Why I Don’t Usually Respond to Professor Leiter: An Example


In my recent post, “It’s Complicated,” I responded to a criticism of me published by Brian Leiter at his blog, Leiter Reports.

In my post, I wrote that “I usually don’t respond to Professor Leiter’s remarks about me,” though I did not say why. One reason is that to respond adequately to them here would divert Daily Nous away from its purpose. DN is supposed to be a place for the sharing of news and thoughts about the philosophy profession. Were I to respond to all of Professor Leiter’s provocations, DN would become a different kind of place than I’d like it to be.

To see this, consider his post this morning, written in response to “It’s Complicated,” the entirety of which reads:

“Here’s something that’s not complicated: Justin Weinberg (South Carolina) has been a consistent opponent of academic freedom and freedom of speech, from the case of Laura Kipnis at Northwestern to the case of John McAdams at Marquette. As the cyber-cheerleader for the New Infantilism, he consistently favors punishing people for speech offensive to the children, the law and principles be damned. The Finnis case is only the latest in that series.”

Responding to this means shifting from talking about the Finnis case and related issues to talking about me, and I’m reluctant to do that. As interesting as I may be to me and my dedicated critics, I don’t think I’m all that interesting to most of the thousands of philosophers who regularly visit Daily Nous.

That said, I hope that readers will forgive me for offering a few words in response, and forgive me for the lapse in judgment that made them necessary.

The main point I make in what follows is that what Professor Leiter says about me in his post is clearly false. If you didn’t already know that, and want to learn why, read on.

One thing Professor Leiter writes is that I have been “a consistent opponent of academic freedom and freedom of speech.” This claim is false.

There are many instances in which I’ve been a vocal defender of academic freedom and freedom of speech. In some of these instances, my defenses have been widely publicized. Two well-known examples of this are my remarks on the publication of Rebecca Tuvel’s article on transracialism (amplified in New York Magazine, among other places) and my remarks on the publication of Bruce Gilley’s article defending colonialism (amplified in the NYRB, among other places).

Most posts at DN concerning academic freedom are ones that are mainly about drawing attention to events in which academic freedom is at stake, rather than explicitly defending some view, though my opinions on the cases sometimes comes through. Here are just some examples:

When I’ve explicitly taken up the question of academic freedom, it has generally been about how to preserve it and think about it in light of other concerns academics may have about their work and workplace (the linked post is quite relevant to the issues raised in the Finnis case), and not using it as a cover for unprofessionalism. If I’ve called for anything, it has generally been more speech and more discussion.

Several posts at DN concern the discussion of controversial ideas, self-censorship by advocates of unpopular views, and the extent to which political correctness or other factors have precipitated a free speech crisis on college campuses. As many know, I have been quite skeptical of narratives that suggest a serious problem with free speech. My general view of these matters, expressed here, I called the “Great Academic Absorption”:

there has been an increase in the kinds of people who have the liberty to become academics, an increase in number and types of areas of inquiry academics are at liberty to investigate, an increase in the kinds of methods academics are at liberty to use in their research, an increase in the topics they are at liberty to teach, and an increase in the diversity of ideas academics are at liberty to defend. 

Some people interpret my attempts to show that the speech situation on campus is not as dire as it has been made out as anti-free speech. But the opposite is the case. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, I favor a robust culture of disagreement. If we take seriously concerns about self-censorship, then we ought to be especially worried if a false impression of a general and increasing hostility towards the expression of controversial ideas is being generated by a small number of well-publicized cases—for that false impression may cause people to censor themselves, which, in turn, may further discourage others from setting out their own unpopular views.

Now let’s turn to Professor Leiter’s other claim, that I “consistently favor… punishing people for speech offensive to the children.” This, too, is false.

Professor Leiter provides three examples to support his claim: the Title IX investigation of Laura Kipnis (Northwestern), the attempted firing of John McAdams (Marquette), and the recent case concerning John Finnis. In none of these cases did I call for these people’s punishment.

You can read a summary of my views of the Kipnis case here. The relevant parts of my view on this matter, in brief, were that (1) it was not obvious that some of Kipnis’s remarks did not constitute retaliation against a Title IX complainant and so it was not unreasonable for her university to look into that, (2) there appeared to be problems with how Kipnis was treated by the university during the investigation, (3) I do not object to the investigation’s finding that Kipnis did not engage in retaliation.

As for the McAdams case, most of my comments were in the service of correcting McAdams’ misleading account of what transpired, defending the graduate student instructor’s handling of the events, pointing out the abuse the instructor was being subject to, and calling for the university to speak out publicly in support for the instructor. I did write (in Update 3 on this post) that Marquette had sufficient grounds for investigating whether McAdams acted professionally and in accordance with the norms the university expects its faculty members to abide by. I did not call for McAdams to be punished.

Lastly, in neither of my two posts about the student petition to remove Finnis did I call for Finnis to be punished. In fact, in the second one, I wrote that the best way to address the students’ concerns “does not involve changing Finnis’ employment status or responsibilities.”

To sum up, Brian Leiter’s disparaging claims about me are false. I’m not an opponent of free speech, nor an opponent of academic freedom. Nor do I favor punishing people for offensive speech.

At this point, fans of irony might be curious as to whether Professor Leiter’s false claims about me are defamatory. Sorry, but I’m not particularly interested in that question.

Rather, I’m more interested in keeping Daily Nous closer to its mission. You have my apologies for the distraction, and my appreciation for your continued support of the site—by reading the posts, sharing them, and, of course, exercising your freedom to discuss and disagree with them.

I will likely continue to occasionally raise questions, prompted by current events or the comments and concerns of others, about academic freedom and freedom of speech. Some of these questions may be challenging for those who, like me, share the Millian hope that freedom and happiness are partners. But that such questions are challenging is not a reason to ignore or dismiss them. We’re philosophers. We know that.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Justin Weinberg

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