science Collaboration’s Reproducibility Project recently sought to retest 100 social science studies, the group was unable to confirm the original findings more than half the time.

The tyranny of confirmation bias and the fanaticism of its enforcers are not only a disaster for academics themselves, who are producing unreadable jargon-filled agitprop dressed up as disinterested study and childishly censorious articles like Laurie’s which make him look ridiculous. It is also a disaster for their students who are being denied an education that opens their minds and broadens their ability to think critically about the value of ideas, whatever their provenance on the political spectrum.

A small number of alarmed academics – including the American psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker – have established an online hub called Heterodox Academy, the mission of which is “is to increase viewpoint diversity in the academy”. Chiming with Brooks’s analysis, they describe the problem as follows:

Psychologists have demonstrated that certain kinds of diversity enhance creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in most of the social sciences (other than economics) as well as in the legal academy and the humanities: political diversity. On our publications page you’ll find evidence that in most academic fields, progressives outnumber conservatives by ratios that often exceed ten to one.

One does not have to be a conservative of any kind to find this profoundly troubling. One only has to agree that neither the political Right nor the Left have a monopoly on either wisdom and reason or stupidity and delusion, and to acknowledge the benefit of what John Stuart Mill elegantly described as “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”


Jamie Palmer is a freelance writer and film-maker. Read more of his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @jacobinism


  1. Sean J says

    The oddity is that there was a time in the not so distant past when Laurie’s mother would have been advised to drown him. Greer with her championing of equality could be portrayed as a key figure in making his current life possible. And for those that don’t know ……….. yes he is one of those, one look can tell.

  2. Long article. Interesting. But with a problem right in the middle, in the crux of it.

    “As worthy as rooting out and challenging prejudice may be, it is the task of an activist not an academic. Unless, of course, one happens to believe that the pursuit of truth is the same as the pursuit of a political utopia, and that what is true is therefore the same as what is ‘inclusive’. In which case academia becomes indistinguishable from activism, and education becomes indistinguishable from indoctrination.”

    This paragraph starts with the odd idea that academics seek only truth, or that the seeking of truth and the challenging of prejudice are opposed or incompatible. It goes on to whack a big soft strawman “political utopia” and the chaff that bursts forth can be found in the remainder of that sentence – the demonstrably false idea that the academic in question seeks inclusivity.

    From this one dodgy paragraph issue noxious clouds of doubt that envelope the rest of the piece. Which is not to say that the experience of reading it was unpleasant or uninformative.

    Maybe a chain of people policing the speech of other people and trying to silence them is what political discourse is. I’m just going to sit here and watch the shushing continue.

  3. Of course, challenging prejudice and traditional thinking is task of academics, too. As is pursuit of knowledge, what can reliably said about the world, people, human beings and other beings etc. etc. In this enterprise facts, ideas and assumptions have to be questioned again and again in academic discourse. In essence, this means contradicting and responding, arguing, reasoning, trying to convince one another about research, empirical observation and evidence. Censoring speech from the get-go narrows the intellectual space needed for just that.

  4. two questions:
    one: do we accept that flat-earthers should not be invited to speak at campuses? do we accept that nazis who are currently planning to murder students should not be invited? do we accept that racists in general, who will make students suicidal or homicidal, should not be invited?

    if the answer to any of those is “yes” (and…well, fuck it, it is) then:
    two: we have agreement that there are bounds of “acceptable” discourse, and the question is merely of where those bounds are, not that they exist. and as soon as they exist, the point the professor is making exists in a context that makes his words merely argumentative rather than absurd, and well worth serious engagement, which you haven’t done.

    (that was four questions. i’m bad at math.)

    • Guestus Aurelius says

      What reason is there to prevent flat-earthers from speaking at campuses? Allowing someone to speak doesn’t imply endorsement of their views.

      Same for racists and neo-Nazis—why shouldn’t they be permitted to speak?

