Academics Author Statement on Freedom of Thought and Expression


Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and Cornel R. West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School have jointly authored “Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression,” a public statement in favor of civil discourse and respectful disagreement on university campuses.

Here are some excerpts from the statement:

The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

That’s why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses…

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that all speakers are equally worth listening to. It certainly does not mean that there is no truth to be discovered. Nor does it mean that you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either. So someone who has not fallen into the idolatry of worshiping his or her own opinions and loving them above truth itself will want to listen to people who see things differently in order to learn what considerations—evidence, reasons, arguments—led them to a place different from where one happens, at least for now, to find oneself.

All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more willing we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person with whom we are in conversation will challenge our deeply held—even our most cherished and identity-forming—beliefs.

It is all-too-common these days for people to try to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities. Sometimes this is done by questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions; or by disrupting their presentations; or by demanding that they be excluded from campus or, if they have already been invited, disinvited. Sometimes students and faculty members turn their backs on speakers whose opinions they don’t like or simply walk out and refuse to listen to those whose convictions offend their values. Of course, the right to peacefully protest, including on campuses, is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, each of us should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom I disagree? Might it better serve the cause of truth-seeking to engage the speaker in frank civil discussion?…

The full statement is here. Notably, its authors—both of whom have doctorates in philosophy—identify with rather different corners of the political landscape (West with the democratic socialist left, George with Catholic natural law conservatism).

Others are invited to sign the statement by emailing [email protected].

(Thanks to Kathryn Pogin for the pointer.)

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Paul L Franco
4 years ago

[Note that none of what I say below touches on how free speech should be, if shouting down a speaker is acceptable, and so on.]

We hear a lot about protestors and their responsibilities; I’m interested in the responsibilities of people who invite controversial speakers to campus. I want to suggest that when there is ample evidence available to inviters that the people they are inviting to campus do not live up to the type of healthy critical communities that we want to advance on campus, the inviters are as open to criticism for failing to live up to intellectual virtues as much as the protestors.

For example, at my university, at least two of the College Republicans’ stated reasons for inviting Milo Y did not have anything to do with truth. Reasons included (1) that he wasn’t charging a speaker fee, and (2) that, given the controversy surrounding him, he would draw a lot of attention to their club. Further, on the Facebook Page promoting the event, the description read: “If people thought President-Elect Donald Trump’s Inauguration Event was going to produce a historic meltdown, the UWCRs are raising the stakes and hosting Milo the same night!”

This suggests to me that at least some of the motives of the College Republicans were not in the spirit of “the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.” I could be wrong (epistemic humility and all that), but if I’m right that at least some of their stated motivations belie epistemic aims, how should people with epistemic aims respond? (It should be noted that one reason the College Republicans offered for inviting Milo was related to homogeneity of opinion on campus, which is closer to the spirit of the linked letter.)

Consider also Charles Murray. He has long been a controversial figure, so those inviting him must have known his talk would be met with protests. Further, it seems as if his research has also been criticized as failing to live up to epistemic ideals; such criticisms extend over at least two decades (search for a 1994 piece by Charles Lane). Let’s assume Murray’s research fails to live up to the intellectual virtues mentioned in the letter; let’s also assume that the inviters haven’t been diligent in following up on two decades of criticisms of Murray. If the context were a peer-reviewed journal and an author cited Charles Murray as an authoritative figure, I believe that reviewers could legitimately reject the paper.

The analogy to speaking on campus isn’t perfect. However, to what degree should the inviters’ (assumed) failure to live up to epistemic ideals influence our decision to engage with their speaker on epistemic grounds? How should someone who is concerned with the listed epistemic virtues engage with people who are inviting speakers in (semi-) bad epistemic faith?

(Another question I have is if the letter makes a moral or epistemic argument [is there a difference?]. Let’s assume it’s epistemic. What happens when a speaker fails to live up to certain epistemic ideals in ways that have real moral or political consequences? How do we balance our epistemic and moral responsibilities? When our epistemic and our moral ideals seem to conflict with one another, should the pursuit of truth always win out? For example, if UW-Seattle knew that a protestor was going to be shot during Milo Y’s event, would the slim hope of getting truth from Milo Y’s talk trump that danger?)Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Paul L Franco
4 years ago

I’m interested, Professor Franco: have you asked any College Republicans at your university whether they think Milo’s views are correct? That seems like a good way to figure out whether they’re aiming at truth in having him speak.Report

Paul L Franco
Reply to  Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

I have not. I’m relying on public statements in the local news, of which there were many in a conversation that spanned a few months. Of course, I could be wrong about some of their motives (attributing motives is tricky given underdetermination and all that), and the College Republicans come across as thoughtful. They made statements noting ideological disagreements between themselves and Milo.

They also said, “Our intent with Milo was to break the conversation about free speech wide open,” mentioning that discourse suffers when conservative ideas are not heard. I agree. But I think folks are making a serious epistemic mistake in judging that Milo can accomplish these goals. There seems ample evidence available that Milo fails to meet the conditions necessary for reasoned discourse.

