Complementing Defenses of Academic Freedom with Understanding & Advice


As reported earlier this week, there’s a new organization, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), that aims to defend faculty whose academic freedom is being threatened.

The AFA joins the ranks of other organizations also concerned in defending academic freedom, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), as well as disciplinary organizations that have among their concerns the academic freedom of their members.

Despite disagreement over

  • the extent to which academic freedom is currently threatened
  • who the serious threats to academic freedom are, and
  • some hard cases in which it is unclear whether academic freedom is being invoked to deflect legitimate complaints of unprofessional behavior,

shoring up the defenses of academic freedom with organizations that aim to level the playing field between threatened faculty and their employers is a good idea. Ameliorating the worries (substantiated or not) that some people with unpopular views have about the bad consequences of publicly arguing for them is a good idea.

That said, it seems that something is missing from these efforts.

[Brett Weston, “Hand and Ear”, 1928]

Challenges to academic freedom often combine the voicing of a substantive moral or political complaint with a call for a procedural remedy (e.g., firing someone, retracting a paper). Defenses of academic freedom are aimed at combatting the remedy. I think there often are also reasons to both explicitly convey an understanding of the substantive complaint and to advise the students on alternatives to their proposed remedy.

It might be useful to work with an example. Suppose some group of students learn that a faculty member has been publishing opinion pieces online, perhaps related to her research, in which she expresses views they take to be disrespectful or demeaning to some types of students (that’s the substantive complaint), and they call for the faculty member to be fired (that’s their remedy). Academic freedom groups get wind of their efforts and launch their campaigns opposing the students. One concern is that the students see this opposition as opposition not just to their procedural remedy but also as opposition to, or at least a failure to take seriously, their substantive complaint.

If we’re interested in promoting and defending academic freedom, this is not a good result. First, people tend to not react cooperatively to not being taken seriously. If they feel dismissed, that may cause them to redouble their efforts. Provoking a bigger and louder threat to academic freedom, even if ultimately averted, is not a win for academic freedom. (And dismissing student concerns rather than engaging with them is to forgo an educational opportunity.) Second, there is the risk that people will come to identify academic freedom with the substantive views they’re opposing and treat it as the enemy (progressives may see academic freedom as anti-progressive; conservatives may see it as anti-conservative).

Were the efforts to defend academic freedom combined with a demonstration of an understanding of the students’ substantive complaint, maybe even a sympathetic understanding of it, that might counter their feelings of dismissal or disrespect. It might reduce the extent to which the students take those opposing their remedy to be ideological enemies, or ignorant, and might lower the risk that they come to see academic freedom as the problem. Perhaps a section of a brief an academic freedom organization submits to a university or shares with the press could contain a section which presents in as strong a way possible the substantive complaint of the students.

Defenders of academic freedom could also to include in their response information for the students about academic-freedom-friendly alternatives for putting forward their substantive concerns, advice on how to pursue those alternatives or on how to engage with their opponents, and perhaps even funding for the pursuit of some of those alternatives. These steps would aid the cause of academic freedom by providing education and support for students and promoting their participation in the “marketplace of ideas”, rather than by trying to shut them down.

Being able to adequately express understanding of students’ complaints and provide useful advice to them about how to push for their views in a university setting is also credibility-enhancing for an organization claiming to be “viewpoint neutral” and hoping to demonstrate a broad, cross-ideological commitment to academic freedom.

Admittedly, these suggestions may not be relevant to all kinds of threats to academic freedom. There may be cases in which a demonstration of understanding is possible, but those calling for a remedy incompatible with academic freedom are, say, a million people on Twitter to whom no substantive advice could realistically apply. And there may be threats to academic freedom based on complaints that are incomprehensible. But for many cases, the suggestions would be quite practical.

Perhaps, then, the AFA could consider adding an “Understanding & Advice” committee to its organization.


(cross-posted at Disagree)

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Kaila Draper
Kaila Draper
7 months ago

This is well-motivated, but I wonder if it would be likely to succeed. Those who are most concerned with defending free speech so often also want to defend the content of the speech that my guess is that few will see a need for a remedy.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Kaila Draper
7 months ago

I can see where this is coming from, but it might be too pessimistic. The philosophy blogosphere, over the last decade or so, has discussed academic freedom for (inter alia) Ward Churchill, Nathan Cofnas, Tommy Curry, Joshua Hoschscild, John McAdams, Steven Salaita, Peter Singer, Kathleen Stock, Rebecca Tuvel, and John Yoo, and seen fairly spirited and widespread defense of them in each case, with quite large overlaps between the defenders (I think I’m on record as defending pretty much all of them, for instance). Report

Kaila Draper
Kaila Draper
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Sure, I am probably too pessimistic about how philosophers tend to defend free speech. This group isn’t just philosophers, thankfully, and I hope it effectively defends academic freedom without amplifying awful speech.Report

Matty Silverstein
Matty Silverstein
7 months ago

Justin, what would the first part of your suggestion — the part about demonstrating understanding — look like in a case involving students calling for a professor to be fired because that professor has publicly expressed pro-Palestinian (or anti-Zionist) views? What would be required in order to demonstrate “an understanding of the students’ substantive complaint”? Are we supposed to express sympathy with their conviction that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism?Report

Matty Silverstein
Matty Silverstein
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Thanks, Justin. That’s not bad for spitballing. I admit, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine these sorts of comments being taken by the students who are calling for the professor to be fired as an expression of understanding. That is, I can’t imagine that this would make them feel understood. They’ll just feel that they’ve been condescended to and that their views have been dismissed. Were we to say these things we might succeed in expressing our understanding, but we would not succeed in conveying that understanding to them — that is, in making them feel understood. This seems like a reflection of a more general point: trying to make people feel understood by reciting the causal explanation for their thinking what they think — “You think Star Wars is terrible only because your older brother used to chase you around the house with his toy lightsaber” — is unlikely to result in their feeling understood!Report

Matty Silverstein
Matty Silverstein
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

When it comes to the question of whether showing an understanding of the mere causes of someone’s coming to hold a position helps that person feel understood, I can offer only the anecdotal evidence provided by my marriage . . .Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Here is one theoretical suggestion: You can demonstrate understanding when you can describe a potential body of evidence someone could have on which having their belief would be on-balance fitting to have. That is, if you can say “I can see how it could be rational to believe P as you do if you think X, Y, and Z holds. Do you think something like X, Y, and Z, or am I misunderstanding what you take to be your evidence for P?” Basically, we don’t try to explain their belief in arational terms, but we try to think what else we would have to think (or not think) to be true in order to also rationally believe P.

I’ll add that I hold that for (nearly) any P there is some body of evidence that supports P. That includes necessary falsehoods, but you can probably come up with some clever self-referential P’s for which it doesn’t hold. (E.g., I suspect your evidence might not be able support “P and my evidence doesn’t support P” because I endorse downward higher-order pressure on evidential support.).

So the question for demonstrating understanding is: Given my evidence that they support P, if I were to grant them the benefit of not being irrational, what does my evidence say is a potential body of evidence they could have that would support P?
And I further suspect that putting forward a reason for which they could rationally hold P would allow a productive exchange if those are not the reasons they believe to support their belief that P.

But I’m all out of ideas for how to engage with someone that says “If we need to go over reasons for why you should/should not believe P we’re done here. It is unethical (or X-ist) to even discuss whether P or demand evidence for it, and because of that we will not engage in reasoning about P as we refuse to engage in X-ism.” Especially because I can see that

A) someone’s evidence might really suggest that engaging in debates on whether P are X-ist and therefore it is morally wrong to engage in them.

and

B) They might even be correct.

