Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why academic freedom?

Once again into the fray.  A brief excerpt from the paper:

The main threats to academic freedom in the natural sciences in the capitalist democracies come from powerful business interests that disfavor, for profit-seeking reasons, certain discoveries:   for example, concerning the human contribution to climate change, to take the most important example in the present, but also findings about the inefficacy of particular pharmaceuticals and medical treatments.   Businesses have a strong interest in the correct natural scientific understanding of the causal order of nature, to be sure, since the extraction of profit from nature requires it.  At the same time, businesses also have strong interests in concealing certain scientific results that might impede popular acceptance of their business practices and consumption of their products.  Academic freedom is a crucial bulwark in favor of discovering truths about the natural world even in the relatively free capitalist societies.


In the human sciences, the issues are usually different:  it is, shall we say, rare for international corporations to get exercised about the latest developments in the history of early modern Europe or philosophy of the social sciences.  The threats to academic freedom in the human sciences come less from the business sector, and more often from political and religious interest groups whose normative commitments are threatened by the findings of the human sciences.   In the United States, for example, external pressure is frequently brought upon universities who try to employ critics of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.[1]   But the pressure to violate academic freedom comes from within the universities too.   Indeed, some humanists have concocted a whole new metaphysics of “silencing” and “marginalizing” and “violence” to describe the expression of ideas that are offensive and insulting to certain minority groups.  For these academic insiders, Marcusian “indiscriminate” toleration in academic discourse is not acceptable, since the expression of ideas that might be hurtful to individuals based on group membership—in particular, membership in groups that have been victims of historical practices of subordination (e.g., African-Americans in the United States, though more recently, transgender individuals)—is alleged to “silence” members of that group and do “violence” to them.   


Marcuse himself wanted to suppress speech advocating for actual violence against and silencing of human beings:  murdering their political leaders, dropping chemical bombs on their country, destroying their society and livelihood through military violence.    But neoliberalism—the idea that the preferences of the consumers of products, including education, determine the value of what is offered—now rules in the capitalist universities too, with the result that some self-styled “progressive” faculty and students--even in institutions of higher education that protect expressive rights quite resolutely--believe that denigrating and offensive ideas “silence,” “marginalize” and “do violence” to them.   (Ironically, one need only watch videos, easily available on-line, of minority students challenging and ridiculing the pathetic NeoNazi Richard Spencer on various campuses to realize that no one was “silenced” and no one suffered actual “violence.”)  In both research and teaching in the human sciences, such metaphysical flights of fancy deserve no consideration at any university committed to academic freedom.   The dismissal of this melodrama is, of course, compatible with full commitment to laws, common in most Western democracies these days, prohibiting racial, gender, or sexual orientation discrimination.

[1]For an example, see Salaita 2015, Schmidt 2015, Leiter 2014a, and Leiter 2014b on the Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois.


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