Srinivasan on Open Letters, Protests, Free Speech, and Academic Freedom


Amia Srinivasan’s specialty, it seems to me, is making sense of moral ambivalence: detecting, dissecting, and sometimes defending its reasonability, even in the face of unavoidable and urgent decisions.

[“Knot” by Anni Albers]

In a new piece at the London Review of Books, she turns her attention to the tangle of issues surrounding student protests, free speech, and academic freedom.

It begins with the matter of signing open letters:

An open letter​ is an unloved thing. Written by committee and in haste, it is a monument to compromise: a minimal statement to which all signatories can agree, or – worse – a maximal statement that no signatory fully believes. Some academics have a general policy against signing them. I discovered that was true of some of my Oxford colleagues last year, when I drafted and circulated an open letter condemning Israel’s attack on Gaza and calling for a ceasefire. Some, like those who are in precarious employment or whose immigration status isn’t settled, have good reasons for adopting such a policy. Others understandably don’t want to put their name to something that doesn’t perfectly represent their views, especially when it might be read as a declaration of faith. I always cringe at the self-importance of the genre: though open letters can sometimes exert influence, stiffly worded exhortations hardly suffice to stop states, militaries, bombs. And yet, a ‘no open letters’ policy can serve as a convenient excuse when one is hesitant to stand up for one’s political principles.

Srinivasan has signed several open letters about Gaza, and recently signed an open letter committing her to “an academic and cultural boycott of Columbia University”, owing to how it handled student protestors. Then:

In April​ I was asked to sign a letter opposing the University of Cambridge’s investigation into Nathan Cofnas, a Leverhulme early career fellow in philosophy. A self-described ‘race realist’, Cofnas has written widely in defence of abhorrently racist – particularly anti-Black – views, invoking what he claims are the findings of the science of heredity.

She shares her many reservations about signing the open letter, but also her reason for ultimately signing it:

Do we think that students should be able to trigger investigations into academics on the grounds that their extramural speech makes them feel unsafe? Do we want to fuel the right’s sense of grievance towards the university, when their minority presence within it is owed to the robust correlation between education and political liberalism, not some Marxist plot? Do we want to empower university administrators to fire academics on the grounds that they are attracting negative publicity? Do we think there is any guarantee that a further strengthened institutional power will only be wielded against those whose views and politics we abhor? If we say yes, what picture of power – theirs and ours – does that presume?

But that’s not the end of the discussion, for there’s the question of whether her taking a principled stand is her also being a sucker for her political opponents:

‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ are, for many on the right, ideological notions, weapons to be wielded against the left and the institutions it is (falsely) believed to control, the university most of all… [and] the free-speech brigade has… found justifications for the draconian repression of student protest.

There’s also the question of the extent to which the “free speech brigade” understands how academic freedom and freedom of speech come apart, or how even different considerations in favor of free speech might be in tension with each other:

After signing the letter criticising the investigation into Cofnas, I was written to by someone from the Committee for Academic Freedom, which bills itself as a non-partisan group of academics from across the political spectrum. He asked me whether I might consider signing up to the CAF’s ‘three principles’. I looked them up: ‘I. Staff and students at UK universities should be free, within the limits of the law, to express any opinion without fear of reprisal.’ ‘II. Staff and students at UK universities should not be compelled to express any opinion against their belief or conscience.’ ‘IIIUK universities should not promote as a matter of official policy any political agenda or affiliate themselves with organisations promoting such agendas.’ I thought about it for a bit. I’m on board with Principle II, so long as we don’t think that asking staff and students to use someone’s correct pronouns is akin to demanding they swear a loyalty oath. Principle I is problematic, because it doesn’t register that academic freedom essentially involves viewpoint-based discrimination – that indeed the whole point of academic freedom is to protect academics’ rights to exercise their expert judgment in hiring, peer review, promotion, examining, conferring degrees and so on. And Principle III would prevent universities from condemning, say, Israel’s systematic destruction of universities and schools in Gaza, which I think as educational institutions they are entitled to do.

Discussion welcome, but read the whole thing first.