If you have ideas for how to engage with following that would be great: How do you engage with someone who

  • holds P when
  • they believe that discussing whether P is immoral,
  • they base their belief in the immorality of discussing whether P on evidence that (they believe) supports it.
  • But you at least don’t know that P (or even doubt it)?

Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

This doesn’t really seem compatible with the idea of a *content-neutral* defense of academic freedom. Why *not* say ‘maybe you’re right that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism’? Presumably because you don’t think it’s true! But now we’ve left content-neutrality behind.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

What does ‘such statements’ mean, though? If it counts the statement you suggested in response to the pro-Palestine case, it’s going to be really different from the statement that someone would make if they did think that any criticism of Zionism is tantamount to anti-semitism. And the difference is because you and that person have different first-order views of the issue.

(Your proposal that this gets farmed out to people genuinely sympathetic to the case would address that concern, though I have different causes for scepticism here.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
7 months ago

The basic framework here is: if someone advocates a rights violation, we shouldn’t just oppose their advocacy; we should also engage sympathetically with the underlying concern that makes them advocate it.

This is strong medicine. Applied to supporters of (say) far-right terrorism, it would have us make sure that we give a sympathetic ear to the political goal they want to advance, even as we criticize their means of advancing it. Applied to an would-be-abusive partner, it would have us hear sympathetically their concerns about their relationship, even as we condemn the means of abuse to address those concerns.

And sometimes that’s a good idea in those cases, too. We want less terrorism and less partner abuse, and sometimes that means we need to understand what’s going on causally.

But in general, it’s dangerous. If we pay sympathetic attention to the political goals of terrorists, we make terrorism a way to get attention. If we only listen to people when they’re threatening violence, we incentivize the threat of violence. It also fails to respect and recognize the people with similar goals but who choose to eschew violence.

There is a similar danger here. Academic-freedom threats get attention in a way that simple condemnations of a speaker do not. If we make an effort to pay sympathetic attention to the underlying issues raised whenever someone attacks academic freedom (while not really making a similar effort when the issues are raised without the academic-freedom threat) then we actually encourage people to call for resignations and discipline. There is at least a good case for exactly the opposite policy: if you call for someone’s academic freedom to be violated, you forfeit any right to have your substantive views discussed. If you want them discussed, bring them up without threatening rights violations. (Again, we often take this line regarding violence.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

You’re right that threats to academic freedom are attention-getting. But I don’t see how my proposal makes that worse

Here’s what I had in mind:

If I get a sympathetic hearing for their cause if I threaten academic freedom, but get ignored if I don’t, then I have an incentive to threaten academic freedom; conversely, if threatening academic freedom leads to only the academic-freedom aspects of my view getting discussed, then if I want the other aspects of my view discussed I should avoid threatening academic freedom.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

The more nuanced version of my ‘either/or’ presentation would be: if we increase the amount of discussion of the substantive view of people who threaten academic freedom, we increase their incentive to make those threats (given that they gain attention).Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

This might be a first for me, but I think I agree with Justin against David here. The status quo doesn’t involve no attention being paid to the substantive complaints, it just involves no or not much attention being paid by defenders of academic freedom. In any case, I think Justin is right that opposition to the proposed remedy is often conflated with opposition to the substantive complaint, especially by students. With all that being said, I do share DW’s worry about how to actually implement Justin’s proposal without fracturing groups that defend academic freedom.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
7 months ago

This might be a first for me, but I think I agree with Justin against David here.

Unacceptable. I call on JDRox to be banned from this forum.

Seriously: point taken, at least to some extent.Report

grad student
grad student
Reply to  David Wallace
6 months ago

Why should we think there really is any such thing as neutrality? Doing nothing is not neutral as it’s allowing a powerful entity to maintain power and dominate the conversation. Being charitable to the idea that any and all criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism is dangerous, the same way it would be dangerous to entertain the idea that any and all criticism of Saudi Arabia is tantamount to Islamophobia, since these nations are doing heinous things to their marginalized populations and neighboring countries/regions. It’s not a matter of opinion whether all criticism of a country is bigotry. Criticism of nations’ actions are matters of fact, insofar as one believes in facts. To ignore the facts for the sake of “neutrality” is not neutrality; it’s privileging the dominant narrative by putting on a mask of solidarity with Jews and Muslims.

Suggesting that advocates of academic freedom be charitable to or neutral towards their critics (especially those calling for resignations/terminations) is to suggest that those critics aren’t coherently arguing for the point they’re making or that advocates of academic freedom need to apply a meaning to the criticism that isn’t implicitly or explicitly there. Being charitable to critics of hate speech isn’t neutrality; it’s actively making the choice of hearing the argument(s) out and giving credibility where its otherwise not given because of engrained ideology.

Critics of academic freedom aren’t criticizing academic freedom itself; they’re criticizing abuse of power which gets masked as freedom. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean one is free to spread hate. Having different opinions doesn’t mean viewing certain people as owed less respect or being subhuman; it’s not a choice about ice cream flavor — it’s people’s livelihoods.

To compare “threats against academic freedom” such as terminations to terror attacks and domestic abuse is to completely miss the point: academics have a responsibility in choosing between justifying and perpetuating dominant ideologies or thinking with a critical eye. “Discipline” is really just consequence, because every action has consequences. People calling for the resignations/terminations of those spewing hate are not terrorists or abusers; they’re the survivors who are advocating for themselves and you’re treating them as though they’re violating a freedom of speech (a freedom which they themselves are enacting in so advocating for themselves). If you’re suggesting critics just shut up and let what’s said be said, or that they fight words with words rather than “discipline”, then you’re further missing the point of how personal and deep this conflict runs. People shouldn’t have to rationally engage in arguments about whether they themselves deserve respect, and I seriously doubt that such arguments would actually produce solidarity, but maybe I’m just pessimistic.Report

Robert Steel
Robert Steel
7 months ago

 Defenders of academic freedom may wildly disagree on the substantive merits of any given complaint. For instance, some may think that the piece of academic work being complained against does genuinely denigrates some categories of student, whereas others may think the allegation that it does is completely absurd. The same will be true of the motives behind a complaint, which some may be very sympathetic to, while others may find them corrupt or evil. Expecting an academic freedom group to litigate such questions whenever they respond to an incident–in order to demonstrate that their sympathetic understanding–means expecting them to generate internal consensus on questions where none may exist. That’s paralyzing and risks undercutting their ability to advocate for the point on which they actually agree, namely the procedural one.

Individual commentators may find it helpful to engage in this sympathetic way, provided they are actually sympathetic, but I am skeptical that it should be expected of advocacy organizations like the AFA, FIRE, or AAUP. More constructively, perhaps a new advocacy group could be formed with this kind of engagement as their explicit mission? But I don’t see it as naturally falling within the scope of those existing organizations.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

So: threats to Kathleen Stock’s academic freedom should be responded to by AFA members strongly opposed to gender-critical feminism; threats to Steve Salaita’s academic freedom should be responded to by AFA members committed to hardline versions of Zionism; threats to Tommy Curry’s academic freedom should be responded to by AFA members committed to Blue Lives Matter; threats to Josh Hoschschild’s academic freedom should be responded to by AFA members committed to progressivism. I don’t see any risk that this would threaten AFA’s internal cohesion, or their ability to work with the people they’re defending.

