Philosopher To Be Appointed UK’s First “Free Speech Tsar”
Arif Ahmed, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, has reportedly been selected as UK’s first “free speech tsar” by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
According to The Telegraph, the position comes with “the power to investigate universities and student unions in England and Wales that wrongly restrict debate” and to “advise the sector regulator on imposing fines for free speech breaches.”
The creation of the position has been described as part of Sunak’s “anti-woke” politics.
Ahmed has written several pieces for the public about academic freedom and the discussion of controversial ideas. For example, in a piece at Unherd, “University Needs to Hurt“, he argues that certain ambiguities of Mill’s harm principle should be resolved by joining it with a principle of consent that renders causing harm to others to which the others consent permissible, and hence free from societal interference. Here’s an excerpt:
[W]hy should anything other than its intellectual value be relevant to whether a book or article is compulsory or even available for study in a course? And what gives university administrators the right to decide that the “harm” to students that these books supposedly risk outweighs the intellectual benefits that they would undoubtedly confer upon them?
All these cases arise because actors with malicious motives — shutting people up — have manipulated others with more benign motives: administrators wishing to protect students from “harm”. But who gets to decide what counts as acceptable or unacceptable levels of harm? Well, perhaps it should depend on two things: the purpose of the university and the students’ own judgments, as expressed through their voluntary consent.
One practical implementation of this idea could be achieved in two steps. First, at the start of a course, students consent to the risk of exposure to ideas that are legally expressed in ways that they find shocking, disturbing or offensive; and that they understand that by continuing with the course they are implicitly renewing this consent. Consent may be withdrawn at any time by withdrawing from the university. Signing up for a university education would be the intellectual equivalent of stepping into a boxing ring.
Second, any complaint against any lecturer’s or student’s speech would need to show that it failed one of two tests: Is the speech legal? And did the audience consent? If the answer to both is yes, the complaint is immediately and automatically dismissed.
Three clarifications. First, the waiver would not cover illegal speech. For instance, bullying directed at individuals in the classroom might constitute illegal harassment. Nobody is being given permission to direct tirades against students, to defame anyone, to speak in contempt of court, and so on.
Second, the waiver covers expression of ideas, but not speech that directly impaired the functioning of the university, for instance publicising confidential information; nor would it preclude regulation of the time, place and manner of speech. (You couldn’t bring a megaphone into an exam hall.) Nobody would be consenting to any of that.
Third, the proposal does not give anyone a power of veto. A student who withdraws consent is not preventing any teacher or fellow student from saying or hearing anything “offensive”, but rather excluding themselves from a university where the “offensive” speech will happen anyway. I often hear people say: “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one”; whatever you think of that, it is surely at least as reasonable for a professor to say: “If you don’t like my lectures, don’t attend them.” Consenting adults should be free to discuss Hume or vaginas or Sharia Law, or anything else. If you don’t like it, don’t join in.
You can read the whole piece here.
Ahmed’s appointment to the new position is expected to be confirmed this weekend.
Update (5/17/23): Comments are now closed.
The appointment of a free speech czar, regardless of whether they’re relatively permissive or relatively impermissive about speech, seems an Orwellian turn.
I tend to be on the more permissive side of the free speech debate. But we should all be wary of this kind of move. The proliferation of policies and bureaucrats meant for ministering to administratively defined needs is both a sad symptom of the loss of unspoken competence, trust, and goodwill and a contributing factor to the further erosion of that competence, trust, and goodwill.Report
I am conflicted about this.
On the one hand, it’s always concerning when even a broadly-trustworthy and broadly-competent government tries to get involved in the running of universities. And I think reasonable observers of the current UK government over the last few years, whatever their own political preferences, can agree that ‘trustworthy’ and ‘competent’ are not the first two adjectives that leap to mind when describing it. On the specific issue of freedom of speech: well, governments are coalitions, and I think some parts of the government are sincere in their concern about free speech issues, but (especially in the light of the suppression of republican protests recently) it’s hard to resist the conclusion that much of the government cares not so much about whether ideas are suppressed but whether the right ones are.
On the other hand: if public universities are not upholding their academic, moral, and legal obligations, it’s not very satisfactory to sit back and ignore it. And there have been far, far too many reports in the UK higher ed sector, from egregious individual investigations through Student Union suppression of speech to University-wide censorship policies, to have any confidence that the internal processes of individual universities have this under control. The story of the plucky university fighting for its autonomy against faceless bureaucrats is easily retold as the faceless bureaucrats of the university itself crushing the autonomy of its faculty and students.
Given all this, the present way forward (as I understand it) seems to have its virtues: appoint some respected figure from within academia to make recommendations on upholding the law on free speech and academic freedom, rather than getting a minister of state to do it directly. Professor Ahmed is a serious and recognized academic with a longstanding track record of fighting for free speech and academic freedom; his most high-profile intervention of late was leading the successful grassroots campaign among Cambridge faculty to amend the University’s free speech policy. He sounds like a good choice for the role.
So, my conclusion (if anyone cares): two cheers for this – but not three, and pay attention to the details of how it plays out.Report
The Tsars, of course, were well-known for their commitment to free speech.Report
It’s a common colloquial term in the US and the UK. It designates civil servants with a particular authority.Report
Oh good. There was a moment I thought this was an authoritarian move. But now I see I’m wrong; it’s just Sunak appointing a Tsar to regulate free speech.Report
The Tsars, of course, were well-known for their tendency to be appointed by and accountable to democratically-elected superiors.Report
Or for being supported by a small group of cronies without ever being confirmed in a general election.Report
At the risk of derailing the discussion: that’s not how parliamentary democracy works. We don’t have a presidential system. I’m not a fan of Sunak (to put it mildly) but his government has the support of a majority of elected MPs.Report
It is true that Sunak has a democratic mandate. (Was he elected? Well, yes, up to a point, by MPs, but never directly.) But some liberal democracies are morphing into illiberal democracies at the moment and others are already in that state. The UK can go one way or the other, but a free speech commissar is not exactly a good sign.Report
I certainly see the concern – hence my “two cheers – but not three”. Certainly the current U.K. government has not earned the benefit of the doubt.Report
Not earned the benefit of the doubt? They care so passionately about free speech that they ensured that protestors against the coronation had a nice quiet prison cell to be heard in.Report
“It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”Report
This is far from an expression of one of those narrowly-tailored exceptions to freedom of speech you referenced in a recent discussion of editorial independence. Perhaps you’d like to specify some such exception relevant to this coronation episode.Report
Both Neil and I are being sarcastic here (as possibly are you, but these things aren’t always obvious online).Report
Interestingly, I’ve never seen this sort of government bureaucrat titled with the spelling “Tsar” in the United States. Maybe “Tsar” is a more common spelling in Britain?
In the US, I feel like the “Drug Czar” is the most commonly mentioned one, but apparently there are dozens of others.
Yes, ‘tsar’ is the usual UK spelling (in this context anyway). No idea why.Report
Tz and Cz are both attempted transliaterations of the Russian letter ‘ц’. To my mind “tz” does a better job of letting an English speaker know how the word should be said, but both are approximations, of course.Report
Ahmed is aligned with Toby Young’s Free Speech Union (he’s on the board), so he’s being deployed as a political operative to do his part in UK culture wars.Report
Correction, he used to be on the Advisory Council of FSU but seems to have stepped down recently. They are very happy about his appointment.Report
Arif Ahmed is a totally first class philosopher and also a very nice guy.
He also has an excellent record of contributing to public debates about religion and free speech. Philosophers should be proud and happy to see a prominent member of our discipline having a public role like this.
I personally have absolutely no love for the Conservative party (or for Sunak) but I am extremely happy about this appointment because: (i) I think it is clear that free speech in UK universities does need extra protection at the moment, (ii) I trust Professor Ahmed to be fair and rigorous and rational etc in performing this role.Report
Requiring as a prerequisite for attending University that one consent to be harmed is not a good idea. Does he recognize that even legal speech can violate rights? Students have a right to defend the innocent against unjust threats even when those threats come in the form of speech. Universities should not violate that right.
He strikes me as a free speech ideologue.Report
“Free speech ideologue” sounds like high praise to me.Report
Not surprising at Daily Nous. Do you share Ahmed’s view that the right to offend is “the most important thing in the world”.Report
Where does he say that?Report
Professor Arif Ahmed | This House Believes in the Right to Offend – YouTubeReport
The proposition defended by Ahmed in this debate is that “merely causing offense isn’t sufficient to justify the state in punishing you.” (1) That is quite obviously true.
(2) I did not hear him say it was “the most important thing in the world.” (If I missed it, please tell me the timestamp.)
(3) However, given what he means by a right to offend, it seems clear that it *is* among the most important things in the world.Report
”Requiring as a prerequisite for attending University that one consent to be harmed is not a good idea.”
What is harm? Anything that one finds unpleasant or difficult to deal with? Well, course deadlines are than also harm.Report
“What is harm? Anything that one finds unpleasant or difficult to deal with?”
Ahmed is the one with the wacky idea to have students consent to being harmed. Ask him.Report
I would like to see some actual experts discuss this, but my interpretation of this is that we can either construe harm as physical harm, in which case students don’t consent to being harmed (but also speech can’t harm), or we also count psychological harms as harms, in which case speech can harm, but also in which case students do content to being harmed. (Since they consent to being made to feel stressed, disappointed, annoyed, etc.)Report
Another option would be to hold that talk of harm is most clearly warranted in reference to situations that involve physical violence, to grant that there are some conditions under which it is appropriate to call psychologically upsetting events harmful, and to maintain that much of what is psychologically upsetting fails to rise to the level of harm.
Setting aside that what Maggie refers to as Ahmed’s idea is nothing Ahmed has asserted, if we go this route then we can block the inference from “students consent to being in the presence of ideas they may find upsetting” to “students consent to being harmed”.Report
David Wallace is certainly right that there have been far too many recent claims of being silenced in UK academia. They have a number of political functions. First, they’re an incredibly effective way to delegitimize actual expert consensus—for example, if you want a certain minority group’s healthcare to be taken out of the hands of their actual doctors. Trans healthcare bans are premised on medical consensus and physicians’ clinical judgment being singularly, overwhelmingly unreliable in this one area. We’ve had front row seats in philosophy to the stoking of that narrative.
Another amazing benefit: rallying your fellow senior faculty against your political opponents. Don’t like your views and activism being opposed by your lessers? (“Narcissistic lazy half-wits who have stolen the mike,” as Kathleen Stock put it. I admit I did not know the mic belonged to her.) Just say they’re trying to silence you and suddenly their substantive critique is A Threat To Our Shared Academic Values and something that needs to be put down.
I unfortunately do not have time to add the information I would like to, but I would emphasize that the UK cultural context around “free speech” and “academic freedom” is extremely different, and it is absolutely routine for its purported defenders to explicitly call for government intervention (!!!) against their opponents, as appears to be happening here. Advocates for the bill Dr. Ahmed will be appointed under, including Dr. Ahmed, are primarily focused on a “chilling effect” and “self-censorship,” largely because of fear of social rebuke. I find it very unclear how exactly they intend to mitigate the fact that other people have quite negative opinions about their views, but in following the debate around the bill I have been alarmed.
I’ll just share some examples here.
The bill is significantly inspired by Kathleen Stock. The catalogue of unallowable incursions she provided in her written evidence largely consists in what is straightforwardly other people’s views and political speech.
(She is using “defamation” in the British sense of “an assessment of me I do not like and can afford to silence,” not in the American sense of “damaging and false statements of fact”)
Dr. Ahmed’s written evidence:
How is he going to address the threat to freedom of speech that is 1 trans professor… existing?
Some of their testimony (p. 19):
Dr. Ahmed has, for example, also signed a letter calling for government intervention whose complaints include
No denouncing allowed! (free speech)
Some other testimony:
From an American perspective I find all this very shocking.
I’m sorry for posting such a tome! I hope it is helpful to someone. 2 cheers for the new political commissarReport
Christa Peterson is correct that those who pushed for this position (groups including the Free Speech Union and the very influential think-tank Policy Exchange) want active intervention by the state into universities. Much of this was fuelled by a political scientist called Eric Kaufmann (who, along with Matthew Goodwin, Kathleen Stock and Arif Ahmed was an early British member of the Heterodox Academy). Kaufmann wrote a policy paper for Policy Exchange which inspired this legislation, a paper that contained substantial inaccuracies (e.g. that Germaine Greer was prevented from speaking at Cardiff University). Kaufmann has recently praised De Santis as the future of conservatism and called for similar intervention in the UK to preserve “viewpoint diversity” against the “woke blob”
Kaufmann endorsed and promoted Ahmed’s candidacy for “Free Speech Tsar” over rivals for that position.Report
I find this ‘active intervention by the state’ framing to be very odd. Most universities are public bodies, and even the ones that aren’t receive large amounts of public funding. Governments, in the UK or the US, intervene in them all the time through legislation, creation of enforcement processes for legislation, and conditioning of funding on policy. When the Obama administration used federal funding to enforce its interpretation of Title IX, that’s intervention. When the UK government required that postdocs receive redundancy payments after two years, that’s intervention. The EU GDPR is intervention; so is the UK’s Office of the Independent Adjudicator; so is the UK’s tuition fee cap, and the conditioning of the higher bit of that cap on outreach and access. Arguably, if you sue a US university for violating your constitutional rights, and the court finds for you and enforces its order, that’s intervention.