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Jonathan Kendrick
16 days ago

This perfectly articulates thoughts I’ve had for some time. I share Srinivasan’s reservations about punishing academics for their “extramural speech.” However, like her, I also think that many free speech orgs articulate principles I find questionable. Many free speech orgs seem to think that academic freedom should include a right to promote pseudo-science without consequences. Unless we want an academy filled with Lysenkos, this is a very bad precedent. For example, I personally would not have defended Cofnas, because, in my opinion, he is engaged in a pseduoscientific endeavor to make race science respectable again.

Last edited 16 days ago by Jonathan Kendrick
On the Market Too
On the Market Too
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

The relevance of “endeavor” is a tough question. 

On the one hand, it seems useful for excluding bad-faith actors trying to leverage X for bad ends, while avoiding punishing the debate of X itself. (Note: I don’t know enough about Cofnas to say whether this applies to him, but we can just keep this at the level of principles.) However, it seems risky because it introduces factors irrelevant to X’s justification for punishing debating X, which, given current support for weighing impact over intent, would put us in the Lysenko territory of suppressing “harmful truths” (i.e., genetic evolution should be aired, regardless of whether it’s “counter-revolutionary,” because it’s sufficiently justified).

Confused Junior
Confused Junior
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

The sticking point, though, is that it is sometimes controversial whether a line of inquiry is or is not pseudoscientific. There can be legitimate debates about this, debates in which universities should not take stands by, say, restricting academic freeeom to pursure lines of allegedy pseudoscientific inquiry and disseminate one’s work to the public. (For what it’s worth, I am in complete agreement with you that race “science” is pseudoscientific. I only disagree that this suffices to support a restriction on freedom to conduct inquiry in the area.) This is perhaps compatibile with supporting restrictions on freedom to pursure inquiries that are uncontroversially pseudoscientific, but I suspect there will be precious few cases of this sort.

Last edited 15 days ago by Confused Junior
ehz
ehz
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

Suppressing speech is not the right way to deal with ‘Lysenkos’.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  ehz
15 days ago

I’m not sure what Jonathan Kendrick is actually claiming. It seems to me like being maximalist about academic freedom is precisely how to keep universities from being filled with Lysenkos; letting other principles dictate who gets a right to talk, teach, conduct research, and so on, is how you get Lysenkos. So I’m a bit confused. Which academic freedom organizations construe academic freedom as including “a right to promote pseudo-science without consequences”?

Last edited 15 days ago by Nicolas Delon
Confused Junior
Confused Junior
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
15 days ago

This is a good point. Although I’m not the commenter to whom you are responding, your response applies equally to my own comment above. I understood Jonathan to be suggesting that it is permissible to curtail academic freedom to pursue pseudoscientific inquiries. You are right to note that this is not obviously what he meant. Perhaps he meant instead that academics should be free to speak out against others whose work they find pseudoscientific or otherwise shoddy (and perhaps that they should speak out in this way), without taking a stance on what universities themselves should do?

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Confused Junior
15 days ago

Perhaps he meant instead that academics should be free to speak out against others whose work they find pseudoscientific or otherwise shoddy (and perhaps that they should speak out in this way), without taking a stance on what universities themselves should do?

Perhaps, and that’s a good principle, but also one that I don’t think any major academic freedom orgs are opposed to. In fact, I’m not sure Srinivasan is especially charitable in reading that Committee’s Principle I.

She writes,

Principle I is problematic, because it doesn’t register that academic freedom essentially involves viewpoint-based discrimination – that indeed the whole point of academic freedom is to protect academics’ rights to exercise their expert judgment in hiring, peer review, promotion, examining, conferring degrees and so on.

But the principle only says: “I. Staff and students at UK universities should be free, within the limits of the law, to express any opinion without fear of reprisal.”

It seems obvious to me—but maybe I’m too naive—that what they mean by “reprisal” does not include academic consequences such as criticism, manuscript rejections, job rejections, failure to receive promotion or tenure, and so on. No organization that I’m aware of disputes that viewpoint discrimination of that sort—namely, based on the quality of one’s discipline-relevant work—is unobjectionable, indeed a core part of academics’ job No one suggests that Cofnas has a right to a job or publications.