More seriously, defense of academic freedom isn’t just about signaling to the attackers; it’s also about signaling to the wider community. If every defense of academic freedom looks something like ‘yes, isn’t this person terrible! but alas, we do need to let them speak unpunished, for the greater good’ then observers may start to get skeptical that there really is a greater good to defend.Report

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

I agree with the criticisms that Robert Steel and David Wallace have made in this particular thread. I do think that part of the point of Justin’s thread is to address the issue that Wallace pointed out in his last paragraph here. When a visiting speaker or a professor says something incredibly noxious and stupid, that represents a failure of the institutions that allowed that person to get to the point of being allowed a platform as a speaker/teacher/researcher/whatever. Students aren’t going to take the idea of academic freedom very seriously if the only time that idea is invoked is as an empty phrase to justify the university doing nothing to acknowledge and remedy that failure. Should the remedy take the form of deplatforming the visiting speaker/firing the professor? Probably not. But I agree with Justin that it would do a lot to get reasonable people to take the idea of academic freedom (and free speech more generally) if alternative remedies palatable to those who take the first-order disputes seriously were proposed. I don’t think that institutions like FIRE et al. ought to be responsible for providing such remedies, but maybe someone should be.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
7 months ago

I and others are being quite critical here of Justin’s proposal, but I think an important aspect of his core point is correct: it would be great for academic freedom defenses also to come from people who support the first-order views. One would normally think that the right sources of those defenses would be the pressure groups and political organizations that campaign on those issues: so the Republican National Committee ought to be issuing strong condemnations when state parties threaten academic freedom over Israel/Palestine and Stonewall should be condemning calls for gender-critical academics to be removed. 

That generally doesn’t happen, of course, because far too many such groups, be they campaigning organizations or politicians, actually don’t seem very committed to academic-freedom or free-speech issues when they conflict with their first-order goals, and only seem to make free-speech defenses of views they already agree with. (As Kaila Draper notes above.) But that in turn seems to make the case for why we need viewpoint-neutral bodies defending academic freedom, like FIRE or AFA.Report

Frank
Frank
7 months ago

The proponents of neutral and uniform standards of academic freedom seem to be either (A) much more confident in their disputed first-order beliefs than I am or (B) much more confident about the independence of their second order beliefs (appropriate overton windows etc.) from their disputed first order beliefs. This isn’t a bad thing, provided they have grounds for such confidence (that perhaps I’m incapable of understanding given my own limitations).Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Addressing the substance of the complaints sympathetically runs into various problems, some of which have already been described.

A more effective solution, I think, that preserves content neutrality but sends a message that, though perhaps not identical to the one Justin proposes, goes some of the way, is to ensure that one’s academic freedom group includes people from all over the political/ideological/methodological/etc. spectrum. This should show students that the group is not taking sides on the substantive issue but rather defending speech or academic rights.

For example, if Chomsky and John Yoo both were to sign a letter defending the speech/academic rights of some professor who wrote some piece on the “war on terror”, that would, I would hope, send a strong signal that the defense has nothing to do with the substance of the piece.

This is something that groups defending academic freedom should, in my view, always strive to achieve–significant ideological (and perhaps other) diversity in the makeup of their group. This should make the distinction between academic freedom and the correctness of the substantive views clear enough, assuming the students know something about the members of the group (perhaps not a safe assumption.)Report

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

This is the right sort of idea, I think, but I think it’s hard to implement in a situation where the scope of speech rights is one of the things that there is a culture war about. For example, many people from a variety of places on the political spectrum signed that Harper’s letter that people were all talking about a while back. My impression from watching the discussion was that people who thought that the views the letter expressed were reactionary (in the sense of being an effort to prevent desirable progress in society) did not have their opinion changed by the fact that Noam Chomsky signed the letter. They just thought that this was an area on which Chomsky happens to have reactionary views. In other words, the fact that Chomsky signed the letter changed their opinion of Chomsky, not the letter.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Grad student
7 months ago

I don’t think ideological (or other) diversity among the membership of groups defending academic rights is a perfect solution, mostly because I think that appeals to authority aren’t, ultimately, how these issues should be resolved. But this kind of diversity can, I think, at a minimum make it clear what the critics of the relevant speaker/writer/professor/etc. are or are not objecting to. Debates about the scope of speech rights are one thing; debates about the content of the speech are another. These things unfortunately get conflated quite often and ideological diversity can help distinguish between them. And distinguishing between the two can clarify the nature of the disagreement in ways that trying to sympathetically engage with the first-order disagreement cannot do. There are views that should not be sympathetically engaged with, e.g., perhaps Holocaust denial, and so we need some other way to convey the importance of academic freedom to people who wish to curtail it even when we cannot offer a sympathetic ear to the views themselves.

But you are right that someone can simply adjust their view of the members of the group rather than adjusting their views on academic rights. This does, however, involve some cost, e.g., with respect to the Harper’s letter, one might need to adjust one’s views of people like Chomsky or Cornell West such that one now believes them to be reactionaries. And this is where my last point in my original comment might be relevant: one needs to know something about the members of the group, besides that they are members of that group, or signatories of some letter, etc.Report

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

One quick point about the specific examples of Cornel West and Chomsky that might better illustrate the broader issue. It’s not clear that you would need to adjust your view of West or Chomsky at all to simultaneously hold both that they are not reactionaries and that the content of the Harper’s letter is in some sense “reactionary” or at least objectionable in some particularly right-wing way. Chomsky and West are people who are broadly speaking on the left but who have consistently expressed for a long time certain views on the scope of free speech and how we ought to act toward those with whom we disagree that many left-wing people nowadays would disagree with. I think it makes coherent to say that they are generally left-wing people who have a less left-wing position on this one topic. So saying that their views are objectionably right-wing about this issue does not require that you be ignorant of who they are as thinkers: indeed this view is totally consistent with opinions they have expressed in the past.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Grad student
7 months ago

Yes, if someone is committed to the (preposterous) view that it is reactionary or right wing or whatever to defend academic or speech freedoms, then the inclusion of people like West or Chomsky in the relevant group or among the signatories of whatever letter won’t require that one be ignorant of their work and won’t require that one modify one’s assessment of their work or their ideological commitments with respect to academic or speech freedoms.

But it seems to me to remain the case that having ideological diversity will (or should) make it less likely that people will view the defenses of the speech rights as a defense of the substantive position that gave rise to the calls to censor. Even if you think Chomsky or West are right-wingers when it comes to free speech (again, a silly belief), it’s harder to think that e.g., Chomsky and John Yoo agree on the substance of some question relating to US foreign policy. And so if you disagree with Yoo and Chomsky in their defense of the speech rights, that’s quite different from disagreeing with them on foreign policy question (whatever that is). And this is an important distinction.Report