One can disagree as to whether this intervention is good, because it protects the expressive rights and academic freedom of faculty and students against conformist pressure; or bad, because it responds to a non-problem and is a fig-leaf for an Orbanist takeover. But the mere fact that it’s state intervention doesn’t seem to be the issue.Report
State intervention to curtail other academics’ speech. The bill’s advocates have repeatedly and explicitly called for straightforward restrictions on their opponents speech: for faculty to be inhibited from describing a public figure as ‘racist,’ on twitter, for action against a department that issued a statement opposing a ‘gender critical research network,’ for a competing talk to be cancelled, etc. The mere fact that it’s state intervention is obviously not the issue. It’s that it’s a call for the state to impose restrictions on speech. That speech is categorically different from things like redundancy payments and tuition fees in a way that makes state intervention a very serious issue is actually the premise of free speech. If you have any actual commitment to it, calls for the state to restrict other academics’ and students’ speech are immediate cause for concern. The people calling for the restrictions of course say they are justified. That is of course not simply given. My own experience has been dramatically otherwise. The talk Stock takes to be a paradigm of unallowable persecution was mine. After being pressured to cancel, the students that invited me were told they could face disciplinary action if the talk was too “anti-Kathleen.” It was an academic talk, observed and reported on to their chair by other faculty, who I believe found no plausible violations. That does not appear to have lessened her belief that it should not have been allowed at all.
I want to be clear that I think free speech and academic freedom are in a horrible state in the UK. My work is only possible because I am American and so protected from frivolous UK defamation claims. I am extremely worried about legislative and lawfare efforts to inhibit people’s ability to describe gender critical views as transphobic. Being able to take the position that something constitutes bigotry is obviously part of a free political society. The people that are actually being silenced are—who would have guessed—just not actually the ones whose every word is credulously printed in mass media and whose facing opposition triggers a whole new office to police what is said at universities being legislated into existence lest they suffer a feeling of “pressure”. The actual balance of power could not possibly be more obvious here.Report
I agree that some of the comments made in parliamentary testimony support suppression of speech. And as I’ve repeatedly said, I don’t think the UK government has earned any presupposition of trust on these issues.
1) Is there anything actually *in the Bill* that constrains individuals’ free speech? It places a bunch of duties on institutions and their administrative sub-units to protect free speech; it tasks the Office for Students to create a complaints procedure where individuals can object that institutions have harmed them through their actions or inactions, if in doing so those institutions breached their duty to protect free speech; it creates an appointment within OfS to administer that procedure. That all seems fine to me. (It also creates a right to legal action that looks substantively okay but procedurally very awkward, and I think it’s good that the House of Lords is pushing back on that.) The most I can think of is someone trying to claim that, e.g., lots of individuals criticizing them harmed them on the basis of speech, and that their University should have stopped them; but (providing that the level and sustainedness of that criticism doesn’t rise to the level of harassment) the Bill itself seems to make that claim impermissible, because to do so the University would have breached other free-speech rights.
I agree that the Bill constrains the speech rights of institutions – e.g. the LSE Department of Gender Studies arguably would run into problems, though think it would be hard for a complainant to establish that they had been harmed in that specific case. That again seems fine to me – it’s the Kalven Report principle that the university qua university, and its administrative components, should create an environment for free speech for their members but not take substantive views themselves. ‘The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic’. (When I was at Balliol College in Oxford, just before the referendum, I argued against the College qua College making a statement of opposition to Brexit on exactly these grounds, but I had no problem with a large group of Fellows writing a letter under their own names to our students stating opposition to Brexit – indeed, I was a signatory to that letter.)
2) Is there any reason to think that Professor Ahmed, in particular, thinks that the state should constrain individuals’ free speech? I’ve read all his testimony to Parliament, and his (joint and individual) submitted written evidence to Parliament, and none of it gives me any sense of that. (He describes himself as ‘close to a free speech absolutist’, and that seems consistent with what he says.) His past track record also seems very positive, both substantively and procedurally (perhaps there is another side to the story, but a situation where an academic gets the faculty of their university to overturn an administrative decision with a large majority on a large turnout seems a good sign that they are not just channelling astroturfed concerns). The only example I see that supposedly supports the concern is his co-signing the 2021 letter to the EHRC, but the only speech that letter objects to is by institutions, not by individuals.
If there are clearer examples it would be good to know. I did some due diligence on Professor Ahmed before my original cautious-support post, and have done more since Christa Peterson and Chris Bertram posted their concerns, but I still don’t see any evidence that he is not sincerely and credibly committed to free speech. I agree that the very fact that the current government (and its allied movements) supports this action and this appointment is a reason for scrutiny and care. But governments are big coalitions that do many things for varied, even contradictory, reasons, and I don’t think that one should just blanket reject any government action out of generalized suspicion of the government, rather than look carefully at it and consider it on the merits.Report
Perhaps some further evidence that Professor Ahmed is genuinely committed to free speech and is not solely a political tool is his apparent willingness to publicly criticize Gavin Williamson (the Conservative MP who, while Education Secretary, introduced the legislation which created the role to be occupied by Professor Ahmed).
According to Jewish News UK (1/16/23):
“In a blog written in February 2021, Ahmed wrote: “I am strongly against Gavin Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”
“This ‘definition’ is nothing of the kind; adopting it obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights.”
“As such it chills free speech on a matter of the first importance. I hope the Secretary of State reconsiders the need for it; but these new free speech duties ought to rule it out in any case.”Report
Obviously, he has an interest in free speech. But as you seem to recognize that doesn’t mean that he is not a tool. If your efforts on behalf of free speech only serve to further amplify the deafening roar of speech that promotes injustice, then you are tool, like it or not.Report
Yes, sorry, I was hoping I could get traction with the fact that curbing “cancellation” in the form of protest is clearly an interest of the bill’s backers before I have the time to elaborate on the specific mechanism I am worried about, but now that you say it ofc you would discharge that red flag by looking more at the specifics, and I think my concern depends on a lot of background information. I will probably only be able to get to explaining it tomorrow, sorry!Report
I would be interested to see (though for travel/time management reasons I’ll probably stop engaging on this thread soon). There are other aspects of the academic-freedom debates that I doubt we’ll reach agreement on but I am actually fairly persuadable on this, in part because I know UK politics well enough to have deep suspicions about anything the current government does.
While I’m being conciliatory, I do agree with you that there is a lot wrong with the way free speech works in the UK (separately from the government’s concerns) that the US does better. UK defamation law is a disgrace and every reasonable observer agrees. And the fact that the UK actually criminalizes certain sorts of hate speech makes everything more toxic, sets very dangerous precedents, and gets in the way of establishing a more robust free-speech culture. I think the casualness with which (some) people on both sides of various culture-war issues in the UK reach for legal suppression partly comes from that. (I’ve seen student unions justify campaigns to fire faculty on the grounds that hate speech is not free speech – their definition of ‘hate speech’ is a lot more expansive than the legal definition, but it creates the space for that to happen. I’ve also seen ludicrous action by the police based on the hate-speech laws, in areas far from the current controversies. It’s just bad.)Report
Just picking up on this:
“Kaufmann has recently praised De Santis as the future of conservatism and called for similar intervention in the UK to preserve “viewpoint diversity” against the “woke blob””
Looking at the article, he does caveat his support:
“Some of the proposals go too far. Democratically elected governments can tell schools what to teach but must respect the freedom of academics to explore ideas. While it is right to fund conservative centres and universities to add viewpoint diversity, professors should set the curriculum. On the other hand, academic freedom does not extend to university administrators, who should be politically impartial and focus on truth.“Report
Just a quick note on this: “Trans healthcare bans are premised on medical consensus and physicians’ clinical judgment being singularly, overwhelmingly unreliable in this one area.”
This is incorrect. There is in fact no medical consensus on this issue. It is true that US medical orgs all officially endorse pediatric medical transition, as do (of course) the clinicians who practice it, but health authorities in other countries (e.g., England, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France) take a different view, with some of these authorities having conducted systematic reviews of the underlying scientific evidence (US orgs have not commissioned such reviews). The Swedish systematic review was published in English just a few weeks back and is worth reading. The UK’s Cass Interim Report provides a good overview and explanation for why it’s just no longer true that there’s a scientific or medical consensus on these treatments.
Philosophers have not “stok[ed] this narrative.” First, as usual, the people doing the science and the policy don’t care much what philosophers think. Second, insofar as philosophers have written on this particular topic, they’ve cited the empirical concerns, not vice versa.Report
Anyone else feel thrown back to the days when efforte were made to create “lack of consensus” around evolution or climate change?
Keep teaching the controversy, MotiReport
I do and I will. It would be irresponsible in the extreme, when teaching this issue, not to teach the conclusions reached by several independent systematic reviews carried out by health authorities in countries whose healthcare systems put that in the US to shame, while also teaching what US authorities claim, based on far weaker methods of evidence assessment. It would be pedagogical malpractice not to cover both approaches.Report
The quote claim you’re replying to is not about the strength or infallibility of the medical consensus per se, but is about legislative bans on trans health care. These bans do in fact assume that physicians in this one narrow and arbitrarily defined area cannot be trusted to exercise proper clinical judgment. The same doctor will be trusted to offer the same kinds of surgery to a teenaged patient of the same age, as long as the reason motivating the procedure is different (transition vs. cosmetic change). The legislators who are supporting these bans are indeed quoting recent news articles, which in turn quote and are informed by philosophical work on this subject. My weak understanding of changes in the countries you mention is that they pulled back to a more cautious stance but did not ban the procedures we are now seeing banned in several US states.Report
I was responding to the claim that there is a medical consensus and that philosophers are stoking the narrative seeking to delegitimize that consensus. There is no medical consensus and even if there were it’s laughable that GOP legislators advocating for bans/limitations are at home reading gender critical feminist philosophy.Report
I’m not laughing because this is real life here in the U.S. Real kids and parents are now affected; in Missouri it’s adults too. Legislators are, yes, quoting news articles whose authors are informed by and even citing gender critical philosophers. You can read these transcripts of debate if you don’t want to take my word for this. It’s also a scary game of telephone, because the views may be translated into something less reasonable via stages of transmission.
The claim you quoted is specifically that legislative bans rely on doubting the clinical judgment of doctors and the advice of medical organizations. They do indeed, and this is an easily verified fact. Most Southern and Midwestern state legislatures have debated this recently, and many of the bans are already in place. I don’t want to discuss further if we don’t agree on these basic, easily verified factual statements. It’s too real life for my friends and loved ones.Report
I think I’ve been clear about what, exactly, I was responding to, using the same words, specifically, included in the passage to which I was responding. There are of course many other things to discuss, but I’m not interested in doing that here. I wanted only to make the particular correction I made.Report
In the process, you also managed to say some factually true things were laughable. Nothing was corrected, because contesting the existence or strength of a specific medical consensus does not change the fact that these trans healthcare “bans are premised on medical consensus and physicians’ clinical judgment being singularly, overwhelmingly unreliable in this one area.” Perhaps we will have to throw anti-abortion laws into the mix, but in what other area is physician clinical judgment deemed so completely unreliable? How often do legislatures overrule the national medical organizations and in what situations? That’s what you’d have to show to correct what you think you corrected.Report
It is indeed laughable that GOP legislators take their inspiration from gender critical philosophers. They have their own reasons for opposing these medical protocols, some good, some bad. Again, insofar as these philosophers deal with this issue, they refer to what non-philosophers working in these areas say. So placing responsibility, even partial responsibility, for the bans at the feet of gender critical philosophers is just silly.
As for the consensus, if there isn’t one (and there isn’t), and if the relevant legislators don’t believe there is one (they don’t), then the bans can’t be premised on the consensus being wrong. In fact one of the important legal claims amounts to the claim that there is no consensus. This claim is true, whatever we say about other claims, or whatever we think about the morality or legality or prudence of the bans, all things considered.Report
They may not take direct inspiration, but they factually do cite newspaper articles and op-eds to support their legislation. These articles and op-eds are often inspired, sometimes even directly referencing or derivative of, so-called gender critical work.
This isn’t hard to understand.Report
The original claim you’re responding to is that narratives about “no medical consensus” serve political purposes. You’ve been changing that claim into something else in order to attack it. However, state legislators supporting trans health bans have been citing articles informed by philosophers. They’ve also encouraged testimony from supporters of the bills who cited similar sources. I know this because I’ve listened to and read some of the testimony. Do you deny that these things happened or that such sources were cited? Or do you think second degree influence from philosophical sources is not strong enough to bring along any measure of culpability? Personally, I’m not looking to blame anyone – I only want the state legislatures to stop interfering with the doctors and the parents, so I’m worried about how these narratives undermining medical judgment have been used to strip away rights.
Your argument about consensus is circular: In order to act in defiance of a medical consensus, the legislators would have to agree that there is a medical consensus, before agreeing that there isn’t one! No. They’re entitled to their opinions but not their facts, as the saying goes. They can say that the prevailing medical consensus shouldn’t be respected, but they can’t pretend the medical associations and overwhelming majority of doctors who testify on these bills are supporting them.
Perhaps it’s clearer in the more specific case of physician clinical judgment: these legislative bans prevent individual physicians from choosing the accepted form of treatment they have judged appropriate for a specific patient. It is normal for doctors to testify on different sides of a medical issue, but compare cases where legislators rejected medical consensus and expert testimony about the efficacy of masks during the pandemic: they did not pass laws saying physicians could not use their own expert judgment about masks in their clinical practices.
