What Drives Academics Who Oppose Free Speech?

What Drives Academics Who Oppose Free Speech?

Jamie Palmer
Jamie Palmer
5 min read

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 rigour.

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.”

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Jamie Palmer

Jamie Palmer is senior editor at Quillette.