Cancel culture and academic freedom



I can only hope that cancel culture is a trend that, like many similar phenomena, is here today and will be gone tomorrow, although I’m not about to offer a prediction about this. When a pendulum swings hard in one direction, you can almost predict it’s going to swing back again with terrific force—almost but not quite. It may also prove permanent, especially if it encounters little opposition.

My topic is cancel culture in the university and the old principle of academic freedom. Consider briefly just three examples of writers or ideas that many people currently wish to see expelled permanently from the university. The first is John Locke and particularly his profoundly influential political treatise of 1689, Two Treatises of Government. Today there are many on the left end of the spectrum who want to see classical liberal texts of this kind jettisoned from the curriculum in any and all university courses on the grounds that Locke was an important early exponent of a political system that many currently believe to be oppressive. The second example is Martin Heidegger. While Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazis in 1933-34 has long been common knowledge, the recent publication of his so-called Black Notebooks has given new life to the debate around this thinker and inspired some to call for his cancellation from the curriculum on grounds of his purported antisemitism. The third example I want to mention is critical race theory. Presently some conservatives wish to see this theory and any texts that avow it ejected on the grounds that it is an intellectually dubious and maybe also morally bankrupt hypothesis. I’m not going to criticize or defend any of these three here. I have plenty of criticisms of all three, but the point we need to bear in mind isn’t whether any of them are vulnerable to criticism but whether they should be banished from the university. My answer is a decided no, and on several grounds, but the one I want to focus on is academic freedom. Why is academic freedom important? The principle of academic freedom essentially states that a university is a place where the job of both professors and students is to debate rationally any and all ideas and the texts in which those ideas are expressed, and where no text, idea, or person is forbidden from gaining a hearing. The reason why universities exist is to create and impart knowledge, and new knowledge is created by ideas gaining a hearing and determining whether they can withstand critique. Knowledge creation is impossible when the ethos of the institution becomes pervaded by a fear of ostracism if one commits the sin of heresy.

Without repeating the arguments I have already outlined in “Free Speech 101” and “Free Speech 201,” I’m going to suggest that there is a fairly close analogy we can draw between the kind of ideas and theories that academics in universities deal with and legal facts which it is the aim of a legal trial to determine. Some now argue that there are some cases where there’s no need for a trial and that we should simply proceed to sentencing. If we’ve all seen the video of some alleged crime, why have a trial at all? There are several important reasons why a trial must take place, but the most basic one is precisely that we don’t know the legal truth of the case until we carry out an appropriate form of inquiry, and this inquiry itself must be conducted slowly and carefully within a particular institutional setting and in accordance with strict legal rules and procedures. A frequently heard reply to this is some version of what we might call the “Come on, you know” argument: You know the person is guilty because you’ve seen the video. The reply to this argument is precisely that we don’t know the legal truth of the case until all the evidence and arguments are presented in court. Prior to that, what we have is an opinion about it. That opinion, no matter how adamantly some might hold it, doesn’t constitute legal fact. It becomes a legal fact when a finder of fact—a judge or jury—pronounces it as such. Until then it has the status of a hypothesis.

This basic point of legal epistemology carries over to education and research. Suppose we know, as many say they do, that a particular theory, hypothesis, or theorist is in some important way mistaken or objectionable, and maybe in such a manner as to arouse a strong emotional reaction in some. Should we then forbid it, or him or her, from being taken up and discussed in an academic setting? The answer is again no because here again we don’t know they are mistaken until we inquire. A theory needs to run the gauntlet of criticism and competing hypotheses, and until we do this we have no more than a belief about its truth value. This again is a slow and painstaking process, and it’s precisely the process that any decent university and the people who work there are in the business of engaging in. This kind of inquiry, of course, can also be conducted outside of the academy and often is, but it’s the central mission of a university to subject to critical scrutiny any idea that professors and students care to examine. When someone is tempted to ostracize either ideas or the people who espouse them for the reason that they damage someone’s feelings, the appropriate response is to slow down, cool your jets, and be humble. Maybe nothing can teach humility—it does seem to me that this is a quality that one either has woven into one’s personality or one does not—but humility is among the most important of the intellectual virtues. If we don’t entertain as a serious possibility that what we currently believe might be wrong and that the idea or text we’re examining might be right, inquiry and education will never get off the ground. False ideas must be shown to be false; they can’t be declared so by fiat. In order to show them to be false, we must first give them a hearing and then subject them to rigorous testing, questioning, and criticism and see how they stand up.

Consider the view we often hear today that we should simply stop reading any writer of the present or past who has expressed or even privately held views that some regard as objectionable or who may have committed some immoral act. Anyone who is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. or any intellectual who posts something on social media to which some take exception, the examples can be anything you like—should we then cancel them? Because there must be consistency here, anyone who answers in the affirmative will need to devise a kind of test that any author or text must pass before they are fit to be taken up for discussion in an academic setting, maybe in the case of an author a kind of moral character test which should be passable by any reputable writer but which anyone or anything that is ripe for cancellation will not pass. What would this test look like? It would need to consist of questions that take roughly this form: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the X party? Do you now or have you ever believed Y? Do you now or have you ever committed action Z?—and so on. In what, then, are X, Y, and Z to consist? This is clearly an unanswerable question, but answering it in some rationally defensible way is a necessary condition of cancel culture in the university. We might also need to supplement this with a truth test: we can, some say, banish a given theory from the academy for the reason that we know it to be false—that is, we know it even before we inquire into it. What is the test for that? Again, there isn’t one. This is precisely why we have intellectual inquiry: because we don’t know and need to find out. Was John Locke an architect of oppression? How would we know if we haven’t read him?

There is an intellectual laziness that is implicit to cancel culture which often consists in a cherry-picking of words and phrases that someone has expressed and which when taken out of context and placed alongside one another can present a completely different picture of a thinker than what emerges when you actually read their work in an intellectually responsible way. Many of Heidegger’s critics have made a career of this for decades, and it should be obvious, and presently isn’t, that this is bad faith scholarship. I too could criticize Heidegger all day long, and Locke and also critical race theory. This is because I have read the texts, and taken a long time to do it. Those who haven’t and who demand their ejection from the academy are little different than those who believe a defendant’s right to a fair trial is nonexistent in the event that we have video of the crime and/or a strongly held conviction on the matter.

Speaking of John Locke, in the same year of 1689 another treatise of his was “humbly submitted” by that author bearing the title A Letter Concerning Toleration, and before the cancellers cancel that too it would profit them to read it.

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