These trans care bans depend on undermining physician judgment. The clinical judgment about gender dysphoria becomes the reason why care is banned; the same patient who simply disliked her body and wanted a cosmetic procedure could proceed with parent and physician agreement. This is why it is important to be sensitive to the nuance of the argument. Regardless of whether physicians and medical groups in one country or another all agree on exactly how to proceed in these cases, the trans care banning legislators don’t think they have to respect physician judgment *at all* when it comes to this issue, unless the physician happens to agree with them. For support they cite news articles by people who have turned to philosophers to understand this issue. I want to know why, not to point the finger of blame but to make the harm stop.Report
I’m not arguing in favor of bans, nor in favor of allowing cosmetic surgery in minors. Again, I’m merely pointing out that there is no medical consensus, unless you just mean the position of the US orgs and that endorsed by the doctors brought to trial as expert witnesses for plaintiffs, and not health authorities in some other countries who, again, have taken a much better look at the evidence than the U.S. orgs have. If that’s what you mean by “consensus” then we don’t disagree—I think I made this distinction in my first comment.
As for the articles “informed by philosophers” I’m not sure what you have in mind. I’ve watched and read some testimony but I haven’t read it all (there’s a lot of it) and so I’m just not sure what in particular you are referring to.Report
So you’re not especially familiar with the claims made in these legislative debates – yes, there’s a lot – but you’re quite sure philosophy had no influence on the arguments or citations the legislators made, so a suggestion like that needed “correction”.
Legislators could not be undermining medical consensus or physician clinical judgment, either, even when the bans they enact go much further than anything suggested by recent medical reviews in a small group of European countries and plainly contradict both the US medical consensus and doctors treating the impacted patients in that state.Report
No, what I’m quite sure about is that insofar as gender-critical philosophers have opined on the medical issues, they have done so by reference to what various non-philosophers (e.g., health authorities, clinicians) have said.
I’m also sure that there is no medical consensus (hence my correction), and that it follows from this that gender-critical philosophers could not have stoked some narrative that seeks to delegitimize that consensus.
Again, I do not know what citations in particular you are referencing. Perhaps you can say.Report
If I get a single good faith response to anything I’ve said so far, then maybe it will be worth my time. The fact that you don’t like the existing medical consensus doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and wasn’t directly contradicted by legislators, who listened to testimony numerous medical authorities and decided to ignore them. You’ve not even begun to address the question of physician clinical judgment being superseded, yet somehow think you’ve corrected statements about that.
If you don’t think gender-critical philosophers bear any responsibility for the way this issue has played out in state legislatures in the US, that’s a perfectly reasonable position. What’s unreasonable is to support that position by claiming legislators never paid attention to testimony or evidence that cited them and was informed by them. Laugh all you want but that’s what happened, and the result is decidedly not funny.Report
Again, there is no medical consensus. If what you mean is the US medical org consensus, that’s fine. Just be clear. But you should recognize that the US orgs do not have a monopoly on biomedical research or medical practice, especially in this case, where they have been unwilling thus far to conduct systematic reviews, and especially given the distortions caused by our highly polarized political climate.
As for clinician judgment, it depends on which clinicians you ask. If you ask the clinicians testifying for plaintiffs, then you will get the result you want. Of course, these clinicians simply repeat the stance adopted by the major US-based orgs (which makes sense, since these provide the guidelines on which they rely in their practice, which reliance protects them from legal liability).
As for the gender-critical philosophers and the purported role they play here, I’ve already said what I think. If you have evidence that GOP legislators have been motivated by gender-critical feminism or feminists, I’d be genuinely interested in seeing it. Perhaps they have been, though again I doubt it, because when I’ve seen gender-critical feminists discuss the medical issues, they simply report concerns expressed by non-philosophers. Perhaps on your view this is bad enough–maybe you think people should not repeat what they hear or read when the message is one you take to be wrong or dangerous or whatever, i.e., maybe shooting the messenger is sometimes justified.Report
I don’t think that and moreover, nothing I’ve said would imply that I think it.
The evidence reviews in countries you mentioned have not resulted in trans care bans of the kind we have seen in US states. So even if we uncritically accepted your interpretation of the effect they should have on medical consensus, the legislators ignored even this medical evidence!
Suppose you’re right: major medical organizations and the majority of clinicians testified against trans healthcare bans, but lawmakers need better review of the evidence and should be listening to European doctors, or whatever. The legislators still voted against the medical experts. They still believe clinicians can exercise judgment about cosmetic surgery but not the same or similar surgery motivated by gender dysphoria diagnosis. They still believe clinicians can exercise judgment to prescribe hormones to kids as long as it’s not for the specially prohibited reasons, in which case the same clinicians are no longer trusted to make a judgment.
In short, the person above was absolutely correct to state that legislators have on these specific matters chosen to doubt physician clinical judgment and defy what they are hearing from most doctors and medical organizations.
We can find counterexamples to the claim this is a singular phenomenon in cases where legislators also overrule medical expertise, like passing laws that will force women carry an unviable pregnancy to term. Even then, the law bans the procedure for everyone in that situation, rather than deciding one set of reasons makes it acceptable but another does not, as happens in the transcare situation.
If you don’t know what was said or cited in these legislative debates, why would you insist with such certainty that you do know and that others must be corrected? You may find the through line from legislatures to gender critical philosophers very weak, and that’s fine. But when you mock people for thinking the connection is stronger, based on the evidence they’ve heard themselves, I think you should be operating with better evidence of your own.Report
I mocked the claim that gender-critical feminist concern (in the UK no less!) with silencing is an incredibly effective way to delegitimize medical consensus on gender-affirming care because it is a claim worthy of mockery. I’ve explained why I think that.
At this point, it’s pretty clear we are both wasting our time. You can either explain why you think I’m wrong about the medical consensus (i.e., why we should take the testimony of cherry-picked expert testifiers for plaintiffs more seriously than multiple independent systematic reviews commissioned by countries we ordinarily worship vis a vis healthcare) and/or you can provide evidence for how UK gender-critical feminist’s concern with silencing is an incredibly politically effective tool for delegitimizing some purported medical consensus. Or we can just part ways, agreeing to disagree.Report
If you feel like you’re wasting your time then don’t feel obligated to reply. I think this exchange is a case in point of what I believe Christa Peterson was arguing for above. I’m not sure I understand her argument correctly, but here we have the discourse about silencing being turned towards all sorts of factually false claims about how debate unfolded in legislatures about medical consensus. It never occurred to me to consider this before, but now that I see it in action it’s very interesting.
You have refused repeatedly to engage with the basic factual assertions that legislators went against the medical consensus they heard in debate. And it’s not disputable that they did, unless you insist on denying reality or not engaging in good faith. You may fervently believe that we should worship the medical advice of European doctors, and you may think medical consensus does not exist on trans care. But that is not the message that red state legislators who have voted to outlaw transcare were hearing in the debate. All the representatives of major medical organizations and most of the doctors testifying to them agreed that the transcare bans were bad. It is remarkable that you will not accept this reality.
Then we get to the question of what influence gender critical philosophers had on this debate. Here I think your position is a reasonable one even if I disagree: you think they had minimal to no influence, and I think they had a more significant influence. But again, The reality denying part of your comments is that the work of these philosophers did not figure in any of the testimony or evidence raised in legislative debates. Legislators cited article after article from major media outlets here in the US that had either directly quoted gender critical philosophers or were written by journalists who have closely followed the controversies around gender critical philosophy. I accept the argument that this is not particularly powerful influence, even if my view is different. But that it really exists is beyond question. You enter a discussion desiring to give correction to people, yet are so unaware of what went on in these debates that you think I should go look it up for you. Where does that come from?
If my work were being used in this way, I certainly would be at pains to explain why my views did not support the legislative action being taken. It’s bizarre to see the debate in this whole thread in the present US context. Philosophers are expressing considerable concern about whether labeling gender critical arguments as bigoted is a harmful form of silencing that perhaps should not even be legal in the UK. Meanwhile, a legislator in Montana was sitting out in the hall while the majority stripped rights away from trans people, because they couldn’t tolerate hearing criticism of their actions. Calling bigotry what it is apparently violates decorum. There’s definitely a major free speech issue about this in the US and it has nothing to do with people self silencing, but everything to do with forced silencing of people who are trying to protect trans rights.Report
My last comment:
“You have refused repeatedly to engage with the basic factual assertions that legislators went against the medical consensus they heard in debate.”
No. I have repeatedly engaged with that assertion. I reject the claim that what they “went against” was a medical consensus. Because, as I’ve explained, there is no medical consensus, unless we limit the relevant parties to the US orgs (who do not alone comprise a medical consensus). Yes, these legislators did go against claims of a medical consensus, advanced by people who for whatever reason take a rather provincial and US-centered view of what constitutes a scientific or medical consensus. But going against a claimed consensus and going against a consensus are two different things. I’ve been focused on the latter, while perhaps you’ve been focused on the former.
“The reality denying part of your comments is that the work of these philosophers did not figure in any of the testimony or evidence raised in legislative debates.”
No, what I deny is that gender-critical feminists have “stoked a narrative” that the medical consensus and clinician judgment is “singularly wrong.” Again, if all you want to say here is that some gender-critical feminists have repeated concerns from non-philosophers (e.g., health authorities, clinicians), then we don’t disagree, except perhaps on whether this constitutes “stoking a narrative.”
Your interpretation of their role–some legislators refer to some news article that features them or was written by someone who read them or whatever–is far more modest than the original claim. (I’m still not sure what articles you have in mind so it’s hard to assess what role gender-critical feminists might be playing even here.) But the original claim is that UK gender-critical feminists claims of their being silenced have served as “incredibly effective” ways to undermine “actual expert consensus,” with the gender-affirming care bans serving as an example of this. You don’t seem to believe this, either, though you don’t find the notion laughable, while I do. If our disagreement on this question boils down to differences in what we find funny or absurd, that’s ok–there’s no accounting for taste.Report
To engage with the arguments here in good faith, you cannot simply ignore them and repeat the same things again. The argument about reliance on consensus is circular – how do you respond? I already granted all your claims about medical consensus, and *even then* the legislators in US states passed trans care bans in defiance of (your redefined) medical consensus. They also, as a matter of factual reality, overturned the advice of the professional medical organizations and physician testimony they heard. The European research reviews and guidelines you presented for worship do not support the bans these US states passed, so regardless of how you happen to define medical consensus or the lack thereof, the simple point remains: US legislators passed trans bans in direct defiance of medical consensus.
The mystery is, why do you again insist there is no medical consensus, as if that constitutes a relevant, responsive answer to any of the issues here? Maybe let’s try a different way of putting it: Call the medical consensus the legislators actually heard ‘C’. Call the consensus (or lack thereof) you think they should have taken into account ‘D’. The trans care bans go against both C and D, so it doesn’t matter which country you think has the best health care advice.
Before I read this thread and what Christa P. above said about the connection between the free speech issues and the denial of medical consensus, it had never occurred to me before. Now I am beginning to see it. If someone (not you, but anyone) thinks advocates for gender critical views are being silenced, including the harm of self-silencing because dissent from the orthodoxy on trans issues is too dangerous, then it’s probably a short step to thinking dissent from the medical orthodoxy on trans issues is being ignored. What seems like consensus isn’t really consensus; what red state legislators are doing is simply broadening their scope to include dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy, and why shouldn’t they?
The problem is, that’s not real: no legitimate medical advice would result in the anti-trans laws these people are passing, even if it came from Sweden or England and differed from the testimony of doctors from the US orgs or local clinics. Until this issue is addressed, you aren’t engaging with the argument.
Please don’t attribute views to me that are not my own; we do not agree about what you said we did when it comes to the impact of gender critical philosophers.Report
I find it alarming that so many people are upset at the possibility that people they disagree with might be allowed to speak.
That means that this appointment is a good move.Report
If anyone is upset that people might disagree with them on who is allowed to speak, it’s the Tories.Report
This is admittedly hard to argue with.Report
Since the appointment is backed by prominent British fans of Ron De Santis, you might want to think about whether the label on the tin accurately reflects on what is inside.Report
I think that’s going to be hard to separate out from one’s take on the current state of academic freedom / free speech in U.K. universities. If you think it’s fine, and the supposed ‘problem’ is an astroturfed pseudoproblem, then of course you’ll treat this as disingenuous. If you think the problem is real and serious – even if also weaponized by illiberal voices on the right – well, politics makes strange bedfellows, and it’s going to be a harder call.Report
This guilt by association argument is really strange. Does DeSantis not believe that sky is blue? Does he not accept modus ponens? Should I now be skeptical about those things, if I learn that he accepts them?
I know what I think, and I couldn’t care less what DeSantis thinks. The fact that I might agree with him on something does not interest me in the slightest bit.Report
I actually think Chris Bertram’s advice – read literally – is correct. De Santis’s actions in Florida are good evidence that he is not a principled defender of academic freedom. If his allies support an intervention in the HE sector, then indeed ‘you might want to think about whether the label on the tin accurately reflects on what is inside‘.