Grad student
Grad student
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Yes, I agree with your last paragraph. But I don’t think it’s preposterous to say that certain views on what scope the protection of speech rights are right-wing, while others are left-wing. (In philosophy, consider how we would compare Jeremy Waldron’s view on hate speech to other views — if someone called it a left-wing view, relative to right-wing views that give more protection to speech rights. ). Roughly, Chomsky and West seem committed to the view that content-neutral speech rights ought to be strong and have wide scope, which I am comfortable calling a conservative view, though it is definitely not a crazy one.
I apologize if I am coming off as tiresome or pedantic. I mostly want to emphasize that while many people simply fail to recognize that someone can defend speech rights without also defending the content of the speech, many other people (including student protesters in various places) understand that but simply disagree with the claim that content-neutral speech rights ought to have a very wide scope (e.g. the content of an academic’s speech ought sometimes be relevant to the question of whether they should continue to be employed — a view I definitely don’t agree with but is also not self-evidently preposterous). Hence, they have a substantive disagreement with people like Chomsky and West that isn’t just based on a confusion or a misunderstanding.
It seems to me important to Justin’s goal of taking these groups seriously to recognize that they may hold this position without holding the stronger position that there is no distinction between defending a protection for some bit of speech and defending the speech itself. Maybe I’m being too idealistic, but I think its to the good to make sure that the strongest version of the general view supported by a particular political movement gets some airtime in discussions like these. Charity is a value for second-order political debates as well as first-order ones — which isn’t to say that you were being uncharitable in the substance your original post. I just worried that it would invite the sort of caricaturing of those skeptical of strong speech rights as merely ignorant or confused that I wanted to try to foreclose. Hopefully that makes some sense.)Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
7 months ago

A group of students complaining is rarely the problem in the most worrying cases. As far as I know Salaita is not a bus driver now because of students.The problem is the weight given by trustees and university presidents to the rich and powerful who have no such interest in listening.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Aaron V Garrett
7 months ago

I agree that a group of students complaining is *in itself* rarely a serious problem. But there have been plenty of cases reported where the complaints have led to institutional action, and/or where the complainants have gone beyond just complaining and have taken coercive action to stop speech.

But in any case this isn’t zero-sum. Academic freedom comes under attack both from the intolerant right (usually through external/donor pressure) and from the intolerant left (usually through pressure from University members) and in both cases university leadership has often been too eager to seek a quiet life instead of defending the principle of academic freedom.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

I agree. I think though that the problem, in its worst form is of a piece with the shutting down of departments, rescinding of tenure and many of the other bad things happening in our neo-liberal universities that have become corporations for managing bond ratings. The focus on students, like happened at Evergreen or is happening at the U of T, obscures this.Report

Paul Barry
Paul Barry
7 months ago

In a broad sense, defences of academic freedom typically already do come with some “demonstration of an understanding of the students’ substantive complaint” The Vice-Chancellor’s response to the recent fracas over an allegedly transphobic website established by a University of Melbourne academic included the following:
 

“[The University] is absolutely committed to diversity and inclusion and the wellbeing of our community. One of our core values is that there must be a genuine and deep culture of respect for everyone at our university and of course this includes being completely respectful towards the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. … [However] universities are all about teaching, research, debate and discussion. Freedom of speech is part of the bedrock of the University of Melbourne”.

 
The Harper’s free speech letter from last year displayed the same pattern of pairing an acknowledgement of substantive concern with a defence of free speech:
 

“Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”

 
Perhaps I’m wrong, but these nods to the first-order concerns of the complainants appear to do nothing to satisfy those complainants that they’re being taken seriously – at least in the two examples provided they don’t seem to have had that effect.

Of course are more fulsome acknowledgement of the substantive complaint – one that implies an agreement that the object of the complaint really is a transphobe, a racist or what have you – would be more likely to satisfy the complainants (note: I’m suggesting this is what Justin has in mind). But since that type of casual smearing of an academic represents a de facto punishment, it undermines the accompanying commitment to academic freedom, rendering the exercise pointless.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
7 months ago

There’s another issue which, I think, shoudl be discussed in this all: Organizations like Scholars at Risk (https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/) have been workign for years to build lobbying and protectino for scholars who are persecuted. I don’t mean to say that what those in the organizations you mention discuss is not grave (albeit, a case could be made that it is less grave), but one has to wonder why those founding organizations for academic freedom in the US have not worked with those internatinoal organizations before.

This may be mistaken and even be seen as misguided, but I quickly googled the 20 or so philosophers involved with the AFA, and only one (Cornel West) has hits for Scholars at Risk. This leaves me with a certain uneasiness, namely that the AFA founders are only interested in academic freedom because they themselves feel threatened, and depending on whether one thinks their fears are warranted, one might even conclude their engagement in the AFA is, therefore, an effort to preserve the status quo of elderly privileged professors being able to say whatever they want. This would, of course, not be a charitable opinion!Report

John Schwenkler
7 months ago

This is stunningly tone-deaf. Faculty are having their academic freedoms threatened by people who argue that their views are so beyond the pale that they shouldn’t so much as be debated. And now we’re supposed to combine a defense of those freedoms with a thorough voicing of the “substantive moral or political complaint” that led people to demand that they be taken away.

There is a place where we articulate substantive defenses of our positions, invite others to do the same for theirs, and listen carefully and respectfully while we try to work out our differences in a spirit of mutual understanding. It’s called the academy. It’s what we are trying to defend.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  John Schwenkler
7 months ago

Yes. And here’s maybe another way of putting it: I say, ‘This (calling for faculty to be fired over speech) is unacceptable’. JW wants to add the addendum ‘But I understand why you are doing it’ … Doesn’t that take away the force of the first statement? I don’t think the problem nowadays is that we don’t spend enough time reassuring people of the legitimacy of their feelings. It’s that we spend so much time reassuring people of the legitimacy of their feelings that they (students) now take those feelings to be more important than truth, fairness, justice, and so on.

We’ve normalized the coddling to an astounding (stunning, preposterous) degree. Now people have organized to work against the damage done by this coddling. But given the normalization, it’s not surprising that someone raise their finger to interject, ‘that’s nice, but shouldn’t there be more coddling?’ …Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Prof L
Billy
Billy
7 months ago

My two cents:

When students or professors at an institution of higher ed complain about an invited speaker due to his or her having a controversial and possibly offensive view, the institution should invite a second speaker who holds an opposing view. This second speaker can give a separate talk on a separate day at the institution. Or, alternatively, the institution could have one event where the two invited speakers debate with each other.

When students or professors complain about the views of a specific professor on the faculty at an institution of higher ed, on the grounds that this specific professor holds an offensive view, the institution should set up a debate where this professor’s view is debated with an opposing point of view. Or, alternatively, separate talks could be set up, with one talk representing the specific professor’s point of view and the other talk opposing this specific professor’s point of view. (Or, to provide a third option, the school newspaper could allow for op-eds with the opposed points of view being expressed in different op-eds.)

Some people might worry that allowing people with offensive views to speak gives them a platform and, in that sense, dignifies them. Maybe so. But if a position really is wrong, then we should try to give reasons for why it is wrong. And part of the point of setting up debates where both sides are represented — or, alternatively, of setting up separate talks where both sides get their say — is that this provides the opportunity to express the reasons for why the wrong views are indeed wrong.

The AFA should urge institutions of higher ed to aim for the above.Report

UK Grad
UK Grad
7 months ago

This is related to the suggestion made by Moti Gorin, but if the motivation behind defending academic freedom is (roughly) the idea that everyone benefits when all voices are heard—even those which seem dangerous, or crazy, or unethical— then perhaps such organisations ought to put (equal) effort into promoting underrepresented voices. So, in addition to defending the rights to academic freedom of those who are threatened with ‘cancellation’, these organisations could also try to create a platform for underrepresented demographics—people of colour, women, LGBTQ+, etc. In broader terms, there is currently an asymmetry in that there is a lot of outrage when someone’s voice gets ‘taken away’, while there is comparatively little outrage when someone already has no voice. The former sort of event is of course much more visible, but there is no reason to believe that it is also more harmful than the latter.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  UK Grad
7 months ago

It’s also important for privileged allies to speak up and provide arguments in defense of marginalized persons. It can be triggering emotionally, painfully, and mentally having to constantly defend oneself as a marginalized person. It’s even more uncomfortable or triggering doing it in person within a forum or conference.