Last edited 15 days ago by Nicolas Delon
Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
15 days ago

Well, I don’t think it’s obvious to everyone. When Alex Byrne’s pronoun piece, which, in my opinion, as someone who’s a philosopher of language who works in formal semantics, was an extremely dubious, pseudoscientific attempt to marshal data from linguistics to support his own prior political beliefs, was rejected, there was a massive outcry. So, I believe that some people do construe “reprisal” this broadly.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

There was an outcry because there was a perception—whether or not it was accurate—that the decision had to do with external pressure, not with the merits of the piece. I have no stance on this particular example, but (1) no one is saying Byrne has a right to have manuscripts accepted no matter what; (2) I don’t recall academic freedom organizations were part of the outcry (maybe I’m wrong). Do you have other examples in mind?

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
15 days ago

One way to know whether someone is taking a principled stance is to look for consistency across cases.

For example, are only certain kinds of articles or speech being targeted as being “extremely dubious” or “pseudoscientific”?

Base rate neglect makes us all bad at reasoning from individual cases, especially those that get blogosphere attention. Looking at those, it seems to me that broadly conservatish positions (on gender, identity, abortion, homosexuality) tend to receive this kind of outcry more than traditionally liberalish positions. I add “ish” to both because even things that would typically be understood as liberal positions (e.g., Tuvel’s article) could become conservativish if it runs afoul of specific ideological commitments.

If I’m right about this (and we would really need data not anecdata to show this) then it would turn out that language about dubiousness or pseudoscience isn’t really principled but instead is working as a proxy for something else (in-group / out-group status, ideological differences, etc).

One of the reasons I’ve come to respect people like David Wallace (and even sometimes Brian Leiter) is that even when I strongly disagree with them I can see how and why their positions emerge from their principles. It’s what I would expect from any serious academic and a bare minimum from a philosopher.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
15 days ago

Agreed. ‘Pseudoscience’ is a confused term. There’s good and bad science, and peers can perform the relevant sort of discrimination. Pseudoscience might be a thing but it’s too ill-defined a concept to be ascribed any important role here.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
15 days ago

When you’re making prescriptive claims, e.g., the Tuvel paper, I agree that talk of pseudoscience isn’t especially useful. But, when you’re making descriptive claims, we can often establish whether or not those claims are true. If you read the published version of Byrne’s pronoun piece, nearly every positive claim he makes is immediately contradicted in a footnote with an example produced by a referee. This seems to show that the paper is motivated, not by a genuine scientific desire to understand the semantics of pronouns and gender-marking on pronouns, but instead an unscholarly attempt to reverse engineer a scientific justification for his political beliefs.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

Hi Jonathan,

I take your point. I’m not an expert in Phil Language though I’ve done enough STS / Philosophy of Science to be cautious toward anyone who claims that there are objectively true scientific claims that don’t include any normative elements. I’m not saying that all descriptive claims are prescriptive or normative but I think there’s a lot of normativity hidden in our scientific / descriptive language.

That may very well be the case here Re: Byrne and his claims.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
15 days ago

“ I’m not an expert in Phil Language though I’ve done enough STS / Philosophy of Science to be cautious toward anyone who claims that there are objectively true scientific claims that don’t include any normative elements.”

A bit off-topic, but that seems quite radical. “The Sun is 75% hydrogen, 25% helium”? “Birds are descended from dinosaurs”? “CP violation requires at least three quark families”?

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  David Wallace
15 days ago

Let’s just say that I’ve known enough “turtles all the way down” constructivists to at least get me to understand the idea that descriptive claims about the sun could be understood as being made relative to some set of human interests and not necessarily reflecting some sort of mind independent reality.

I don’t go there myself but I’ve been walked from A to Pluto enough to understand how someone could.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
15 days ago

Sure, I appreciate that there are people with that view- I just don’t think it’s remotely plausible in, say, cosmology or particle physics. Feel free to be cautious of me!

Julian
Julian
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
15 days ago

A higher base rate is however not itself indicative of bias or lack of principle.

For instance, perhaps “broadly conservatish positions” are just so unsupportable by respectable means that pseudoscience and sophistry (and crying about it when called out for pseudoscience and sophistry) is all that the conservatish can realistically do to defend their views in an academic context. If so (I find this quite plausible), we would expect conservatish papers to be routinely called out, but not due to unfair bias.

Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
15 days ago

That characterization of the events seems correct. However, at the time, I found it troubling that many refused to even take seriously the possibility that Byrne had engaged in poor scholarship. I can’t think of other similar examples (at least in philosophy) of where the person’s work was rejected for reasons of quality and there was a massive outcry about freedom of expression, but the Byrne incident made me worry that this could become a common occurrence.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

Hi Jonathan. Upthread you write:

If you read the published version of Byrne’s pronoun piece, nearly every positive claim he makes is immediately contradicted in a footnote with an example produced by a referee. This seems to show that the paper is motivated, not by a genuine scientific desire to understand the semantics of pronouns and gender-marking on pronouns, but instead an unscholarly attempt to reverse engineer a scientific justification for his political beliefs.

This accusation was surprising, and that essay had been on my “to read” list for a while, so I read it today. There are 91 footnotes in the published version, and only notes 69 and 70 refer to referee input. In both cases, the referee points out uses where a deictic singular “they” is acceptable when the referent’s sex is unknown. But Byrne in that passage is evaluating whether singular “they” is acceptable as a general singular pronoun even when the sex is known, which he concludes it isn’t, so those examples don’t contradict what Byrne concludes. And indeed it would be odd of Byrne to include references to counterexamples that contradict what he’s concluding!

Having said that, I do grant that the claim before footnote 70 could have been rephrased to avoid the appearance of a conflict. Either way, did you have other cases in mind where Byrne’s claims are supposedly contradicted by referees? Or have you perhaps come up with other cases where you think academic criticism was treated as a “reprisal” in the sense that the Committee for Academic Freedom’s Principle I is meant to exclude? I confess that I read the principle in the “obvious” sense that Nicolas Delon gives, as opposed to the sense that you (and Amia Srinivasan?) appear to be imputing to it. So if there are indeed cases that support your reading, I’d be interested in hearing about them.

At any rate, concerning why Byrne’s essay received such attention, I suspect it had less to do with a refusal to tolerate academic criticism as a justified “reprisal” and more to do with the appearance that the reprisal in question wasn’t due to academic criticism, but was instead politically or ideologically motivated, as Byrne indicates in his first footnote, which I reproduce here:

This paper was originally an invited chapter for The Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language, which is why it is structured like a survey. After receiving the invitation, I wrote to one of the two editors, “Just to be clear on the assignment. This is an entry about issues like: whether (or why) we should call Demi Lovato ‘they,’ or Elliot Page ‘he’; whether we should call everyone ‘they,’ etc.? … Obviously I’ll try to keep it respectful but I should warn you in advance that any balanced and frank discussion of this topic is bound to annoy some people. (I won’t be offended if you want to reconsider.)” The editor replied, “All systems go. Thank you for agreeing to this.” Subsequently, the other editor implied on Twitter that my chapter would not be published, and I was told that a contributor to the Handbook had threatened to withdraw her chapter if mine appeared. In the end, my chapter was rejected, with no possibility of revision.

And I should perhaps note, I say all this without staking a claim one way or the other about the conclusions Byrne comes to in that essay.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Preston Stovall
15 days ago

Thanks for doing the homework – that comment about nearly every positive claim being contradicted in a footnote by a referee didn’t match my recollection of the paper but it’s some while since I read it.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  David Wallace
14 days ago

Happy to help.

Alex Byrne
Alex Byrne
Reply to  Preston Stovall
11 days ago

Thanks to Preston for actually bothering to read my paper. The referees in question were referees for the Journal of Controversial Ideas, where the paper was published, not the original invited venue (The Oxford Handbook of Applied Philosophy of Language).

David Wallace
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
15 days ago

Many free speech orgs seem to think that academic freedom should include a right to promote pseudo-science without consequences. Unless we want an academy filled with Lysenkos, this is a very bad precedent.”

Notoriously, of course, the spread of Lysenkoism was because Stalinist Russia was insufficiently unwilling to fire academics whose views were seen as problematic.

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  David Wallace
15 days ago

Is this sarcasm? I can’t tell!

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Prof L
15 days ago

I think it is sarcasm, except that D. Wallace probably meant to write “insufficiently willing,” not “insufficiently unwilling”.

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
15 days ago

Yes, typo. (And yes, sarcasm.)

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
15 days ago

That’s a really well-written essay.