So: think about it; look inside the tin at what the Bill actually says and at Arif Ahmed’s track record and statements. I’ve done that; I’m still in favor. But I’m glad I did it.Report
Ok, I agree that almost any information has some evidential weight. But, the way it was presented was as if it is strong evidence that this will end up in conservative censhorship. nd it doesn’t seem to me that is strong evidence for that.Report
It isn’t merely that someone who backs Ahmed also happens to like DeSantis, it is that both that person and Ahmed are active members of the same astroturf outfits which promote a particular policy agenda for higher education. Those outfits advocated for and designed the legislation under which the position of “free speech Tsar” with powers of intervention became a thing.Report
What are some of the “astroturf outfits” that Ahmed and DeSantis are both members of?Report
Guilt by association is when two people coincidentally share a property or view, not when they’ve willingly and intentionally teamed up.Report
Ahmed, in the _Unherd_ article Justin W. links to in the original post, discusses four cases as examples of the sort of apparent illiberalism at universities that he opposes:
1. “Lisa Keogh, then a 29-year-old law student at Abertay University, who in 2021 found herself under investigation for asserting that women have vaginas and that “the difference in physical strength of men versus women is a fact”. Younger classmates reported her for making “offensive” and “discriminatory” comments; these prompted a formal investigation into her conduct.”
2. “Imperial College’s harassment and discrimination policy” which “proscribes pretty much anything that anyone might find offensive — citing jokes about religious beliefs and rituals as an example. In effect, Imperial College is reinstating blasphemy laws. It is also frustrating the aim of university teaching, particularly in my own field, where shocking people out of deeply-held beliefs, or at least into critical reflection upon them, is really the point.”
3. “Steven Greer, a human rights scholar with an outstanding international reputation,” who “had for 15 years up to 2020 been teaching a human rights course at Bristol. Because Greer was critical of Sharia Law, Bristol Islamic Society complained, writing in a petition that the university should not permit a Professor to mention the Charlie Hebdo massacre in connection with Islam’s stance on free speech. Bristol conducted an eight-month inquiry before clearing Greer of all charges. But because of his teaching, he was subject to a social media campaign that made him fear for his life. On top of that, Bristol authorities restructured Greer’s course so as to make it, in their words, ‘respectful’ of the ‘sensitivities’ of the students on it.”
4. “A Times investigation this week has found that universities have been removing books from syllabuses, or making them optional, because of their disturbing content. Essex University, for instance, has permanently removed The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery, from its ‘Beginning the Novel’ module, for its graphic depictions of slavery.”
I see a great many cynical comments in this thread about the appropriateness of the Tories appointing someone to help combat the problem described here, but no suggestion of what, if anything, they propose to do instead about something that seems to be a major problem that has been worsening and spreading for some time. And, as so often happens, the result is very little productive discussion or even acknowledgement of the problem.
It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize, especially when what one is criticizing is an attempt to curb the worst excesses of one’s own side in a battle one is already committed to. It’s more difficult, but much more helpful, to make some alternative suggestions.
I wonder whether those who oppose this development might be so good as to specify here
1. Exactly how _they_ think these disturbingly illiberal trends ought to be dealt with, given that leaving it to the members of the university seems not to have effectively curbed the problem,
2. If they don’t find these illiberal trends (as exemplified by the four cases repeated above) disturbing, why they don’t,
3. If they somehow hold that the sorts of things described in these cases are not clear instances of illiberalism, why they think that,
4. If they think that Ahmed has misrepresented the facts in his summaries of these cases, what grounds they have for thinking so.
I don’t know why Justin Kalef can’t do his own googling …
Case 1: A tabloid report. Hard to know exactly what happened, but ime, sensationalist reports like this often turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Note that all it says is that there was an investigation following an allegation.
Case 2: Actually, this substantially misrepresents Imperial’s policy which doesn’t say that jokes about religion etc are ipso facto wrong, but that harrassment of individuals might take the form of telling some joke of this character (perhaps most likely as part of a pattern of conduct). Anyone with a little imagination should be able to see this. So no, jokes are not “proscribed”.
Case 3: Omits important context, which is that the complaint was almost certainly retaliatory for complaints by Jewish students against David Miller, who was actually fired. The campaign for Miller’s dismissal was waged by the same press outlets which complain about freedom of speech violations in other cases. Note that the complaint against Greer was actually rejected by the university, however deplorable other facts of the case were.
Case 4: I believe, from memory (as the link doesn’t work) that this report was subtantially inaccurate/misleading. It might be true to say that Whitehead’s book was on a syllabus one year and not the next, but not that the University of Essex as an institution took a decision to remove it. The Times ran a series of pieces on the alleged removal of books from syllabi but in all cases of which I’m aware the reality fell way short of what was alleged. Of British papers, the Telegraph and the Mail also do quite a lot of this re “trigger warnings” and the like.Report
Thank you, Christopher (if I may). My reason for asking is certainly not that I’m unable or unwilling to look things up, as you suggest it is. Instead, I’m trying to understand the principles others follow, since they often seem mysterious to me. I could look up all sorts of things on Google, including a variety of reasons or rationalizations for just about any point of view. But that would not help me understand what it is that you and others apparently take for granted.
But now you’ve taken the time to reply and give your reasons, which I appreciate, and I can try to understand your perspective.
_I_ take the view that freedom of inquiry must be preserved, particulary in academic contexts and even more so on matters that are likely to inform public policy.
I’m not sure you agree with me about that, but I hope we at least agree that these sorts of issues must be resolved in a principled manner, and not by some double standard. Unprincipled partisans really do not deserve our respect at all: they appeal dishonestly to this or that principle precisely when it suits them, and do none of the serious work of thinking through what is right or what is reasonable. They therefore have no motivation, and typically no experience, in considering issues from both sides, and this makes their conclusions so superficial and flimsy that they tend not to withstand any serious scritiny.
Minimally serious thinkers, it seems to me, always ask themselves the question, “But how would I feel if the situation were reversed?” For any case of, say, ‘woke’ pressure being exerted on a professor or student, we can keep in mind how we would feel about a parallel, but reversed, situation in which the pressure comes from an ‘anti-woke’ side (as in Florida under DeSantis). Those who take care to ensure that their principles are meant to apply to both cases are the ones we should take seriously. I hope you agree: this seems fundamental.
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on your responses:
Case 1: Ahmed discusses the issue of a law student who found herself under investigation for saying that ‘women have vaginas’ and that there are significant differences in strength between men and women (so that it would be inappropriate, in her view, to decide which sorts of people should be allowed to enter a women’s mixed martial arts tournament merely on the basis of gender self-identification). Your response is to dismiss the case out of hand on the grounds that it was just reported in a ‘tabloid’ (if you had been keen on ‘doing your own googling’, you could have found the sheriff’s discussion at 2022scdun40.pdf (scotcourts.gov.uk) ). You also say that, in other cases, you found such reports to be wildly inaccurate. Therefore, there isn’t any reason to discuss things further.
So: if the tables turn and trans activism loses its upper hand in the universities, perhaps in some ‘red states’, and a law student who favors trans rights has to undergo an investigation for her beliefs, you would be understanding of conservatives who laugh the whole off as an invention of scare-mongering partisan journalists, even as they fail to look up any of the details of the case? Is that what follows from the principle you endorse here?
Case 2: You brush off Ahmed’s worries about a university policy that could be used against anyone who says something about religion, etc. that makes people feel uncomfortable, since the policy does not clearly forbid all such things, and some critical discussion of religion, for instance, might not be deemed a violation of the policy: there’s plenty of room for interpretation. So, if I understand you correctly, there’s no reason to be worried about a policy that does not _expressly_ forbid doing a reasonable thing people are now wary of doing or saying.
There’s an obvious parallel case here already: the so-called ‘anti-CRT’ bills that have been passed in some US states with conservative legislatures. I haven’t read them all, but the ones I have read have never said “You may not teach anything by Kimberle Crenshaw” or anything else so specific: they more generally forbid teaching things that would make any students feel ashamed of their own race, and must teach historical issues even-handedly, etc. Despite this, many schoolteachers and even professors in those states say that they feel worried now that they could be deemed to have violated the law if they teach about the history of slavery, or that they might need to cover the Nazi holocaust from both sides, etc. By the principle you follow here, should we laugh in the faces of such teachers, pointing out that these things do not violate the letter of the law, so that they are “not proscribed” so long as they aren’t seen as constituting a “pattern of conduct”?
Case 3: Greer was publicly attacked by an Islamic students’ group and called an Islamophobe on social media for his course, despite the fact that (as you point out) the university’s investigation found nothing wrong with the way he was teaching it. Greer claimed that these public actions of the Islamic students’ group made him literally, physically unsafe, and was unhappy with the fact that the university did nothing at all to sanction the group that had unjustly made these strong accusations against him, and in fact revised his own course to eliminate the discussion of the Charlie Hebdo case. Your response to this is that we have nothing to worry about, since (you believe) the Islamic students’ group was probably motivated by an accusation against a professor who had apparently advanced anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
By parallel reasoning: Imagine that universities in some ‘red states’ begin investigations into professors the administration sees as ‘woke’, and those same universities do nothing in response to defamatory statements spread on social media by conservative student groups. When people begin to complain about this trend, defenders say, “This ignores important context. These anti-woke movements almost certainly arose in response to the woke climate of silence that prevailed in more or less all major universities until recently.” Should we see this as grounds for dismissing the concerns, do you think?
Case 4:The link Ahmed provided doesn’t work for those of us who don’t have subscriptions to the London Times, but a few seconds of googling(!) got me to the article. In fact, it doesn’t at at all seem to be that some irresponsible journalists made an unwarranted inference from the fact that “Whitehead’s book was on a syllabus one year and not the next”: the article points to a motivation to remove that book that was revealed in records of discussions obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. (https://twitter.com/thetimes/status/1557038004262391812?lang=en).
Perhaps, since you were unable to find the article by doing a bit of your own googling and commented on it in ignorance, it would be more fair for me to pass over this in silence.
If I’ve misunderstood the principles you’re working by in the other cases, I’d very much like you to clarify which principles you think we should follow in these cases, _regardless_ of which side is at risk. In other words, I’d like to understand the actual principles you advocate, if you’d be willing to provide them. Thank you. I swear, I haven’t been able to figure out those principles by any amount of googling, much as I’ve tried.Report
Case 2 I don’t think you’ve thought that through at all. The university provides guidance on what might constitute racial or religious harrassment and it is simply true that cracking jokes about Muslims every time the only Muslim in the class comes into the room would constitute harrassment.
Case 3. My own university and I can’t say more that I already have. But I did not say we have nothing to worry about. It seems to me that adminstrators are not in an easy place when students make a complaint since they can be damned for not investigating and damned if they do.
Case 4 In fact, on Essex and Colston Whitehead
You seem to have missed the point of my response. I’m asking what principles you follow, and suggest that others follow — principles that, as all principles must by definition, apply equally to both sides.
Case 1: Again, the question I asked is: “So: if the tables turn and trans activism loses its upper hand in the universities, perhaps in some ‘red states’, and a law student who favors trans rights has to undergo an investigation for her beliefs, you would be understanding of conservatives who laugh the whole off as an invention of scare-mongering partisan journalists, even as they fail to look up any of the details of the case? Is that what follows from the principle you endorse here?” I haven’t heard your answer to this question.
Case 2: Again, you haven’t answered my question, so I’ll repeat it: “There’s an obvious parallel case here already: the so-called ‘anti-CRT’ bills that have been passed in some US states with conservative legislatures. I haven’t read them all, but the ones I have read have never said “You may not teach anything by Kimberle Crenshaw” or anything else so specific: they more generally forbid teaching things that would make any students feel ashamed of their own race, and must teach historical issues even-handedly, etc. Despite this, many schoolteachers and even professors in those states say that they feel worried now that they could be deemed to have violated the law if they teach about the history of slavery, or that they might need to cover the Nazi holocaust from both sides, etc. By the principle you follow here, should we laugh in the faces of such teachers, pointing out that these things do not violate the letter of the law, so that they are “not proscribed” so long as they aren’t seen as constituting a “pattern of conduct”?”
Case 3: You refer to some inside knowledge, but I don’t see how it constitutes an answer to the question I asked. Here’s that question again: “By parallel reasoning: Imagine that universities in some ‘red states’ begin investigations into professors the administration sees as ‘woke’, and those same universities do nothing in response to defamatory statements spread on social media by conservative student groups. When people begin to complain about this trend, defenders say, “This ignores important context. These anti-woke movements almost certainly arose in response to the woke climate of silence that prevailed in more or less all major universities until recently.” Should we see this as grounds for dismissing the concerns, do you think?”
Case 4: As before, you seem to think that discovering the truth of these cases is a simple matter of googling reports and explanations from politically sympathetic sources. But for any alleged case of silencing or intimidation, there are politically biased sources who will insist that it’s just nothing, and politically biased sources who will insist that it’s an egregious and terrifying violation of basic rights. I don’t doubt that you or anyone else can throw links to such things back and forth with anyone you care to, but that doesn’t seem to help articulate what principles of policy, conduct, and evidence you favor — again, what I’m looking for here is the _principles_ you’re operating by, not the particular judgments you come to on this or that case.