Second, it’s important to document these critiques and counter-arguments so that they can be used when such bad or problematic arguments spring up (again). As Seneca once said, we should have our philosophies ready.

Third, bystanders/commentators, please read up on the literature before you make arguments on here that have already been criticized or addressed by the other scholars already. I see it on this blog and others so many times. Folks out here are making claims and arguments that have already been criticized or addressed by philosophers of education, ethicists, feminist philosophers, legal philosophers, etc. already. I’m just constantly shaking my head.

The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great friend. As well as 1000 Word Philosophy. You’d think that professional philosophers on this blog would exhibit due-diligence and brush up on the literature before rehashing old and refuted claims and arguments when commenting.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Firstly, the fact that someone makes an argument that’s been criticized or addressed in the literature somewhere doesn’t mean they’re unaware of that literature; they might be aware of a criticism but regard it as poor or unpersuasive. ‘Refuted’ is a success term, after all; very few claims in philosophy are refuted in the sense that everyone agrees they’re refuted.

Secondly, and more importantly, this is not a realistic ask for a blog’s comment thread, which is a conversation happening over a relatively short time and where the available time for commenters to spend researching their comment is extremely short compared to an article submission. The appropriate norms are closer to a question asked in the discussion part of a seminar (with the original post being analogous to the talk). There, replying to a question with ‘this was addressed, successfully in my view, by X; here’s a precis of their response’ is apposite, helpful, and common. Replying ‘you shouldn’t have asked this, because it was refuted by X, who said Y’ is gratuitously rude but I suppose still conveys some useful information. Replying ‘you shouldn’t have asked this because it’s answered in the literature; do your homework before asking another question’ is both rude and useless; stating, at the end of the seminar, that the people contributing to the discussion didn’t know enough to comment and need to read more widely (but without more than the most general suggestions as to what they should read) is even more so.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Hi David: You wrote:

1) “Firstly, the fact that someone makes an argument that’s been criticized or addressed in the literature somewhere doesn’t mean they’re unaware of that literature; they might be aware of a criticism but regard it as poor or unpersuasive.”

If that’s true, then why do I rarely or never see folks citing these so called literatures or arguments to indicate that they find them unpersuasive to begin with? Your claim doesn’t match up with my empirical observation of the behaviors of most of these commentators. I do appreciate those rare ones who do address them explicitly.

2) “‘Refuted’ is a success term, after all; very few claims in philosophy are refuted in the sense that everyone agrees they’re refuted.”

Sure, but I also used the words “criticized” and “addressed.”

3) “Secondly, and more importantly, this is not a realistic ask for a blog’s comment thread, which is a conversation happening over a relatively short time and where the available time for commenters to spend researching their comment is extremely short compared to an article submission.”

Interesting that you say that since the aim of this blog is to also provide a more thoughtful or nuanced discussion. As the rule stated: “More generally, let’s aim for more thoughtfulness and less obnoxiousness. Humor and lightheartedness are welcome. Just don’t act like a jerk.”

I suppose “thoughtfulness” is too demanding huh. I think we should be careful about claiming what is or isn’t realistic about commenting on a blog since every blog has its own rules, aims, and values that are expected of all commentators.

As well, one unfortunate/unintended consequence of your casual approach, is that non-philosophers reading this blog may be persuaded by these short and informal arguments and may mistake them to be good arguments even if they’re not.

Ironically, you yourself have put a lot of effort into writing very nuanced and long replies. Such “unrealistic” claims contradict what is *actually* happening on this blog; I see a lot of long replies and comments.

“The appropriate norms are closer to a question asked in the discussion part of a seminar (with the original post being analogous to the talk)…”

I agree. I have no problems with questioning especially on this site because at least people aren’t making up arguments and claims (which I said) that were already addressed or criticized by others. I avoided critiquing people who provided *only* questions in my post for this very reason. Questioning is more respectful or at least intellectually humble in my view compared to long arguments and claims that don’t reference other arguments in the literature.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

My experience is limited, as I am just one person, but I’ve noticed something odd in some online discussions. I work in bioethics and in social/political philosophy mostly, but also teach and dabble in the free will debate. Generally, when someone advances a poor argument on topics covered by these fields, others chime in to helpfully offer a correction, sometimes by citing the published work of others, sometimes (more often) by offering a concise argument or arguments that show why the view is mistaken.

It is only in one or two subfields of social philosophy where this isn’t always the norm. Instead of arguments or clarifications or helpful references, what we get are demands that people read “the literature” before commenting or advancing some view. I’m not sure how to explain this. Perhaps there is some secret or otherwise little-known journal that contains The Answers, or perhaps the arguments are too esoteric or complex or otherwise demanding to elaborate in informal, short-form media such as blogs. I really don’t know, but the effect (at least on me–again, a mere n=1) is to raise the suspicion that the mystery arguments aren’t, in fact, very good.

If there are good arguments, and if we care enough at the moment to engage, the best thing we can do for each other, and for those non-philosophers you worry may become misled by bad arguments, is to lay them out (while, of course, citing those who first developed them, if we know who they are).Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Hi Moti: Your argument is fair and your conclusion supports my second point about having our philosophies ready.

However, you wrote: “Perhaps there is some secret or otherwise little-known journal that contains The Answers, or perhaps the arguments are too esoteric or complex or otherwise demanding to elaborate in informal, short-form media such as blogs. I really don’t know, but the effect (at least on me–again, a mere n=1) is to raise the suspicion that the mystery arguments aren’t, in fact, very good.”

This claim might be true, but it also presupposes that parsimony is *more* valuable than explanatory effort (or is the only thing that matters in evaluating the goodness or badness of an argument), which I highly doubt or at least is a highly controversial position to take. After all, the realm of human relations/actions are extremely nuanced.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Evan, perhaps there’s been an misunderstanding. My conclusion was not intended to support your point about having our philosophies ready. My point was that telling people to “go read the literature” rather than engaging substantively with the arguments, even if that just means referring them to a paper or book, etc., is the opposite of “having our philosophies ready.”

I didn’t mean to presuppose anything about what makes an argument good or bad, and I certainly don’t think that parsimony is more valuable than explanatory power (I do think explanatory effort is worthless for purposes of evaluating arguments, if what is meant by “effort” is how hard a person worked in developing an argument). I was just expressing my confusion about these fairly common but vague references to “the literature” (not just yours–these crop up repeatedly online) and setting out some possible explanations for such references.

Your last sentence suggests that you might think the reason we are told to “go read the literature” is that the arguments are, indeed, too nuanced or complex to be presented on blogs (or wherever people are telling others to go read the literature).

It would be helpful to me (and perhaps others) if you could at least point to a specific source in “the literature” so that I could have a look for myself to determine whether I might be capable of understanding the arguments contained there.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Hi Moti: You wrote:

“perhaps there’s been an misunderstanding. My conclusion was not intended to support your point about having our philosophies ready. My point was that telling people to “go read the literature” rather than engaging substantively with the arguments, even if that just means referring them to a paper or book, etc., is the opposite of “having our philosophies ready.”