I don’t sign open letters because I “don’t want to put [my] name to something that doesn’t perfectly represent [my] views.” In other words, I don’t think I can sign something that I don’t agree with 100% (or 90%+?), and there’s nearly always something I find cringeworthy in open letters–including, most often, tone.

Another thing I’d mention about open letters is that they’re often very unclear about specific, empirical details. E.g., at Columbia, the specific details of the encampments matter (cf., TPM restrictions), who said what to whom matters, what the other side’s best version is of its story, and so on. They’re just handwavy and uncharitable, often. And trade on overarching moral hyperbole.

ajkreider
ajkreider
Reply to  Fritz Allhoff
14 days ago

This is a high bar. I mean, I’m not 100% convinced of some of the things I’ve written in articles that have been published (under my name).

QQQ
QQQ
15 days ago

I’m curious, is Srinivasan a moral particularist? Just trying to understand her perspective in the context of her normative ethical theory.

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
14 days ago

It’s a great article, but – unfortunately – marred in one part by some quite inaccurate claims about my colleague Steven Pinker, and about the Boston Globe article he co-wrote with my other colleague Jeff Flier. While it’s true that Steve did not sign the letter defending Jodi Dean, that’s because, um, he didn’t *know* about it until he read Amia’s essay; Steve and I have talked about this, and he noted that “If anyone had asked me, I certainly would have signed.” (This does not surprise me at all. While Steve and I disagree about plenty of matters related to academic freedom and the threats to it, I admire him greatly for, among other things, the steadfastly scrupulous way he sticks to principles.) Steve also noted to me – quite accurately – that in the Globe article Amia discusses, “Jeff and I did not call the protesters ‘poisonous to the university’s mission’; that sentence referred to the possibility that a university would adopt policies by capitulating to threats. Nor did we argue that demands chanted in rhyming slogans were exceptions to policies protecting free speech (assuming they were not disruptive); we argued that they were inconsistent with norms of civil discourse that universities ought to promote.” I wish Amia had been a little more careful in this part of her discussion.

Quentin Crain
Quentin Crain
Reply to  Ned Hall
13 days ago

Did Pinker really say this? “Jeff and I did not call the protesters ‘poisonous to the university’s mission’; that sentence referred to the possibility that a university would adopt policies by capitulating to threats.”

Of course he did. Who is “capitulating”? (The uni.) Who is “threat[ening]?” (The protestors.) What is the “threat”? (The uni being “shut down”.) Will this against the mission? (Yes, as the uni wont be able to deliver education — its mission — when “shut down”.)

Or do I have a reading comprehension problem?

From Claude.ai:

PROMPT:

In the text I will be giving you, please help me understand:

1. Who are the poisoners?

2. Who is poisoned?

3. What is being poisoned?

Here is the text:

The problem is that the protesters would not be content with these outlets. The scope of their actions and content of their chants (e.g., “If we don’t get it, shut it down”) make it clear that their goal is not persuasion but coercion. They aim to make campus life so unpleasant that the university will capitulate to their demands. And this underscores why universities must not indulge them: It is poisonous to their mission.

REPLY:

In the given text, the terms “poisoners,” “poisoned,” and “poisoned” are used metaphorically rather than literally. Let me explain:

1. The “poisoners” in this context are the protesters. The author suggests that the actions and behavior of the protesters are harmful or toxic to the university environment.

2. The entity being “poisoned” is not a person but rather the mission of the university. The author argues that giving in to the protesters’ demands would be detrimental to the primary purpose and function of the university.

3. What is being “poisoned” is the university’s ability to carry out its mission effectively. The author implies that the protesters’ actions, if successful in coercing the university to meet their demands, would undermine the university’s core objectives and principles.

In summary, the author uses the metaphor of poisoning to suggest that the protesters’ tactics and goals are harmful to the fundamental purpose and values of the university, and that the university should not give in to their demands.

grymes
grymes
Reply to  Quentin Crain
13 days ago

I’ll be honest that, having not read the Pinker & Flier article, and generally being a bigger fan of Srinivasan than Pinker, I both hoped and expected that you were right after reading the first two paragraphs of your comment.

But then I read the quotation.

They aim to make campus life so unpleasant that the university will capitulate to their demands. And this underscores why universities must not indulge them: It is poisonous to their mission.”