      And what is this business about “mak[ing] students suicidal or homicidal”? Do you really think that college students are uniquely unable to hear objectionable views without going on a killing spree? You realize that racists and neo-Nazis exist, yes? And that the overwhelming majority of them don’t go around murdering people? So why should we suppose that simply hearing racists speak will render college students violently unstable? Surely we can give them a little more credit than that.

      Much as I think Russell Brand is a loon, I was rather impressed a few years ago when I saw a clip of him interviewing members of the Westboro Baptist Church on his show. (As an aside, isn’t it amazing how just a few dozen nonviolent idiots have managed to make international news time and time again, simply by being terribly offensive?) People really do hold repugnant views, and I don’t see what good it does to stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise. Isn’t it actually better to shine a light on bigotry? Or even to encourage dialogue in the hopes of changing minds and hearts?

      We should obviously make exceptions for anyone that’s “currently planning to murder” or otherwise physically harm students. But why should we draw the line before then? Why should we treat college campuses as bubbles detached from the real world, as “safe spaces” where offensive views must not be aired? Why should we treat college students with kid gloves, as if they’re specially ill-equipped to handle some unpleasantness?

      Now, I’m not saying that a neo-Nazi would make a suitable commencement speaker, and I’m not saying that colleges should invite crackpots and racists to speak all the time. Most guests are invited because they’re actual scholars, and that’s how it should be. I am suggesting, however, that there’s some value in being directly exposed to ideas that make us uncomfortable, angry, or offended. And I am suggesting that viewpoint alone isn’t sufficient reason to bar someone from speaking at a campus. Let’s prepare students for the real world, where nobody will protect them from encountering shitty people with shitty ideas.

      • i guess where we disagree (and yes, my “suicidal” example was over the top) is on the flat-earthers, which is really the heart of my point. I’m a believer, and have been in my career in programming video journalism, that it is irresponsible to have someone on a show to be a point-counterpoint, where point=actual truth and counterpoint=absurd nonsense. if you give both “equal time” then you are tacitly (and borderline explicitly) endorsing the viewpoint as having merit or value.

        it doesn’t. and giving it that imprimatur is actively making your audience stupider. who knows, now that you’ve given koch-brothers-sponsored-flat-earther equal time, your audience, who previously knew better, may now think that if they drive west they might fall off the earth.

        and it’s your fault.

        having speakers at school is “programming” and as a programmer, you have a responsibility to not waste your students’ time on idiocy.

        • Guestus Aurelius says

          To your point on journalism: It’s one thing to expect reporters to present data and acknowledge the scientific consensus when covering a topic like climate change. That’s just a call for responsible journalism. But it’s another thing entirely to demand that the media censor a viewpoint because it’s unscientific (or even anti-scientific). Perhaps that’s not quite what you’re suggesting, in which case I beg your pardon, but I’ve actually seen scientists petition newspapers to refuse to print “denialist” opinion pieces! That’s a straightforward call for propaganda, and I’ll never be on board with it.

          As to the topic at hand, I’ll reiterate my conviction that colleges shouldn’t ban speakers because of their opinions. Allowing or inviting someone to speak isn’t an endorsement of their views. If I thought it were, then I’d have to give some serious consideration to Ben Carson’s recent proposal: “I actually have something I would use the Department of Education to do. It would be to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” Source: 3:25 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB11Nd5T-Io

  5. Jason says

    Our campuses are full of Screamers, Thugs and Thought Police.

  6. The above discussion of flat-earthers speaking at universities was interesting (my sense of Greer’s views is that they’re nowhere near approaching that, but I know hardly anything about transgender issues so I will stick to discussing flat earthers).

    I would not invite one to give a talk about the Earth’s shape, because I think the flat-earth hypothesis is wrong and I’d rather have a talk about good science. But I *would* invite a flat-earther to speak about an unrelated topic if I thought they’d give a good talk about that other topic. Finally, and most importantly, if *someone else* decides to invite a flat earther to give a talk about the flat earth, I do not think it is appropriate to shut it down. Anyone is free to not invite whoever they don’t want to invite. It’s the shutting down of other people’s events that is the problem.

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