Ah, I see. “Having our philosophies ready” is broad indeed. For those who wish to engage with others, that could fall under it. But I was referring to people providing quick references to articles for others to read for themselves. Hence the term “document.” Of course, I could simply rehash the author’s argument for my interlocutor and quote them whenever they have questions, but why do that if they can just read the article(s) for themseves? If anything, it would be time-consuming and too labor-intensive for me.

Second, “Your last sentence suggests that you might think the reason we are told to “go read the literature” is that the arguments are, indeed, too nuanced or complex to be presented on blogs (or wherever people are telling others to go read the literature).
It would be helpful to me (and perhaps others) if you could at least point to a specific source in “the literature” so that I could have a look for myself to determine whether I might be capable of understanding the arguments contained there…”

I think when most people use the term “the literature” they mean the entire (sub) field and not one particular article or argument. That’s what makes it complex.

If I were to provide you arguments from “the literature”, I would also have to teach you about the actual (sub) field itself to flesh out the many presuppositions, arguments, tensions, uncertainties, and costs of each theory or argument within and between them. So even if I provided one or two-argument(s) from “the literature” you will inevitably miss out on the other equally important or compelling arguments from various other authors. Since this is a topic of academic freedom, which is part of freedom of speech in general, one literature is the “freedom of speech literature.” See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/

I’m still thinking through and learning myself though I have touched upon it in Philosophy of Law class. This is why I am hesitant to formulate any committed arguments right now. I can survey and present what theorists have said. But I’m not completely confident yet.

As well, the literature of moral responsibility is something I’m still working through and reading myself. I do have my own ideas, but alas, reading them brought out the tensions of my own ideas and that of other theorists and so I’m still working through it. I’m not confident enough to be fully committed to it yet and so I’m brushing up more on recent debates.

When I was at a conference during undergrad, I heard one person saying “I’m not familiar with the literature…” to another presenter. I think he meant he wasn’t familiar with the particular subfield or is not knowledgeable in it and not what the presenter was presenting per se. That’s how I understood what “the literature” means at least.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

If I were to provide you arguments from “the literature”, I would also have to teach you about the actual (sub) field itself to flesh out the many presuppositions, arguments, tensions, uncertainties, and costs of each theory or argument within and between them. So even if I provided one or two-argument(s) from “the literature” you will inevitably miss out on the other equally important or compelling arguments from various other authors. 

I agree with Moti Gorin here: if that’s how ‘the literature’ works here, it’s very anomalous. I’m not highly familiar with the academic-freedom literature, but I am highly familiar with the literature in several other subfields of philosophy, and in those subfields I would have no difficulty in citing specific bits of the literature in response to specific misconceptions that I thought I could identify. (And the idea that you can’t really understand the issue unless you’re fully familiar with a literature is a bit of a myth anyway. There are plenty of senior people in my field who I think have serious gaps in their understanding of relevant bits of ‘the literature’; there are probably also serious gaps in my own understanding. That’s the nature of work in an interdisciplinary subject.)Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

David: You wrote: “ if that’s how ‘the literature’ works here, it’s very anomalous. I’m not highly familiar with the academic-freedom literature, but I am highly familiar with the literature in several other subfields of philosophy, and in those subfields I would have no difficulty in citing specific bits of the literature in response to specific misconceptions that I thought I could identify.”

Then we’re all in some of kind of agreement then since my original comment also discusses that kind of referential procedure. Even if you may not agree with my “read the literature” advice, my second point still stands.

However, there is at least one benefit the “reading the literature” advice has and it relates back to my claim that viewers and non-philosophers may see a bad argument but may construe it as a good argument. Reading the literature before commenting can, at the very least, prevent a bad or misinformed argument from showing up in the first place.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Evan, thanks–this helps me see where you are coming from. As David Wallace has said, expecting that commenters on blogs know an entire literature (whatever that might mean) is just not reasonable. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource for gaining some preliminary familiarity with a problem and getting a sense for what to read when one starts doing research in earnest, but it’s not a prerequisite for commenting on blogs.

It sounds like you are dipping your feet into the work on free speech and that you haven’t yet settled on the view or views you find most plausible. Fair enough. But in that case, perhaps telling others they don’t know enough, or that their arguments have been refuted, or that they shouldn’t offer arguments of their own, and so on, is a bit premature.

I think the law of diminishing returns has kicked in at this point, at least with respect to whatever else I might have to say, so I’m going to bow out. Thanks for the discussion.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Hi Moti thanks for the responses. You wrote:

“ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent resource for gaining some preliminary familiarity with a problem and getting a sense for what to read when one starts doing research in earnest, but it’s not a prerequisite for commenting on blogs.”

Those are just a few examples. Indeed, I think PhilPapers is better at connecting people with up-to-date stuff. We can add that to the list.

Second “But in that case, perhaps telling others they don’t know enough, or that their arguments have been refuted, or that they shouldn’t offer arguments of their own, and so on, is a bit premature.”

It was a general statement aimed at comments in general. Indeed, I have recently founded this blog and have looked through past discussions. Also I never said people can’t or shouldn’t comment at all. Just that they should do it under certain constraints. I said, “please read up on the literature before you make arguments on here that have already been criticized or addressed by the other scholars already.”

If an argument is new or something substantive that hasn’t been discussed in the literature before, then I’m all for it.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago
Last edited 7 months ago by Evan
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Sorry I misread your first quote. But I’m talking about what should be not what is.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Just in brief to this:

Ironically, you yourself have put a lot of effort into writing very nuanced and long replies. Such “unrealistic” claims contradict what is *actually* happening on this blog; I see a lot of long replies and comments.

I appreciate the compliment, but I put ridiculously less effort into DN comments than into my actual academic research. For the latter, doing due diligence on the literature is obviously part of the job. For the former, I make sure I’ve carefully read the original post and all the comments, and tried to understand them charitably, and I make sure anything straightforwardly factual that I claim is backed up by the evidence, but I certainly don’t feel any obligation to do a literature search before advancing an argument!Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Hi David: You wrote: “but I certainly don’t feel any obligation to do a literature search before advancing an argument!”

Even if you are right, there are at least prudential reasons to do it namely first, one may prevent oneself from embarrassing oneself when someone corrects one or argue that one needs to explain why one ignored certain arguments or articles from a literature. Some people at least.

This may not apply to you. I know others philosophers or non-philosophers alike don’t care either way if they get harshly criticized, which brings me to my other point that it might make viewers mistake a bad argument for a good one. Assuming there are non-philosophers who read the blog.

There are costs to commenting on these these popular forums.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

You seem to have a really inflated sense of the helpfulness and decisiveness of various kinds of literature.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

Hi Prof L. If I may so kindly ask, may you please *show* me where in my argument that I “ have a really inflated sense of the helpfulness and decisiveness of various kinds of literature” ?

and

2) explain to me and others *how* and *why* it is that I “have a really inflated sense of the helpfulness and decisiveness of various kinds of literature“

Thank you.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago
  1. In the entire thread above, you seem to think that certain views are refuted in the literature, or that one would embarrass oneself by not knowing the literature, or that certain articles are so decisive that not taking account of them *in a blog post* would be an embarrassment. These are smart amateurs, typically, having a conversation on a blog. I’ve never once thought ‘oh, so-and-so really needs to read up here’ … even if someone is repeating a view that has been criticized in the relevant literature. Such criticisms are rarely decisive. At best, you might say ‘Smith has some arguments against that view’ or ‘You might want to read Smith, she points to an implausible presupposition/implication of arguments such as yours’—but does this mean that such a view (contra Smith) is indefensible? Such that it’s an embarrassment to advance it in in a blog comment? Very, very rarely, if ever. I can’t think of it ever happening on this blog. (Things that might be embarrassing: factual misinformation, gross mischaracterization of a position, obvious misuse of a technical term, or asserting something that has been shown to be necessarily false—but I don’t think these sorts of things are what you have in mind, since they typically involve misunderstandings, not just a lack of understanding).
  2. I don’t know why you have such an inflated sense.

Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

Hi Prof L: You said, “you seem to think that certain views are refuted in the literature, or that one would embarrass oneself by not knowing the literature, or that certain articles are so decisive that not taking account of them *in a blog post* would be an embarrassment.“

I also used the word “criticized” and “addressed.” I already addressed this above if you paid attention. Please be more charitable.

My comment on embarrassment was just a prudential reason to not make uninformed arguments. If you read carefully, I said, “there are at least prudential reasons to do it namely first, one may prevent oneself from embarrassing oneself when someone corrects one or argue that one needs to explain why one ignored certain arguments or articles from a literature.”

This could be an advice as well especially for people who are easily quick to get their feelings hurt. Commenting comes with risks to your mental health. I’m just being honest. Nothing more and nothing less here.

Second, “These are smart amateurs, typically, having a conversation on a blog. I’ve never once thought ‘oh, so-and-so really needs to read up here’ … even if someone is repeating a view that has been criticized in the relevant literature. Such criticisms are rarely decisive.”

That’s you. Not me or anybody else. As well, so many people I see commenting are professional philosophers and grad students. They are more than just “smart amateurs.” They’re scholars! Indeed, your argument would be more convincing if we’re talking about Youtube or Reddit.

Not to mention the “About” page of this website states: “Daily Nous provides news for and about the philosophy profession, useful information for academic philosophers, links to items of interest elsewhere, and *an online space for philosophers* to publicly discuss it all” [Emphasis added].

If this is a blog intended for professional philosophers and has a lot of philosophers commenting, then we’re led to ask: Why are so many of them making so many uninformed arguments in general? What are the risks for non-philosopher viewers of such a behavior? Are they or are they not writing for thoughtfulness as Justin suggested?

At the very least, you’d think many philosophers would cite some literature and make reference to them. But rarely, do I see that here. I try my best to be intellectually engaging since that is what the blog aims at. It would also be inconsistent of me as a philosopher to not do so on such a blog. Elsewhere, I would be more lax.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Evan
David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

There is* a very extensive literature in epistemology, internet studies, psychology and sociology about the mental-health consequences of engaging with comment threads and other media, and about the legitimate epistemic expectations on people participating in social-media discussions of a quasi-real-time and quasi-public nature, and of the differential expectations of academic professionals in different communicative venues. And yet you don’t seem to be citing and referencing any of it. Maybe read up on some of it before commenting further, and make sure your posts properly engage with it? I’m constantly shaking my head.

*probably. (There’s a very extensive literature on basically everything, after all.)Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Hi David: You said, “There is* a very extensive literature in epistemology, internet studies, psychology and sociology about the mental-health consequences of engaging with comment threads and other media”

I never said we shouldn’t make common knowledge claims or claims that are based on our common observation. It does not take a rocket science to know that commenting *can* come with mental health risks. Just look at all the famous people who get bullied online. One open access article does explain the risks.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41347-020-00134-x

But again, it’s nothing new since many or most of us are aware of the risks of social media and online platforms already in the first place. Such empirical (not normative) claims can be backed by common observation and common knowledge. Mental health issues are constantly being made aware to us every day for many people. Facebook is an example since many of my friends share articles about them.

Second, “and about the legitimate epistemic expectations on people participating in social-media discussions of a quasi-real-time and quasi-public nature, and of the differential expectations of academic professionals in different communicative venues. And yet you don’t seem to be citing and referencing any of it. Maybe read up on some of it before commenting further, and make sure your posts properly engage with it? I’m constantly shaking my head.”

This would be more relevant if we’re discussing blogs that have no stated or very vague aims or goals. See my response to Prof L. Second, even if you are right, I found no such literature yet anyways. We can say that this topic is relatively new and so my argument still stands. If you have or know any articles where philosophers published an article on such matters please let me know. I’m still looking for them. In previous comments, I have been consistent with providing people with references to certain literatures e.g. philosophy of gratitude and critical thinking and education. So, you can’t really accuse me of contradicting myself. I try my best to be consistent. But I am not perfect. Nobody is.Report

Moti Gorin
Moti Gorin
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Ok, this time I really will be making my last comment on this thread.

Evan, often (pre-COVID) after a talk or seminar or workshop or whatever, some philosophers will go to a pub and talk philosophy, or philosophy culture, and so on. People advance arguments, offer objections, make jokes. There is no requirement that anyone do a bunch of book learning before they engage in such activities. Sometimes, there are non-philosophers at the pub and sometimes they overhear the conversations of philosophers. Consequently, they might hear a philosopher say something brilliant or informative or stupid or tone-deaf.

That’s how I think of philosophy blogs. They are not scholarly outlets any more than pubs are, though of course one might come up with an idea as a result of going to the pub or reading something on a blog. Also, pubs are much, much more fun.Report

Evan
Evan
Reply to  Moti Gorin
7 months ago

Hi Moti: That is a pretty unique argument so far. I understand the analogy. But I just don’t see the symmetry since even in past discussions people do go all out and engaged so nuancedly. As well, we can always postpone our comments for later when we have thought about our arguments through enough. But I do appreciate your analogy since it is interesting nonetheless.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Evan: the prudential point still relies on the idea that it’s somehow embarrassing to not know the specific criticisms in the literature of the view one is advancing. Saying ‘it’s prudential’ is neither here nor there.

I suppose if your point is that one could have more well-informed, exquisite blog comments were one to do research beforehand … okay, sure. But that would be a ridiculous waste of time, especially when experts are readily available if there’s a perceived need.

Anytime I advance an ethical view I assume that there is someone who holds the opposite view and has defended it in the literature. I’m an amateur ethicist (even if a professional philosopher) so I haven’t read the criticisms of my view, although I’m sure they exist. I am not at all embarrassed about that, and no one else should be either. It would be a much-impoverished discussion if we adopted as a norm that people should be relatively familiar with the philosophical literature before commenting. I work on history, and I want people to discuss the figures I work on, even if they’ve never read the SEP article on those figures. I enjoy talking about them to smart, amateur historians of philosophy, who know a lot about philosophy generally. They might have reasonable but perhaps not particularly scholarly views of these figures, or interpret these figures from a different perspective. They might be completely wrong, in my view. But the outside take is often right, or interesting, or valuable, or it’s just fun/enlightening to talk about, or we might just learn something from talking to each other. That’s a good thing, not something to be corrected by preliminary research.Report

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

Another small point: in a conversation about the figures I work on, under no circumstances would I think, “gosh, this person really oughta do their homework before talking to me about (pick a philosopher)” … under no circumstances would I think that they should be embarrassed for not knowing that their interpretation of that figure has been criticized in multiple papers. There’s something really anti-intellectual, anti-philosophical, uncurious in the all-too-frequent request that people familiarize themselves with a literature before having a conversation about the topic of that literature.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Prof L
7 months ago

I work on history, and I want people to discuss the figures I work on, even if they’ve never read the SEP article on those figures.