By far the most straightforward interpretation of these two sentences, it seems to me, is that universities indulging protestors by capitulating to their demands is poisonous to the missions of those universities. (I can’t say that Claude.ai being on your side moves the needle for me w/r/t this judgement.)

With all that said, I agree with Mohan Matthen that this is a small mistake in an excellent piece.

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  grymes
13 days ago

Yes. I wouldn’t blame Claude here, or count it as being on Quentin’s side on this interpretive question. Asking “who are the poisoners?” in the prompt amounts to poisoning the well. (I know it’s a stretch but I couldn’t resist.)

If the sentence had been “they are poisonous…” rather than “it is poisonous…” then “who are the poisoners?” would be a natural question, and “the protesers” would’ve been the answer. But with “it is” rather than “they are” it’s clear that what’s being called poisonous isn’t a group of people, but something else. And the previous sentence makes clear what that something else is.

Mohan Matthen
14 days ago

Great piece by Srinivasan, and putting aside a possible small mistake regarding Pinker’s motives in not signing a letter, I find it very hard to disagree with anything in it. With respect to Cofnas, though, it does have to be said that the “Let him have his free speech” approach is relatively painless because he doesn’t have a permanent position. (Put aside for a moment the people who feel unsafe because he had a postdoc at Cambridge.) But what if he had been the Knightbridge Professor? Or (difficult as it is to imagine this of the current incumbent) what if the Knightbridge Professor had asserted these views? Then, the issue would have been a little more difficult, no?

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
14 days ago

I don’t see any way of preserving the function of academic tenure that doesn’t require us just to accept the risk of things like that.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  David Wallace
14 days ago

Perhaps you are right, but it does seem to me that any Department’s/Faculty’s functioning would be severely compromised if a leading figure suddenly became a raving racist. It would be as or more damaging to the University’s key functions of teaching and learning than any encampment–and a much more long lasting one, given academic tenure. Are you saying that Cambridge would just sit by and accept that for the next twenty years (or maybe more if mandatory retirement was abolished) one of the leaders of its Philosophy faculty believed and preached that black representation in the University would fall to near zero if based on merit?

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
14 days ago

Suppose your main aims are to ensure that, at your university, issues are examined as fairly and rigorously as possible, and also to maintain your university’s reputation for doing this well. However, a prominent faculty member at your university comes to believe and espouse some view, P, which is (or is believed to be) false, dubious, and/or a cause of offense.

Which of the following would be worse for the functioning and reputation of your university?

1. Others at your university raise their challenges against the claims of this professor, and the professor’s original claims and new replies are weighed against the force of those challenges, so that everyone can see that the professor is given no free ride.

2. The professor is told that he had better abandon his belief that P, apologize, and then assert that he now believes that not-P, or else he’ll be fired. Then, if he continues to assert that P, he gets fired and the university makes clear that there is a set of positions, including P, that will not be tolerated there, so everyone had better fall in line with the preferred beliefs.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Justin Kalef
14 days ago

You tell me. The holder of a famous old endowed Chair at your historically important, academically first-rank Department in your nationally significant University says in public venues that blacks are inferior and would not have been appointed to more than one or two positions at your University except for affirmative action. Is action against this person more damaging, all things including reputation considered, or tolerance. (Remember that given the principles behind academic freedom, the University can’t mobilize opinion to combat said Chair holder.) I would think that it would stain the way that people think of the Cambridge of Russell, Wittgenstein, and Sidgewick. More importantly, it would ruin the ability of Cambridge to recruit top undergraduates to Philosophy.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
13 days ago

Part of what makes this counterfactual difficult to assess is the asymmetry of the positions, which results in asymmetric responses. If an endowed Chair were to become a “race-realist” late in his (or her) career, the significance of the position and the presumed eminence of the figure in the field would, I suspect, lead the scholarly community to, where necessary, mount rebuttals to the view. Should the figure persist in espousing them, and prove himself unable to respond to the rebuttals, he’d be relegated to a backwater of academe. While he might get a second wind by grifting his way through the race-realist circuit, I don’t can’t imagine he’d have much of a career left. To echo David Wallace, insofar as we have tenure I think that’s just something we have to live with. And all that seems to preserve the aim, as Justin put it, of being a university that investigates issues as fairly and rigorously as possible