YMMV, and some issues are probably unique to this case; to quote Judith Jarvis Thomson, “[T]here are cases and there are cases, and the details make a difference.”

Still, more generally, I think it’s worth expanding our focus to think about the epistemic responsibilities of everyone involved: inviters, protestors, speakers, and audience.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  Paul L Franco
4 years ago

Hard to argue with this. Thanks for responding!Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Paul L Franco
4 years ago

If you’re inviting Milo merely for the pure schadenfreude of getting a campus bon fire at your school broadcast on national news, then you’re not really interested in ‘discussion’. You’re interested in drama. But it’s hard to believe that this could be the sole (or even the biggest) motivation of the student groups that invite him (though, that could just be because its hard for *me* to believe it).

If you know your campus is brittle, hostile, and unfriendly to conservative (or non-dominant) opinions, and you really want to push back in spite of the potential risks, then Milo is the right man for the job. He’ll push ALL the buttons, and rub salt into ALL the wounds. Once those wounds are exposed and the howling has died down, then it might be possible to have some free and open discussion about why relations have deteriorated so badly.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“If you know your campus is brittle, hostile, and unfriendly to conservative (or non-dominant) opinions, and you really want to push back in spite of the potential risks, then Milo is the right man for the job. He’ll push ALL the buttons, and rub salt into ALL the wounds. Once those wounds are exposed and the howling has died down, then it might be possible to have some free and open discussion about why relations have deteriorated so badly.”

But sans direct action, no “risks” would have been run by the CR group; the risks of being doxxed and so on would have been borne by community members. In other words, it’s easy to talk big when it’s not your wounds at stake. Your comment reminds me of the old story of the person X being willing to fight til the last drop of Y’s blood.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

What John said, but also, this seems like exactly the wrong kind of strategy for opening up dialogue, don’t you think? (I also don’t think it’s right, exactly, to describe Milo as a conservative; seems more apt to describe him as anti-political correctness, anti-immigration, or pro-nationalism, at least when it comes to Western states, but one needn’t hold those views to be a conservative and many conservative viewpoints are in conflict with those positions, but that’s another issue.) If folks are hostile to a viewpoint, do you really think upping the ante of hostility is likely to endear any interlocutor from the other side? Of course, I’m not saying returning hostility for hostility is never justified or rational, but it seems extraordinarily unlikely to be productive as a strategy aimed at generating free and open discussion, unless by free and open discussion you mean something like more polarization, with extra talking.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Kathryn Pogin
4 years ago

Yeah, I have to admit, he’s not really “conservative” in any serious sense. More like, reactionary. Well, not even that, really. Probably his own favorite label is best: “provocateur”?
Perhaps there is no good reason for a Milo-type character on campus, if the goal is dialogue. But when you can’t have Charles Murray, Jordan Peterson, Peter Singer, even *Germaine Greer* on campus, it seems to me we’re already past the point of seeking “rational” dialogue. Milo is probably the inevitable escalation of an already out-of-control situation in which the only remedy now, is either the eventual exhaustion of the irrationals (as happened in the seventies), or an all out physical war. Let’s hope the former is more likely.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Paul L Franco
4 years ago

Thank you for this comment. The whole debate often proceeds under the wildly false assumption that political motives aren’t already in play once a speaker takes the stage. Since this is very often false, requests for students to remain in some neutral, depoliticized, “open minded” space can very often amount to naked authoritarianism.Report

asst prof
asst prof
Reply to  Paul L Franco
4 years ago

While it’s true that there are better and worse ways to begin a dialogue, the implication that students should not have invited Murray because they should have known that there would be protests is troubling.

Moreover, there are obviously different opinions about the value of someone’s scholarly work, especially when that scholarly work is political, like Murray’s. That there have been criticisms of Murray, even criticisms widely regarded as successful, does not mean he should not be heard by those who want to hear him, especially since his integrity as a scholar appears to be a matter on which reasonable people disagree. One can engage, or not engage, with such a speaker; one can attend, or not attend, the lecture. One can offer reasons in a public forum for why others ought not attend the lecture, due to the lack of integrity of the speaker’s scholarship, for instance. What one should not do is work to make it impossible for that speaker to speak.

All this to say: I imagine most of the readers of this blog (and the intended audience of the statement) are less likely to be the inviters and more likely to be protestors in instances such as these. So let’s not distract ourselves by focusing on the motives and responsibilities of others, as if their behavior excused our own.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

A tremendously welcome statement!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

This is somewhat off-topic but relates to academic freedom of thought and expression. What do you think about professors placing displays on their office door that express their political commitments? I don’t do this, for fear of alienating students who disagree, but an awful lot of professors do.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I think they’re not as thoughtful or responsible as you.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
4 years ago

DN naturally “problematizing” statements like this and hyping up nonsense from Schliesser and Protevi in the links. Sort of puts the lie to the idea that the post asking for arguments in favor of campus censorship was really just devil’s advocacy, yeah?Report