It may be that Bertram and fellow travelers eschew appeal to principles of the procedural sort you have in mind.Report
Perhaps you’re right, Hieronymous; but few things are more damning than being guilty of a double standard. I prefer to give him a chance to show himself to be properly principled.Report
I wonder if you read the legal document from Case 1 that you linked? Because it makes Ahmed’s summary look profoundly partisan and dishonest. The case included allegations of disruptive behavior, shouting at fellow students and the instructor, reducing Black people to just their skin color, saying repeatedly that she believed trans women were men, and accusing the rest of the class of calling her sons rapists. This conduct resulted in a referral to a disciplinary investigation, which I think is hardly unusual given the set of alleged behaviors. But the disciplinary board accepted the student’s explanations, and the case was closed.
As a simple matter of classroom management, when a student is disproportionately dominating conversation and taking it in the same predictable directions, how do we proceed? Surely it isn’t a free speech crisis not to have the fourth or fifth round of “TWAM,” right?Report
Interesting, Athie. Thanks for this.
No, I hadn’t had time to read through the whole document — I just read a few bits and pieces. Now I’ve read much more and I can see that the Herald Scotland article that Ahmed refers to (and which may have been the only thing he read on the issue) oversimplifies the case for some of the reasons you say, though
Now that I’ve read much more, it no longer is clear to me that Lisa Keogh was investigated merely for espousing unpopular views, or even that she would not have been investigated if she had had very different views but otherwise acted in the same way.
You ask me how I think a professor should proceed “when a student is disproportionately dominating conversation and taking it in the same predictable directions.” It’s a good question, and a difficult one to grapple with. I think it’s best to consider them on a case-by-case basis. In general, I try to ask myself questions like these:
– Does the approach I’m considering here properly respect the university as a place of inquiry?
I should not shut down a line of argumentation merely because I don’t agree with its conclusion or because partisans from the other side are putting pressure on me to present things in a one-sided way. But not every time and place in university life are a proper avenue for disputing every question.
– Does the approach I’m considering here properly respect my professional duties as a teacher of philosophy?
University courses should not be taught in a partisan manner, unless somehow they are known to be counter-balanced by other courses each students is sure to take that are partisan in the other direction. But there are many reasons other than partisanship for restricting what students say in a classroom. You have to cover a certain number of topics in a clear way while teaching, and time is always limited, and time should only be given to discussions if the professor has good reason for thinking that this will make it easier for the students to learn the course material effectively. So there should not, I think, be any presumption that students have the right to make comments and speeches at all during class time, unless the professor has deemed that it would be profitable to have a class discussion or to respond to questions and comments; and even then, the professor should make sure that the comments help the students to grapple with the course material.
(When I tell students that it would not be relevant for them to open certain lines of discussion, or that there is no more time left for further comments, I always indicate a place where interested students could continue to discuss these things on our learning management system, but I don’t think that all professors should be obligated to do such a thing).
– Would I treat the situation the same way if the sociopolitical polarities were reversed? If a student begins to speak loudly and dogmatically on some hot-button issue, and this causes discomfort to those who take the opposing view, I immediately try to imagine how I would act if a student with the opposing view were to act in the same way in favor of her preferred view, and make people with the opposite views uncomfortable. I try to come up with a solution that I would be happy to follow, either way.
Generally, if I find the topic of discussion to be relevant to the course goals, I tend to permit it to continue (though I often caution the students to make sure that they are really approaching the matter philosophically, etc.) and if I find that the topic is not relevant, I say that we have to move on and bring the thing to a halt. Having now read the summary, I see that I might well have been inclined to shut down Keogh’s comments on the ground that they were disruptive, but not (as you seem to agree) because of the content of her beliefs.Report
In a comment upthread, Christa Peterson writes: “I am extremely worried about legislative and lawfare efforts to inhibit people’s ability to describe gender critical views as transphobic. Being able to take the position that something constitutes bigotry is obviously part of a free political society.”
Yes. And being able to take the position that something constitutes a threat to feminism and women’s interests (or however Stock phrases her position) is also part of a free political society.
So academics on both sides of this divide should be free to spend their time insulting each other — with one side calling the other transphobic bigots and the other side calling its opponents “woke-ish” enemies of women’s real interests, or whatever.
P.s. I’m not commenting on the UK legislation because I don’t know enough about the details of UK law and higher education policy. In the U.S., calling someone a “racist,” a “bigot,” a “transphobe,” a “narrow-minded adherent of wokeism,” a “moron,” an “anti-feminist,” “stupid,” or whatever, is, ordinarily, protected speech (unless it meets the legal standard for libel/defamation), and if academics in the U.S. want to spend their time exchanging insults — on blogs, on social media, or in the more decorous language used in academic journals — they should be free to do so.Report
I agree with Ahmed that “universities should also adopt institutional neutrality, scrap all ideological training for staff or students . . .” but I disagree that universities should “offer free-speech induction for incoming students, essentially saying: you can say what you like here, and so can anyone else; this is a good idea and you need to get used to it.” Ideological training in support of a particular views about free speech is not a good idea either.Report
I don’t see how a commitment to teaching students to mind the norms of free speech is relevantly similar to ideological commitments of the sort Ahmed is saying universities should be institutionally neutral toward. In fact, it looks to me like the former commitment is entailed by a commitment to institutional neutrality, given the university’s role as a place for unfettered inquiry.
Also, with regard to some of the claims you’ve made above: can you point us to places where Ahmed has said that students must “consent to being harmed”, or which indicate that Ahmed’s activities in fostering free speech “only serve to further amplify the deafening roar of speech that promotes injustice“?Report
Hi Maggie, thanks, that helps. Re. 1, I don’t see a basis for framing a commitment to free speech and open inquiry in the university, and fostering that commitment in students, as “pressur[ing] students to accept a particular viewpoint on a controversial ethical issue”. Given that one of the functions of the university is to promote open inquiry, students who wish to participate in university life need to be willing to comport themselves in ways that are fit for that participation. And this in turn is important for developing the social dispositions necessary for membership in an open society.
Re. 2, you’ll note there’s no reference to harm in what you quoted — Ahmed says students need to be willing to encounter legally expressed ideas they may find “shocking, disturbing, or offensive”. Because I don’t see how that amounts to harm, once again I don’t see a basis for framing things as you have. And thanks for the correction on 3. I think it’s important we try to be careful in talking about these things, so I appreciate the amendment.Report
The problem with these kinds of trainings, including the ones Ahmed doesn’t like, is that they are aimed at getting students to adopt certain controversial viewpoints. They end up pressuring conformity to ideology even if theoretically they could be ideologically neutral or free and open discussions of the issues.
Re 2, I think you might have missed my point. It doesn’t explicitly mention “harm” but the required consent would include consent to unjust harmReport
Thanks. What trainings are you referring to? And is there any evidence that Ahmed’s remarks on fostering a mindfulness for the norms of free speech is aimed at what you say these trainings are aimed at? Your gloss here doesn’t seem to square with the remark of Ahmed’s you objected to above, which was in favor of the idea that Universities should foster an attitude of “you can say what you like here, and so can anyone else; this is a good idea and you need to get used to it”.
Regarding 2, it’s good to know that in fact Ahmed did not say that a “prerequisite for attending University [is] that one consent to be harmed”. Instead, you think that Ahmed is committed to the implication that this is what students would have to consent to, because you think exposure to “shocking, disturbing, or offensive” material that is legally expressed may also be exposure to material that “unjustly contributes to serious harms”. It’s interesting that what was glossed by you yesterday as “harm” has today been referred to first as “serious harms” and now “unjust harm”. One might justifiably wonder whether talk of “harm” here was functioning as an incantatory device that blurred important distinctions (to adapt something Rorty said about Dewey’s talk of “experience”).Report
R1 What do you think he meant by a “free speech induction”? I don’t like the idea of the university telling students what they should think about a controversial ethical issue. Different universities call such things onboardings, trainings, inductions, or whatever. I was just using common administration speak in calling it a training. Don’t read too much into that.
Re 2, Don’t overthink it. My view is that Ahmed’s idea to require students to consent to harmful speech is a bad idea. On his proposal, they would be consenting to that.Report
So we don’t have any evidence that Ahmed’s commitment to teaching students to mind the norms of free speech is relevantly similar to ideological commitments of the sort he’s saying universities should be institutionally neutral toward, and Ahmed himself didn’t say that students have to consent to being harmed. Instead, the views you’ve attributed to Ahmed are your own, which appeal to the thought that teaching mindfulness of the norms of free speech is “ideological training” around a “controversial ethical issue”, and an unspecified (and gradually escalating) notion of “harm” that you think is entailed by being confronted with certain lawfully expressed ideas that might be found “shocking, disturbing, or offensive”. Thank you for the clarification.
I’m still of the mind that a commitment to respecting the norms of free speech in the university is entailed by a commitment to its institutional neutrality, given the university’s role as a place for unfettered inquiry. So I don’t see that the assimilation to “ideological training” of the sort in question is apt.
And I think the language we use to have these conversations is important, and worth getting clear on, so it’s been helpful to see what exactly you meant to be saying.Report
You are really trying hard not to understand what I am saying.Report
No, this is fine, thanks!Report
I couldn’t edit. So let me just point out that obviously I did not attribute to Ahmed my view that universities shouldn’t be offering inductions or onboardings or trainings (pick your fav) that involve trying to teach the “correct” views about controversial ethical issues like the scope of the right to free speech. My view is the reason I disagree with him. And Ahmed does want to require students to consent to almost any legal speech. That’s a fact. My problem with that is that some legal speech unjustly harms. I hope this clarifies my views.Report
ok, I’ll bite. What exactly is ethically controversial about free speech? Especially in this setting where it’s set out as legal speech, so no incitement to violence, defamation, etc.
And can you provide us with a couple of these unjust (as opposed to just?) harms that come from it? You seem a bit coy to give clear answers to this question for some reason.Report
He does say students should consent to being harmed – isn’t that the very thesis of the article? I take a fairly strong stance in favor of free speech and I’m not sure how this approach helps resolve the cases of conflict – as when an institution says its anti-discrimination policy treats some expressions of opinion as harassment, or someone who publishes their opinion thinks it shouldn’t be acceptable to call that opinion bigotry. It’s not as if one side or the other has given or should give special consent to be harmed by the shocking or offensive speech; presumably if one has then they all did, so we’re back at square one.Report
It’s clear he’s rejecting the suggestion that some of the things people are inclined to call “harm” are really harm. Notice the use of scare quotes throughout the article. I’ll repeat something I said above.
Another option would be to hold that talk of harm is most clearly warranted in reference to situations that involve physical violence, to grant that there are some conditions under which it is appropriate to call psychologically upsetting events harmful, and to maintain that much of what is psychologically upsetting fails to rise to the level of harm.
Setting aside that what Maggie refers to as Ahmed’s idea is nothing Ahmed has asserted, if we go this route then we can block the inference from “students consent to being in the presence of ideas they may find upsetting” to “students consent to being harmed”.Report
Okay, but I’m not sure why we want to do that when the article takes another approach. One question is the level of harm – Ahmed suggests some people mistakenly count lower level “harms” as higher level harms, but his central claim is that resolving such harm-level disputes “should depend on two things: the purpose of the university and the students’ own judgments, as expressed through their voluntary consent”. Consent is the determining factor. But haven’t faculty and students given the relevant consent to the “harm” of self-silencing Ahmed said arises merely from a trans person being on the faculty? Haven’t people who express views about identity consented to the harm of those views being judged bigoted or damaging?
(I’m not well informed about what goes on in the UK debate, however; my main concern is that whatever DeSantis and Texas are doing doesn’t spread too far.)Report
I think that’s exactly the approach the article takes. After raising the scare-quotes use of “harm”, Ahmed calls attention to the influence on higher education that’s been wrought by “the inflation of harm: the idea that by even discussing certain issues — even giving the impression that they are “up for discussion” — you are harming an audience whose identity thereby feels threatened“. Summarizing the events he discusses, he writes:
Then, he proposes a consent principle framed, not in terms of harm, but as follows: “students consent to the risk of exposure to ideas that are legally expressed in ways that they find shocking, disturbing or offensive; and that they understand that by continuing with the course they are implicitly renewing this consent”. So whereas he’s willing to adopt the language of “harm” at the outset, in the interest of illustrating the way the debate has been framed by some people, he’s clearly not endorsing that framing himself.
Concerning whether professors give consent to being self-silenced, I don’t see a conflict between helping students develop the emotional and cognitive sensibilities necessary to tolerate others’ discussion of lawfully expressed ideas at university, and fostering a more open environment where, because we are more tolerant of others’ views, people feel less inclined to self-censor. In fact, it looks to me like the former is a pretty good means to achieve the latter.
Finally, you ask about “the “harm” of self-silencing Ahmed said arises merely from a trans person being on the faculty”. I take it you are echoing Christa Peterson’s rhetorical question above “How is he [Ahmed] going to address the threat to freedom of speech that is 1 trans professor… existing?” If not, please let me know what you’re referring to. If so, this is another case where we’d be better served if the partisans of the different sides of this debate were more careful about what they said, and how they said it. I’ll quote the remark from Ahmed that Christa offered her gloss on. The first remark is Ahmed’s; the second is testimony from a student.