If that’s right, and to use your terminology, then it seems action against a person in this situation, beyond the normal dialectical and critical action that constitutes the free investigation and exchange of ideas, is more harmful than tolerance.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Preston Stovall
13 days ago

Both of you have interesting points of view. I’d be interested to know what David Wallace or somebody else more knowledgeable than me about Oxbridge politics thinks. My intuition is that these universities would not tolerate an undergrad recruitment crisis–and since they admit undergrads by major, such a person would hurt them in this way. I am non-white, and when I was at that age, everybody more or less took it for granted that non-whites were inferior. That was not comfortable. I would not have liked my children to go to a university where a big figure in their department preached about the inferiority of non-whites.

About Jodi Dean, I don’t know enough about her views to feel confident of what I would like to say, so please pour scorn on me if I’ve missed something. But my understanding is that she expressed elation at what she and many other pro-Palestinian partisans saw as–how to put it without giving offence?–Hamas’s victories over the Israeli security and defence establishment on October 7th. If Hamas had attacked defence bases, I would have shared in her elation. But in the event, her attitude was appalingly misplaced. But was it directed against Jewish students at her college? Only in the sense that it took a position that many of them would have abhorred. Not in the sense that it guaranteed that she would treat them unfairly. Again, I don’t know enough about her, but that is my take based on the little I know.

Finally, a small point. I don’t think race realism should be regarded as the same thing as racism. Quayshawn Spencer is a race realist; he is certainly not a racist.

Preston Stovall
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
13 days ago

I can dimly imagine being in a situation like that when I was an undergraduate, and I’m sure it would be difficult to know just what to do, or what one would do. I suspect I’d oscillate around anger, indignation, disgust, and a drive to either avoid the place or do something about it. Based on some of the exchanges we had at NewAPPS during its heyday, I’d have taken you for a “do something about it” kind of guy. That’s not to call your stance into question. Just a remark about the space of options, and the way I see things.

I think it’s important not to get too carried away with hypothetical cases, given that there seems to be a fair amount of actual data to consider. As Nicolas points out, the situation at Northwestern is some indication that things wouldn’t be so bad. And one hopes the academic community would rally together to see that happen elsewhere. It’s just one crank with tenure, after all. Sometimes they slip through the cracks. That’s part of the cost we agree to incur.

Here are a few things it seems to me we’d need to know before we could be confident about whether the best response in situations like these is to erode the protections of tenure: is the prevalence and negative impact of scientific racists so great that we need to be changing the way we handle questions of academic freedom and the ability to openly research and discuss ideas? Is this impact having a measurable effect on student enrollments? Is there rather, or in addition, a tendency to censure verboten discussion at the expense of the healthy functioning of the university? Off the cuff, these seem to be pretty easily measured in a couple of different ways, none of which would be all that precise but any one of which might tell us something, probatively, about what kind of problems we’re facing.

Also, concerning “race realist”, my understanding is the one given in the first entry at Wiktionary, which is associated with “scientific racist”, although the second gloss at Wiktionary sounds like Spencer’s view. I’m not that familiar with Spencer’s work, but he seems to use the terms “racial realist” and “biological racial realist”. It doesn’t look to me like he uses “race realist”. I can’t tell whether the resemblance is an unfortunate coincidence, or brilliance in branding.

David Wallace
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
12 days ago

I’d be interested to know what David Wallace or somebody else more knowledgeable than me about Oxbridge politics thinks [if a named Chair at Oxford or Cambridge started publicly espousing inferiority of non-whites].

Putting aside normative questions and just asking descriptively what would happen (and, for definiteness, answering for Oxford), here’s my guess:

  • Oxford would hate it, for sure. They have very high applicant-to-place ratios and wouldn’t plausibly be materially harmed, but they want to be seen as working to increase representation and of course this would harm that process.
  • There would almost certainly be a lot of high-placed people, including in admin, saying that Professor X’s view is not representative and that they personally strongly disagree. (That’s a Kalven violation but I’m fairly sure it would still happen – of course Oxford is not signed up to Kalven.)
  • It would be stressed publicly (and is true) that Professor X has no role in the admission of undergraduates. They would almost certainly try to get him to move aside from graduate admissions roles and at least the non-specialist bit of his undergrad teaching.
  • They would probably look at his teaching and see if there was evidence of actual discrimination that could justify removal.
  • I don’t think they would try to remove him. Oxford’s statutory protections for academic freedom are pretty robust and I think they’d run into pretty severe legal difficulties as well as widespread faculty revolt.
  • I wouldn’t be amazed if Professor X’s Oxford college tried to sever ties, though I think that’s less likely than with Cofnas and Emmanuel because of the perceived higher stakes with a named Chair (and someone probably with an attachment to the college of much longer standing).