It would be even sillier in my field (philosophy of physics).
“Can we discuss how my take on metaphysics might interact with modern physics?”
“No. Go away and spend two years doing graduate-level physics coursework; then we’ll talk.”Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
7 months ago

This comment is for Evan. I don’t want to jump into the middle of the conversation with David Wallace and Moti Gorin (though I’m sure it will be a good one). I’m having trouble seeing the force of the “read the literature” argument. Maybe that’s because I don’t give much credence, in this context, to talk about “triggering” emotions and “having to constantly defend oneself as a marginalized person”. I think it’s important to have these conversations, so I wanted to explain why, for at least one reader, your approach is not effective at all.

I think on the whole the response to the censorious impulse should be what Haidt and Lukianoff prescribed in 2015, before things really kicked off: teach young people how to deal with the things in life they find upsetting. This sentiment is enshrined in the Chicago principles of acadmic freedom, also produced in 2015, as it happens. I think these statements were prescient, and that research like Eric Kaufmann’s is going to become more important in the process. If this data holds up, the trends identified need to be discussed more openly.

Of course, there’s a place to legislate individual cases, and if we were having a conversation in the middle of a workshop set up to help the “emotionally triggered marginalized person”, etc., then counselling anti-fragility (to use Nissim Taleb’s term) requires more care. But we’re having a conversation in a blog for professional philosophers, so let’s set that aside.

Coming at the issue from the direction I am, and which it seems to me is a totally respectable direction to approach the question of academic freedom, I find no force in calls to “go read the literature”. And honestly, if a bit more bluntly, the idea that the solution to threats against academic freedom today requires giving greater credence to claims of various sorts of “harm” supposedly experienced by the disaffected youth of places like Evergreen or Yale (say), or of the liberal elite-educated Anglosphere more broadly, looks pretty bozo to me. I just have a really hard time taking it seriously. Again, that’s not to deny the need to legislate individual cases! Nor is it to deny the value of having some other organization offer a sympathetic ear to the disaffected youth, in some other context. And I suspect that we’d agree about many of the individual cases at any rate. But likely not all of them, and in the context of this discussion, the point is that we disagree about general strategy.

This is something I think I hear John Schwenkler and Prof L remarking on above, but of course I wouldn’t want to tar them with any of the microaggressive things I may have said here. Anyway, just some thoughts about how that stance appears from my point of view.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Preston Stovall
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Preston Stovall
7 months ago

Hi Preston: You wrote: “I’m having trouble seeing the force of the “read the literature” argument. Maybe that’s because I don’t give much credence, in this context, to talk about “triggering” emotions and “having to constantly defend oneself as a marginalized person”. I think it’s important to have these conversations, so I wanted to explain why, for at least one reader, your approach is not effective at all.”

Yes I agree that it’s important to have these conversations. However, for your claim that it is ineffective to be sound, it would have to presuppose that there is *nobody* who is willing to speak up for marginalized people or at least represents them in a public forum, which is false since empirically there are many allies who can do that if the marginalized person feels triggered to do for themself. This is highly evident when we consider that that’s what (human rights) lawyers do everyday for their clients. Martha Nussbaum once said: “Philosophers are lawyers for humanity.”Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Hi Evan, thanks for the reply. I’m not denying that you might be able to convince people (“allies” in your terminology) who would be swayed by your exhortations. That’s why I included the restriction to “at least one reader”. I’m trying to help explain why, for someone like me, the exhortations to read the literature (not “speak up for marginalized people or represent them in a public forum”) carry no force at all. And I suspect my lack of uptake is owed to my stance on academic freedom, so I’m trying to communicate something about that, too.

Incidentally, you’ve replied three times since David Wallace first pointed this out, and you still haven’t cited a single argument or source that is supposed to back up whatever position you’re laying claim to. Opaque references to “allies” and the “emotionally triggered marginalized person” do not ground your position (whatever it is) in a common point of orientation on the issue of academic freedom.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Preston Stovall
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Preston Stovall
7 months ago

Hi Preston: You wrote: “I’m trying to help explain why, for someone like me, those exhortations carry no force at all. And I suspect my lack of uptake is owed to my stance on academic freedom, so I’m trying to communicate something about that, too.”

I guess in that realm you may not be persuaded. But alas, I did mention that we should have our philosophies ready just in case we need to use them to dispelled myths and bad arguments. My approach in my original comment was quite pluralistic since I know not everyone will be persuaded by *just* the “read the literature” argument.

Second, “Incidentally, you’ve replied three times since David Wallace first pointed this out, and you still haven’t cited a single argument or source that is supposed to back up whatever position you’re laying claim to. Opaque references to “allies” and the “emotionally triggered marginalized person” do not ground your position (whatever it is) in a common point of orientation on the issue of academic freedom.”

I was providing some strategies of my own in response to UK Grad’s comment. This is more of a prudential argument about how to cope or deal with absolute academic freedom since it is most likely going to stay and that controversial opinions and even harmful ones may be spread by it. I hope that clarifies things out. Maybe I should have been more explicit in my earlier comment.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Thanks Evan, that makes sense. On that basis, I think you should take David Wallace’s analogies more seriously. Your third point in your comment above comes off as rude and patronizing, and to make that comment under the guise of protecting the “emotionally triggered marginalized person” is really hard to take seriously. That’s not to prejudge your other two points either way. But for someone who isn’t already inclined to drink your brand of Kool-Aid, your aim would have been much better served by doing your interlocutors the courtesy of at least sketching one specific place in the literature that sheds light on something that was said here, rather than adopting the posture of (as you said) shaking your head. Just some thoughts on tactics, strategy aside.Report

Last edited 7 months ago by Preston Stovall
Evan
Evan
Reply to  Preston Stovall
7 months ago

Hi Preston: “Your third point in your comment above was rude and patronizing. To make that comment under the guise of protecting the “emotionally triggered marginalized person” is really hard to take seriously. That’s not to prejudge your other two points either way. But your aim would have been much better served by doing your interlocutors the courtesy of at least sketching one specific place in the literature that sheds light on something that was said here, rather than adopting the posture of (as you said) shaking your head. Just some thoughts on tactics (we still disagree as to strategy).”

If it came across as rude, then I apologize. I appreciate your suggestions and hopefully you and others are committed to doing the same.

However, I did not “make that comment under the guise of protecting the “emotionally triggered marginalized person”. I fail to see how this is so considering that it was just one piece of advice on how to combat harmful or false information. It may not be a good one for some people. Sure. I think your claim here is an unfair assessment of my comment/proposal. If you have any other strategies on how marginalized people or allies can cope or deal with absolute free speech please let us know.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  Evan
7 months ago

Hi Evan, thanks for this. We’ll have to disagree about the way you’re advocating for “emotionally triggered marginalized people”. But I think I’ve been pretty clear about my position on “how marginalized people or allies can cope or deal with absolute free speech”. As I said, Haidt, Lukianoff, Taleb, the authors of the Chicago principles — that’s how, in general, to help people “cope” with the perceived harm that others’ exercise of free inquiry is causing them today. And we should push back against inflating the language of harm, triggering, etc.

Again, there’s still space to legislate individual cases. But honestly, I find talk of “coping” just bozo when I think about the kinds of threats to open inquiry that academia faces today. It strikes me as childish and immature, unbecoming of a well-functioning adult member of society, to suggest that we need to help the liberal elite-educated students of places like Yale and Evergreen “cope” with academic freedom (your “absolute free speech”, though of course no one thinks you can say whatever you want wherever you want).Report