It is clear that “1 trans professor… existing” and “the “harm” of self-silencing Ahmed said arises merely from a trans person being on the faculty” fail to represent the concern that was expressed. As someone who has no firm view about the first-order ethical issues here, but who is very much interested in letting those who do have firm views express those views in conversation with others (including those they disagree with), so that we can collectively come to a better position on what to think and do, it is maddening to see things represented in this way. Report
I accept you have a reasonable interpretation of Ahmed’s article, although I do think harm remains in the framing. Setting that aside, I honestly don’t know what misrepresentation you think occurred in the case of the trans faculty member causing people to walk on eggshells and self-silence. Ahmed cites this as one of the problems that has spread, and I don’t think his point is that the student reporting the testimony is the source of the problem here, given that their perception that people are walking on eggshells or trying not to say something wrong has caused them so much personal grief.
How are we supposed to be interpreting this? A trans person is on the faculty. A student is upset because the student now perceives people to be walking on eggshells, and the student reports self silencing and personal upset. Where is the problem Ahmed is concerned about, If this isn’t it?
Where is the free speech problem?
People will have to find a way to cope with a trans person being on the faculty, I don’t know what else to say. Nobody’s free speech has been squelched.Report
Well, reading beyond the first sentence, this is the way the student glosses the problem. It’s clearly presented as one of a lack of viewpoint diversity, not one that arises “merely from a trans person being on the faculty”. Suppose the faculty member had been Caitlyn Jenner, for instance.
Honestly, when you presented the issue as you did, I thought Ahmed must have said something outrageous. So when I tracked it back to Peterson’s remark about “1 trans professor… existing”, and then compared that with what the student testified, I was truck by the disjoint. I appreciate that you or she might be inclined to frame things as you did, but it’s not an accurate representation of the concern the student voiced.
From where I sit, this appears to be a recurring problem in the discussion. The conversation would be better served if more care was taken in representing what people are saying.Report
The relevant portion was left out: “there is a transgender woman professor, and the staff seem to be treading on eggshells because of it. Debate is no longer alive within my university.”
No longer alive because there is a trans woman professor? How else are you reading this, to reach the conclusion that it’s a sloppy representation of what people were saying? Why isn’t Ahmed’s response here that the student consented to the “harm” of people walking on eggshells around the trans professor? That would be consistent with his responses to the other cases, so why doesn’t that happen here? If the student had reported that people were being attacked for the things they said or were unable to have discussions without descending into vitriol, then it would make more sense. But I don’t know how to read this any other way besides: there is a trans professor and now people have to watch what they say and it’s terrible. Why would a free speech person report this as a problem case, other than to point out the student has signed up for exactly this and needs to get past it?Report
As I said, reading beyond the first sentence it’s clear that the issue is one of a lack of viewpoint diversity. And as I also said, I don’t see a conflict between helping students develop the emotional and cognitive sensibilities necessary to tolerate others’ discussion of lawfully expressed ideas at university, and fostering a more open environment where, because we are more tolerant of others’ views, people feel less inclined to self-censor. In fact, it looks to me like the former is a pretty good means to achieve the latter.
I’m afraid at this point I don’t see much more to be gained from the exchange. Thanks for the willingness to have it!Report
I don’t see where Ahmed is using this example to argue that viewpoint diversity is necessary to preserve the environment conducive to free speech. There’s one causal claim: that people are walking on eggshells because there is a trans professor. Why ignore that part and substitute another claim that isn’t even made here?
Given what Ahmed says in his “consent to be hurt” essay, I’m genuinely curious why his response to this wasn’t that the student needed to develop a thicker skin in the boxing arena of ideas.Report
I think it is clear that I what I am saying is that I think it is a bad idea to offer a “training” for incoming freshman that essentially tells students: “you can say what you like here, and so can anyone else; this is a good idea and you need to get used to it.” This is precisely what Ahmed recommends. I disagree with him. I don’t think students should be told that the idea in question is good. They should figure out for themselves what they think about it. Disagree if you like.
As for consenting to be harmed, you and Ahmed may have a narrow understanding of the word “harm” but don’t expect me to use the word as narrowly as you do. (I do wonder if Ahmed doesn’t like the subtitle of his article: “students should consent to be harmed”.) But that is not really the issue. Obviously, I do not think that students should be required to consent to the range of speech that Ahmed thinks they should be required to consent to. I don’t think they should be required to consent to speech that could include professors in the classroom saying that more students should sleep with their professors, or that God should go fuck Himself, or that they should all go home and commit suicide, or that the disabled should all be euthanized. Disagree if you like, or demonstrate that I have misunderstood Ahmed’s position, but don’t misinterpret me to be claiming that Ahmed wants students to consent to these things specifically. Obviously, that would be to miss my point.Report
I was objecting to the assimilation of fostering mindfulness regarding the norms of freedom of expression to “ideological training” of the sort Ahmed was calling out in the passage of his you quoted. You’re of course free to deny that such mindfulness ought to be fostered.
And titles for essays in popular venues are rarely up to the author, unfortunately. Click-bait is often what drives the decision. At any rate, we’re agreed that you’re using a notion of “harm” that Ahmed rejects as too broad. Thankfully, he was explicit in stating that what students are expected to consent to is “the risk of exposure to ideas that are legally expressed in ways that they find shocking, disturbing or offensive”.Report
Thanks, but I was already aware of the fact that authors don’t always choose their titles, I still wonder what Ahmed thinks of the subtitle. (I honestly don’t know). I still think that students should not be required to consent to the range of speech Ahmed wants them to consent to, which would include harmful speech of various kinds. Frankly, I think it’s a really terrible idea to require such consent. And I still object to trying to train students to have a particular view on free speech. You can tweak your description of the idea all you want, but what admins call “trainings” should, on my view, be restricted to factual matters, not value judgments that are controversial.Report
Thanks, Maggie for the video link of Ahmed’s views on the right to offend, and Christa for providing some of his quotes and writings.
It seems to me that Ahmed can’t or won’t make up his mind: 1) allowing students and faculty the right to offend while 2) worrying about students and faculties self-censoring themselves because they’re being called names or bigots for doing 1).
Even when he claimed to be an almost free speech absolutist, he sure has no problem coddling and supporting the offenders from the offendees’ counter-offensiveness towards them. Therefore, he’s committing a kind of Motte-and-Bailey Fallacy.
Furthermore, the commentators here (who have so much faith in Ahmed’s supposed track record and character) fail to see this subtle hypocrisy or practical contradiction Ahmed committed.
Freedom to offend affects all political affiliates. Both leftists and conservatives leave academia because of it simply because there are thinned-skinned people in all groups. If Ahmed is truly an almost free-speech absolutist, then he would accept and resign himself to the paradox or double-edged sword of freedom of speech (and to offend) instead of trying to eliminate it. Coddling thinned skin people (whether they’re conservative, liberal, leftist, or whatever) by forcing or suggesting offendees to be friendly or soft-spoken to the offenders is not consistent with a strong free-speech stance.
Will Ahmed be able to live with the paradox or will he keep making inevitably conflicting claims due to his past and current stance on free speech? And given such a conflict in his views, feelings, and advocacy, should we still trust him to *truly* advocate for free speech and academic freedom?Report
Redundant, I’ve heard this line many times before, but I don’t yet see how it’s meant to work.
The idea, I take it, is that there’s some clear and unresolvable inconsistency in the free inquiry idea. But what is this inconsistency?
The free inquiry idea doesn’t entail that one can do or say absolutely anything. It says that there are at least certain topics that we can legitimately explore as academics (and as private citizens), and that, in order to explore them, all sides must be free to present all the relevant arguments, evidence, and objections they think, might have some bearing on the issue.
There are all sorts of topics, including many of general public interest, that should be open to exploration of this sort in academia. But clearly, any topic on which some academics have produced acknowledged scholarship (including the topics of immigration, feminism, race relations, and so on) are proper topics for academic inquiry, and the principles of free inquiry should apply there.
But, obviously, not all moves that could possibly be made in the course of such a discussion are protected under the umbrella of free inquiry. For instance, if someone shows up at a colloquium with a hammer and threatens to strike anyone who disagrees with him during the Q&A, that threat (and any attacks with the hammer) are not protected under that umbrella. The threat and the violence do not in any way help us to figure out whether the thesis under discussion is true or false. Quite the contrary, the violence and the threat of violence make it _harder_ for the participants to discover the truth.
Threatening to injure someone with a hammer for disagreeing is not the only action that positively impedes free inquiry. Calling 9-1-1 with a false report whenever someone disagrees with you, or threatening to make a fake and very public accusation of wrongdoing, would also inhibit the resolution of the issue while contributing nothing to the rational justification of any conclusion on the issue at hand. Blasting a loud stereo so that nobody can hear what is being said also falls into this category, as does threatening to publicly use a highly inflammatory term like ‘racist’ or ‘transphobe’ against anyone who opposes one’s claim.
Is what I just said meant to contain an inconsistency? If so, then what is it, please? And if not, then what’s this paradox you’re talking about?Report
Ahmed does distinguish between harassment and offensiveness in the video. The example you provided is considered harassment and even threat and so is irrelevant to this discussion.
But again, his idea of offensiveness is still vague. In the US, you can’t really go to jail for calling somebody an “asshole”, “transphobe”, or even just “stupid”. Most insults are protected speech here. If a bunch of students gossip about a professor and calls them such insults because they think the professor’s speech constitutes such, then that can be paradoxical. It’s paradoxical insofar as the professor might be thinned skinned and may resign because they feel those words don’t represent them or their views. And trying to police basic insult isn’t consistent with strong free speech advocacy.
It’s his burden to tell us which forms of speech should be legally protected and which isn’t and why. Otherwise, he’ll make himself seem non-committal. The grey areas are obviously the basic insults which Christa and others have talked about.Report
No, it isn’t. And no, he won’t. You’ve not shown there’s any inconsistency or paradox in advocating for programs that help students develop the emotional and cognitive sensibilities necessary to tolerate others’ discussion of lawfully expressed ideas.Report
His stated views seem to entail this:
“Trans women are fetishists” is good free speech. TW just need to endure this for the higher purpose of free inquiry.
“Gendercrits are bigots” is a reprehensible threat to free speech and inquiry. GC’s are silenced and might self-censor because of it.
If he wants to educate students on a version of free speech that entails such judgments, he’s just pushing his particular version of free speech, no better than the “indoctrination” he criticizes.
If he does not want to do this, he owes an explanation of what it is he wants to do.Report
OntheMarket, could you please give a source for this alleged claim of Ahmed’s that ‘Trans women are fetishists’? I’m pretty sure that’s not a verbatim quote. I haven’t found anything like it by googling. Thanks.Report
I did not say that he said that, I said he’d have a particular attitude towards someone saying this.Report
Why would he think this is “good” free speech as opposed to free speech that’s important to allow?Report
I’d be happy to say it like thisReport
You said that his stated views seem to entail it. I wish you’d tell us which stated views do so that we can figure out whether you’re making a plausible inference or just free associating according to your background assumptions.
It’s getting harder and harder to see what this allegedly fatal inconsistency of Ahmed’s is meant to be. So far, it seems to be: Ahmed is in favor of free inquiry, and yet he has also apparently said something unspecified that has led you, through some unstated reasoning you’ve engaged in, to the conclusion that “he’d have a particular attitude toward someone who would say” something you’ve made up, and which for some as-yet-unclear reason lies, or so you claim, in unresolvable tension with his stated commitment to free inquiry.Report
“is good free speech”
The crucial part went missing.Report
I said his view entails a particular assessment of this claim, which I indicated. I don’t know whether you are being accidentally or willfully obtuse about what I said. Others seem to have no problem with understanding it.Report
On the Market, I’ve been trying to extend the principle of charity to you and allow you to present your view in a way that makes more sense than your last statement of it does. But if this is the best it gets, I’ll respond to what you’ve said already.
I’ve already explained the position that seems most reasonable to me and others: free inquiry is to be defended, in academia among some other places, in cases where there’s a topic of general interest being discussed. In particular, people should not be prevented from making arguments or objections or from presenting evidence, nor should those on one side of the issue be intimidated into silence by the threat of character assassination leveled against anyone who argues for that side.
Now, if what you’re talking about is someone walking up to a bunch of trans people and shouting, “You’re nothing more than a bunch of fetishists!”, then I’m not sure why it follows from what Ahmed has said, or from what I’ve said, that the right to say such a thing should be defended. Pointing in people’s faces and calling them fetishists, if that really is all you’re talking about, does not seem relevant to this discussion. It does nothing to advance any sort of inquiry into any issue of importance. It merely insults people for no clear benefit. And as many people have tried to explain to you, and as Ahmed already makes clear, that is not the sort of speech that a commitment to free inquiry seeks to defend.
So I’m really not sure why you brought this up or what it has to do with anything. If you’d like to explain, please go ahead.Report
If repeatedly and egregiously misrepresenting what I said in a way that really isn’t possible for a reasonable reader, ignoring two clarifications, and not even apologizing for misunderstanding me is your version of charity, then I hope never to see you in an uncharitable mood.
Here it goes:
1. Ahmed has repeatedly, in word an action, supported speech and inquiry that has been characterized as aggressive, offensive, and silencing by trans people.
2. He has also repeatedly spoken against speech and inquiry that has been characterized as aggressive, offensive, and silencing by gendercrits.
So, one wonders what coherent position underwrites this disparity. What about the first kind of speech/inquiry makes it worth defending, and what about the second kind of speech/inquiry worth prohibiting?
I get the sense that you might think that the first kind is scholarly and the second kind is not. But you might want to note:
a. That it is very much a matter of dispute whether gender critical work meets typical standards for scholarship. And already THIS debate is characterized as “silencing” by Ahmed eat al.
b. That noted scholars have responded to gender critical claims (e.g. Talia Mae Bettcher on this very blog), and this was ALSO characterized as “silencing”.
Thus, and this is the “paradox” others have been discussing, even if Ahmed elaborates a coherent view that delivers the correctness of 1 and 2, he would still be thereby taking a particular stance on theoretical matters. A “free speech course” with the purpose to induce this view into students would therefore be no more neutral, no less propaganda, than any other such “training”.Report
Ah — now that you begin at last to flesh out what you’re talking about, it becomes clearer what’s going on.
The standard I’ve been mentioning, and which I presume is something like what Ahmed has in mind, is that people should not be prevented from engaging in free inquiry on a topic of general importance, whether by direct silencing or by intimidation.
Your two claims here fail entirely to consider the relevance or necessity of what is said to _inquiry_. And then they go wrong in yet another way: they confuse what *is* silencing with what is *taken to be* silencing.
Look, anybody at all can make all sorts of claims that something is silencing when it isn’t. A utilitarian can claim that any anti-consequentialist statement is so profoundly disrespectful that no utilitarian could abide to listen to it, and hence that its mere utterance constitutes silencing (since it clears the room of any interlocutors). And an anti-utilitarian could play the same game against the utilitarian, if the standard depended on what one *considers* to be silencing.
That’s why no reasonable person would take that to be the standard. As Ahmed himself says, discussing an issue seriously requires that both sides try to put aside their personal feelings and examine the questions impartially to the best of their abilities. That’s what philosophy is all about.
If someone threatens to mount a campaign of vitriol against you, demanding that you be fired and rallying others to cause you serious professional damage merely for espousing a certain view on an issue that it’s relevant to inquire into, that counts as silencing and should not be permitted.
But if nobody is doing this and you merely feel sad and depressed when you have to grapple with the opposing ideas on some issue, then you might choose not to engage in that philosophical discussion, but that would not count as ‘silencing’ in the relevant sence. Nobody is refusing to allow you to present your views, and nobody is threatening to destroy your career because of your views.Report
Ok, let’s go abstract for a second. I’m sure you’re familiar with the paradox of tolerance: to maximize tolerance one must be intolerant of intolerance. But that’s a conundrum. One must be intolerant of intolerance, but of course not intolerant of the intolerance of intolerance. It is practically very hard to distinguish the bad intolerance one should not tolerate from the good intolerance (of intolerance). In any case, one cannot lay down a blanket prohibition of intolerance.
The same goes for free speech: to maximize free speech one must silence silencing. Same conundrum: one cannot lay down a blanket prohibition on silencing (= speech aimed at making someone else shut up, for present purposes), as some instances of silencing (namely the silencing of silencing) must be allowed. But it is practically very difficult to determine which is the good silencing.
Let me highlight the practical difficulty to you.
I might hold the view that someone’s view is fascistic, misogynist, or transphobic. This is a legitimate philosophical inquiry (what is fascism etc are questions in the scope of philosophy).
That someone might claim that my assessment of their view is silencing them, as their colleagues read my work and are now distancing themselves from them. They complain about my work to the free speech tsar, who writes to my department to stop me, silencing me.
In this case, I’m being silenced by the claim that I’m silencing someone, according to the criteria you outlined. I’m just arguing my view, so the target of the view needs to suck it up.
But, returning to the real world, there’s reason to believe that this is the actual situation we are in, with the “someone” being the gendercrits and the “me” being their academic critics.
Appealing to intent is not going to help: are X’s critics trying to silence X, or are X claims of being silenced trying to silence X critics? (For X being, e.g., Stock or Peterson).
Not will appealing to vitriol: the point of my initial example, that you refuse to grapple with, was that not just both parties have equal feelings, but that both can marshal justification for being the silenced party. I don’t see why, e.g., “bigot” would be vitriolic, but not “pervert”.
Ahmed has given every indication of being unaware of this complexity that is engendered by the paradox.Report
Wouldn’t the context make all the difference? Are we exploring a philosophical question, or just offering personal criticisms of people who disagree with us?Report
Well are we? What if I am exploring the theoretical question of what is transphobia and use other people’s views to apply my account? Am I exploring a theoretical question or just offering personal criticisms?Report
I would be surprised if that’s supposed to be ruled out in principle if the conclusion is genuinely part of a legitimate philosophical inquiry. I find it hard to imagine an actual case where it would be, be that might be a failure of my imagination.Report
Is it “personal criticisms” to call someone’s view transphobic or bigoted or hateful? I ask because people sometimes want to rule out statements like these on free speech grounds, because they are supposedly personal attacks, while maintaining the original views expressed are still protected on free speech grounds. I don’t know if that is your view. However, I don’t understand why robust defense of free speech doesn’t include expressing the opinion that someone’s view is bigoted or even that a person is bigoted.Report
It does sound like personal criticism rather than the exploration of some philosophical point.Report
Are you saying shouldn’t be protected free speech, If I believe a particular view or article expresses bigotry, to go ahead and say so?
I don’t take Ahmed’s approach to university free speech, but if someone delivers comment on an identity issue, on this approach have they not consented to the harm of being told their opinion is bigotry?
Personally, I encounter many examples of people who want to be able to say bigoted things without being called a bigot in return, or who want to express bigotry without being told that their view expresses bigotry. If one is free speech then so is the other, and I think both are free speech.Report
It would presumably depend on the circumstances. If the claim about bigotry is somehow relevant to answering a significant philosophical question, then it might be ok. Otherwise, it might be an irrelevant attack on someone’s character.Report
You don’t need to imagine. Christa Peterson was invited to give a talk about her analysis of the gender critical movement. This was, on part of the GCs, universally regarded as “silencing”.
Ahmed seems to share this assessment, which is one reason for my making these claims about himIm.Report
I’m not clear on what philosophical issue is being addressed by an analysis of the gender critical movement. Is there an important philosophical question that we’re looking to answer?Report
Are you saying her speech should have been censured, or that calling for the students who invited her to be censured was not silencing? I don’t know if that’s what you’re saying, but if so, how is there not an enormous contradiction between saying it’s okay to present gender critical views, but not okay to give a speech criticizing those views or the movement that produces them? I’m honestly so puzzled by this, I wish somebody could explain. Reading this thread more closely and discovering what’s been going on is like a trip through upside down land. The people you would have assumed were defending free speech somehow think it’s okay to block the free speech of a person giving a speech!Report
“What is gender critical philosophy and what are its origins?” is no less philosophical than the same question asked about, say, stoicism or analytic philosophy. If the answer is that it is nonsense and it’s origins are bigotry, that’s just what the inquiry delivers. But that doesn’t make the question any less philosophical.Report
That a view has “origins in bigotry” is not an argument against it. That would be ad hominem. So it doesn’t sound like an interesting philosophical issue. It seems more like a personal critique of people.Report
I didn’t say it’s an argument against it, I’m said that a view originated in bigotry might be the veridical outcome of a scholarly inquiry into the origins of a particular view.
You didn’t engage with my claim that “What is gender critical philosophy and what are its origins?” is a valid subject of inquiry.Report
That should have read “but that might be a failure of my imagination”Report
Perhaps you would care to give concrete examples of 1. and 2. so we can see whether Ahmed is doing as you suggest.
So far all I have seen is Ahmed defending academic inquiry into gender matters that some groups wish to shut down, while also speaking out against harassment and bullying.
Perhaps you can point to an example of Ahmed defending the bullying and harassment of trans people?Report
Christa Peterson (above) adduced all the needed evidence, I believe.Report
Evidence that he supports the right of philosophers to argue for a gender-critical position? Are you saying that that position, in itself, constitutes bullying and harassment? I do wish you’d be clearer, and I’m sure I’m not alone.Report
I do wish that you’d stop putting words into my mouth. You’re either a troll, or exceptionally careless.
Nowhere did I say anything of “bullying and harassment”. Greg asked for evidence for my 1 and 2, which were:
“1. Ahmed has repeatedly, in word an action, supported speech and inquiry that has been characterized as aggressive, offensive, and silencing by trans people.
2. He has also repeatedly spoken against speech and inquiry that has been characterized as aggressive, offensive, and silencing by gendercrits.”
Christa gave evidence that includes Ahmed supporting speech that trans people find offensive (etc) and rejecting speech that gcs find offensive (etc).Report
I responded earlier to this, but it seems to have got lost in the shuffle and never appeared here. To repeat what I said before:
1. Greg Guy asked you this question: “Perhaps you can point to an example of Ahmed defending the bullying and harassment of trans people?”
2. Three hours later, you replied directly to that question, saying: “Christa Peterson (above) adduced all the needed evidence, I believe.”
Those are both direct quotes.
When someone asks for an example of A, and someone else replies saying that B contains all the needed evidence, do you understand why a reasonable person would understand you as saying that B contains, or points to, an example of A?
I can’t really make it simpler than this.Report
Greg asked me for evidence for my 1 and 2, for which I referred him to Christa’s post.
He, inexplicably, also asked me for examples of Ahmed condoning bullying and harassment, which had nothing at all to do with what I said, so I ignored that request. If that wasn’t clear initially, it should’ve been clear after I stated which request I was responding to.
At this point I’m hoping you lot are being intentionally disingenuous because the alternative is just… sad.Report
I was surprised to discover that this person apparently considers the mere presence of a trans faculty member on the staff a cause for concerning silencing of other faculty and students through self-censorship. I have no idea how that could be a violation of anyone’s free speech.
In the US, a recent example is the legislator barred for using the phrase “blood on your hands” to describe her legislative colleagues who banned trans care. Is this a silencing phrase in the academic context as well, an unserious insult not protected as free expression? Or is it the kind of shocking view we consent to by participating in university life?
Some speech people don’t like is called “deplatforming” to distinguish it from the good speech but I don’t know where that line is. When is speech wrongfully asking to “shut down” other speech? Does it “shut down” speech via self-silencing, simply to be a trans person on the faculty? Would be nice to near a clear no from anyone tasked with line drawing.Report
Laura, of course it does not “shut down speech via self-silencing, simply to be a trans person on the faculty.” But why think that Ahmed would be saying anything so ludicrous?
Here’s what happened. Ahmed provided evidence in support of a bill before Parliament. Among much other evidence, he quoted this from a website, as he explains:
“5. The problem spreads far beyond Cambridge. This website collects anonymous testimony from self-censoring academics and students across the UK. For instance, one writes:
I’m a student at a U.K. university… [where] there is a transgender woman professor, and the staff seem to be treading on eggshells because of it. Debate is no longer alive within my university. Debate is only allowed for prescribed topics and talking points, almost all of which represent a narrow…. too far left viewpoint. As someone who falls on the centre left, I find this troubling…. As an openly gay man, I felt plunged back into my school days where I was forced to keep aspects of my life, my sexuality, to myself lest I say the wrong thing (even to play devil’s advocate) and find myself the subject of abuse, which I would not be able to tolerate. I suffer with mental health issues and I could not handle that stress. So I too, am silent.””
As you can see, the student — who is an openly gay man and falls on the center left — nonetheless complains about having to silence himself in a university environment in which, he reports, debate is no longer alive, only a very narrow range of viewpoints can be discussed, and even arguing for alternative conclusions in the role of devil’s advocate could make one the subject of abuse, which would cause intolerable stress. Since this was an anonymous report, we don’t know why the student mentioned the trans professor: perhaps the trans professor is one of the ringleaders keeping the environment this hostile to open inquiry, or perhaps the professor has not done anything bad but, thanks to a deeply intellectually intolerant philosophical climate within the department, that professor’s pronouncements have been given so much weight and power to destroy people who might argue for the wrong things that the student and others feel that they must hang on every word of the professors and hastily rush into emphatic agreement. Or maybe it’s something else. We don’t know. But it really doesn’t seem to be the main point of what the student is saying, or Ahmed’s reason for quoting the student.
I mean, which of these do you think is the most plausible explanation for why Ahmed quoted the student :
1. Because Ahmed wants to provide a number of accounts of the poverty of discussion and free inquiry in departments within the UK, which should be devoted to the fair and objective exploration of a range of topics? Or
2. Because Ahmed, despite having said nothing at all to confirm this interpretation, has suddenly decided to include in his evidence for a climate of self-silencing a bizarre new claim, which he never argues for or states, according to which the mere existence of a trans professor, even in an otherwise healthy environment, is a constant impediment to free inquiry throughout that professor’s department, so that it becomes necessary to… what… fire all trans professors? Could anyone seriously believe that _this_ is what Ahmed not only believes (which would be amazing enough) but actually means to argue for by providing all this evidence to Parliament?
The student writes that “because of” their “[being] a transgender woman professor” there is a climate of “treading on eggshells”.
It doesn’t get much clearer than that, no? Because of someone being there, there is a problem.
Ahmed quotes this apparently with endorsement.
You might find it implausible that someone would think someone else’s existence is a problem. Surely people cannot be this evil or delusional? But you might not know how bad things have gotten in the UK.
It’s not too uncommon in these circles to see the mere existence of trans people as a problem. For instance, Ahmed personally invited Helen Joyce to speak at Cambridge, who is on the record for saying that every single trans person is “huge a problem to a sane world”.Report
Why think that the student sees the problem as being that the professor exists? Why not take their concern to be that they will offend the professor?Report
Because he literally wrote “there is a transgender woman professor, and the staff seem to be treading on eggshells because of it” and I’m assuming he’s using “because” with its usual meaning.
Don’t know what to tell you.Report
I’m also using “because” with it’s usual meaning.Report
Wouldn’t the appropriate response to this from Ahmed’s point of view be that the student has signed up for intellectual boxing matches and must take the risk of offending people, just as the other person has consented to the potential harm of being offended? Yet it’s being cited as a concerning example of self-silencing. What possible remedy could exist for this case? Justin Kalef is right to raise this question, but I don’t think it’s a rhetorical one. If the student had said debate is squelched because people are fighting or trying to have other people censured, the complaint would make sense. As stated it doesn’t make any sense.Report
Laura writes: “Wouldn’t the appropriate response to this from Ahmed’s point of view be that the student has signed up for intellectual boxing matches and must take the risk of offending people, just as the other person has consented to the potential harm of being offended?”
I don’t think that follows, Laura.
Imagine that we are living in a world in which people are so touchy about anything they perceive as an insult that they take a terrible vengeance on anyone they interpret as having offended them, brutally murdering them and their entire extended family. This goes on for generations until someone finally suggests that there be a special place where people can go to talk things over without the terror of being brutally murdered with their families hanging over everyone’s head. The rule is that, once you walk into this sacred space, you are agreeing not to exact some horrible blood vengeance against people you deem to have insulted you in the space. If you are not prepared to forego this revenge, you may not enter.
All of a sudden, one would imagine, people could have conversations they could never have had before. Those conversations would have many benefits. Some people might not like to take part in the conversations. Fine — those people should be respectful enough not to enter.
Suppose that, some day, someone enters, gets offended by something, and decides to slaughter the person he deems to have offended him, along with that person’s entire family. In defense of his actions, he says “Well, if I have to put up with being offended by this person, he has to put up with the consequences of offending me.”
Would you really think that that follows?
University is a sacred space in which we are permitted to inquire into the nature of things without worries that we are going to be subjected to blood vengeance, blasphemy laws, and so on as a result. One of the rules is that you should not be personally and professionally destroyed just for doubting something or just because your sincere attempts to discover the truth of some matter of general importance or interest have rubbed someone the wrong way.Report
If arguing that a bigoted view is bigotry somehow were akin to bloody slaughter or simply threatening someone’s professional livelihood, then perhaps I could understand better. In my experience what happens when a view is termed bigotry is nothing, except perhaps criticism of the person who called it bigotry. Worst case, your local legislator might think about enshrining the bigoted view into law or censuring those who call it bigotry. In Florida they probably won’t let you talk about it in school. I grant you that the world in the UK is probably quite different from what I experience, but I see the same pattern expressed here.Report
Seriously. Sometimes we have to take people at their word. He could have said the debate was over due to hostility and vitriol, or that no comments could be made around the transgender prof because the university was unfairly punishing people – then the comment might make sense. The student says *because* of a trans prof, they perceive walking on eggshells and the end of debate. Nothing else is offered to explain it.Report
First, even if the student *did* mean to say that the mere presence of the trans professor was already sufficient to put a stop to the genuine exploration of properly philosophical questions in his department, it would not follow (nor does it seem at all likely to me) that Ahmed, in quoting the student’s entire comment, is trying to promote that idea. I would bet a large sum of money against that. If that _is_ what Ahmed meant to say, he would presumably have no problem clarifying that, since this is a quote from something he submitted to Parliament, and it would be bizarre to would have done so if he had wanted his words or their meaning to be secret.
But okay, let’s leave Ahmed aside for a moment and consider just the one statement the student makes at the beginning of the quote, and ignore the rest, as so many people here seem to insist we do.
Imagine a parallel case: someone makes a claim about me, saying, “Someone who teaches in our department has the initials JK, and the faculty seem to be treading on eggshells because of it.” Because of the initials JK? Why would that cause people to walk on eggshells around me? Why should anyone care what my initials are? Similarly, why should anyone care whether the professor is trans or not? There have been transgender people for a long time, and for most of that time people did not seem to tread on eggshells because of it. Quite the opposite, as I think most people who know the relevant history would agree! So what is going on here?
In the JK case, some background information could make sense of what is going on. Perhaps some strong local social power has been granted to anyone with the initials JK, such that certain words of criticism from someone with those initials would suffice to socially and professionally destroy someone, and perhaps there is no way to resist or recover from this. Perhaps, in addition, some people with the initials JK have used this terrible social power against some people who violated some non-intuitive conventions that seem initially arbitrary but that everyone else quickly agrees to as soon as some people with the special initials appeal to them. That would make every interaction with a person with those initials a terrifying prospect for most people. Moreover, maybe in this department the person with those initials has given verdicts on a range of philosophical issues, and everyone is now scurrying around to line up behind what this person thinks.
In a department, or university, or general academic climate in which people with the initials JK had such terrible powers, I would not find it too surprising to hear someone say that my presence in the department had made everyone walk on eggshells and shut down debate. I would not interpret that as an attack against me — who am I, after all? — but rather against a system of social and intellectual intimidation that makes things worse for everyone, even me. Incidentally, if I were in that situation, I would take the lead in calling a halt to it, and doing would I could to _remove_ the terrible power from myself, demonstrating that people had nothing to fear from me, that I am happiest when people feel comfortable disagreeing with me, and so on. I would want to put them at their ease so that we could do some philosophy together as equals.
Similarly, if there is some problem at that student’s university that has to do with the presence of a trans professor, it could be that the professor is blameless. Actually, it would be very difficult for a professor, acting alone, to create such an awful climate. What the student describes seems attributable, instead, largely many other people, who have acted (or neglected to act) in ways that resulted in a destruction of the philosophical climate.
To put it another way: the solution to the problem the student mentions in that initial sentence — and, again, it seems to me to be the least important sentence in the quote Ahmed uses — is not to remove or punish the professor or anything like that, but just to work to restore a climate of free and open discussion in which the student, the professor and everyone else can thrive philosophically.Report
Here’s an alternative, much more likely version:
It is not the case that JK initialed people have terrible social power, but the student is afraid of you because he bought into an insane conspiracy theory, inexplicably pushed by so very concerned academics, according to which JK initialed people both have this power and exercise it at the slightest provocation.
Because what possible circumstances could confer such power onto you? Nevertheless, the student takes the very presence of a JK to be a threat, on these deeply confused grounds.
In this situation you couldn’t want this power taken away from you, as you don’t have it. You’d want the people peddling the conspiracy to please stop demonizing you, your peers to take a skeptical look at JK critical philosophy, and just go back to living a normal life.
But every time you speak up and say, “I don’t actually have this power, please stop listening to the people claiming that I do, I’m just a human who wants to live in peace” someone claims that you’re silencing them. They’ve now tabled legislation to curb the threat of JKs on free speech.
Now do the obvious substitution and, for the love of all that is good in the world, do. you. see. what. this. dispute. is. about.Report
Just to confirm: you’re saying that what the student said is preposterous because, in fact, trans activists have no social power in academia to harm anyone’s reputation, or at least such a thing has never happened, so the student must be either lying or deluded and in fact you can already tell that the people in the student’s department are perfectly free to raise gender-critical questions and doubts without any trouble?Report
I’m saying that it is preposterous to use this students testimony as evidence for there being some vicious silencing going on.
You had to go on a four paragraph flight of fancy to arrive at an interpretation that does not paint the student as bigoted or paranoid.
It is preposterous to leave these two alternatives (that is, bigotry or paranoia) off the table. For if one of them is true and discussing them is prohibited, look at my adaption of your initials case, and feel the Kafkaesque horror that trans people would find themselves in.
You earlier wrote “free inquiry is to be defended, in academia among some other places, in cases where there’s a topic of general interest being discussed”.
What made someone regard the mere presence of a trans person on the faculty regard as a threat seems to be a topic of general interest, there should hence be free inquiry.
It is preposterous to restrict this inquiry to the alternative that trans people have mysteriously obtained immense social power.
There are at least two, at least equally good alternatives:
(i) that it is mere bigotry that someone would regard the mere presence of a trans person on the faculty as a threat
(ii) it is a paranoid conspiracy theory that trans people have this immense social power (the conspiracy theorists call it “institutional capture”)
It is preposterous to prohibit discussion of (i) and (ii) as live alternatives. But that’s just what Ahmed wants, because he considers such discussions to be “silencing”.
As me and others have argued at length, he therefore seems to have a rather impoverished view on the complexities of free speech and silencing.Report
A suggestion, Justin. A few people here either can’t or won’t bring themselves to understand that the issue the student was calling attention to was not that “the mere presence of a trans person on the faculty” was a “threat”, but rather a lack of viewpoint diversity in his or her intellectual community. That’s a pretty straightforward reading, it best explains why Ahmed would have included it in his testimony, it avoids having to suppose that either Ahmed, the student, or the people who recorded the testimony are moral monsters, and it fits with a pattern that people from across the political spectrum have been calling attention to for nearly a decade. If the political valences were swapped, I suspect people would find it easier to grok that reading.
At any rate, whatever the source of the reluctance to admit it, there doesn’t seem to be much gained in going round-and-round with the reluctant.Report
Thanks, Preston. I never like to have to give up on discussions with people who disagree with me: people always tell me that they are bewildered by how long I try to find some common ground or move things toward at least some sort of resolution. But you’re right: at a certain point, one just has to throw in the towel, and now is as good a time as any.
I think some people on the other side of this discussion are raising interesting points, but at least some of the prominent contributors simply don’t know the relevant empirical facts and are committed to such uncharitable and strange readings of everything put before them that it would be very difficult to get them to acknowledge what is going on. If someone wants to say that the intolerant and threatening attitude often exhibited toward gender critical people is warranted, okay, at least that’s something we can discuss. But if someone denies that any such attitudes exist, and that it’s just a massive, delusional conspiracy theory to think that any trans activists ever take a bullying approach toward their critics, and then insists that all sorts of people hold extreme positions they clearly do not, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do but hope that this is not a representative sample of our fellow philosophers.
Fortunately, from the recent discussion here about the Byrne fiasco, it seems clear that it is not a representative sample. So, reluctantly, I think I should take your advice and just give up trying for now with the rest.Report
“uncharitable and strange readings of everything put before them that it would be very difficult to get them to acknowledge what is going on”
This is very rich coming from someone whose reaction to me claiming that Ahmed would regard a particular utterance u as protected by free speech by demanding that I provide evidence that Ahmed uttered u.
I got into this debate because I can’t stand by the shocking intellectual insincerity of putting the “silencing” lens only to what is happening to gendercrits and never to what is done by gendercrits. The utter credulity with which half the profession jumps to the defense of a gendercrit whenever they shout “I’ve been silenced!” across the entire British media has become unbearable.
Alas it seems I did not make a dent.
To conclude: Justin, there are empirical facts we disagree on, re the actual things going on. Unfortunately you treat your empirical belief as presupposed, whereas I am just asking you to treat my empirical belief as a live alternative that is worth considering.
Unless you let go of your presupposition, at least for the sake of argument (and the Lord knows I’ve given you every chance), this is indeed pointless.Report
My politics are that it’s free speech to state your controversial view and it’s also free speech for someone to call it bigotry. How does that figure into this equation?Report
If people actually have this tremendous power to damage those who hold bigoted views, why are they using it so rarely?Report
I find it inconceivable that a trans person has this kind of power to destroy lives and careers simply by existing on the faculty, or potentially by complaining if they don’t like what someone said. Granted the UK is probably different from my daily life. Still, why would we go through such contortions to interpret something that has a plain meaning? People are walking on eggshells now and debate is dead, because there’s a trans professor. Maybe people need to get ahold of themselves and consent to the risk of offending someone by expressing their views. Isn’t that what Ahmed is saying?Report
Just to clarify: I don’t think that a trans professor could take on the sort of power we are talking about. What I do think is that there are systemic problems in some academic (and non-academic) environments in which activists have succeeded in making conversations on many topics impossible. I think the fault for that does not lie with professors who happen to be trans, but rather with a number of intolerant activists (and not activists are intolerant, and not all trans people are activists at all, and not all activists are trans) and also the unwillingness of others to preserve an environment of free inquiry, etc.
If you simply don’t know about any cases in which this has happened, I would be glad to supply you with some.
You ask why the power to destroy people has been used so rarely. But there are many precedents for this. For instance, as memory serves, a student at the University of Edinburgh was hanged for blasphemy a couple of decades before Hume’s time. Someone might say, “Come on, that’s just one person hanged out of all those students and professors: sounds like a pretty open academic environnment, otherwise.” But that would fail to consider what the one hanging tells us, and what it would also tell the students at the time and for a long time afterward.
If you were to see that one of your fellow students was hanged as a punishment, or had his or her reputation utterly ruined, then that would tell you not just something about the person who did the hanging but about the whole system that permitted it. _Nobody_ in any position of authority stepped in and put a stop to it? _Nobody_ pointed out that this is an outrageous punishment for causing religious offense? All the students around you are just nodding along and saying nothing about it, knowing that they’d better keep their mouths shut? The silence speaks volumes, and is infectious.
The reason just one blasphemer needed to be hanged in Edinburgh is that the single hanging was already effective in getting the message across and preventing further blasphemy.
This is just what makes intimidation and silencing so effective.Report