The situation is not completely dissimilar to the issues with John Finnis’s views on homosexuality (cf Oxford Students Launch Petition to Have John Finnis “Removed” (Updated) – Daily Nous) though Finnis was emeritus and so far less robustly protected. I don’t actually know whether in the end Oxford acted on that; not very publicly, if so.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
13 days ago

Too bad for Cambridge if such a remote possibility were realized but its reputation would be even more, and irreversibly, damaged if it started ignoring tenure to cave to pressure. The fact that this would be a very unfortunate situation doesn’t at all entail that much should be done about it by way of adjusting tenure protections. I’d rather be employed by an institution at which the far fetched scenario is a possibility than one where I could lose my job simply because of my extramural speech.

I’m curious, what do you think of Jodi Dean’s case? I found her extramural speech as abhorrent as I find Cofnas’s. Is there an asymmetry I’m missing?

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
11 days ago

I say it would cause far more damage to the university’s reputation as a serious place of fair, intellectual inquiry if people were fired for espousing unpopular beliefs, or pressured into abandoning their beliefs by a climate of fear that one will be fired for believing or arguing for the wrong things.

The great philosophers you mention — Sidgwick, Russell, and Wittgenstein — themselves had controversial beliefs and practices. The views some of them held at different times about patriotism in a time of war, religion, and sexual morality were deeply offensive to many actual and potential colleagues and students of theirs at Cambridge. Do you think this should have been entertained as a reason for forcing them out, or getting them to fall in line?

(I hope you won’t take the intellectually arrogant line that the key difference is that the confidence most educated people had in their moral assumptions back then was unfounded while the confidence we have today is so obvious as to be beyond doubt, and that you and other educated people of today would never have fallen for the moral errors of the past if you had been born earlier: the morally confident people of any age tend to be about as wise and circumspect in their moral thinking as the morally confident people of any other time, and also just as good at ignoring, rationalizing away, or failing to hear opposing considerations).

It would be easy for someone at Cambridge (at any time) to say, “Now, _I_ can handle working with someone who holds view P, but you see, I’m just concerned with how this might affect undergraduates who might be considering a PhD program here.” But I must say, it would strike me as a cowardly move for someone there to say such a thing. If some faculty member is worried that some devoted Anglican undergraduates might feel so uncomfortable taking courses with agnostics like Russell or Sidgwick that they might stay away, and this is sufficient for that faculty member to want to get rid of Russell or Sidgwick, then it seems the faculty member has an extremely low bar for constraints on acceptable beliefs in a colleague: it is incredibly easy for a few emotionally committed undergraduates to declare or imply of any view that itis so upsetting that they would not like to attend a university where someone espouses it. The question is whether one is ready to stand against the mob in defense of a target who may be saying something one does not even agree with, as a matter of principle, or instead choose the easy path of going with the flow even when the flow is drowning a human being for the sin of intellectual non-conformity.

I have never been on any graduate admissions committees; but if I were on one, and I learned that someone were applying to my department somewhere who held that some proposition P, held by a colleague of mine, were false and offensive, and that the applicant hoped to engage with the colleague about P and persuade my colleague that it was wrong, I would think it a healthy part of departmental life to bring someone like that student in who might put the professor’s belief in P to the test. But if instead I learned that we had an applicant so opposed to academic freedom and the aims of a university that he or she would not even want to study in a department whose members include anyone who accepts certain views, I would say, “Thank goodness we dodged that bullet!” A university, and any well-functioning department, depends on an environment of tolerance toward opposing views on even the most controversial and emotionally difficult subjects. Someone who would resort to emotional blackmail or pressure campaigns to get someone fired for holding undesirable views, or who cannot handle working with people whose beliefs they don’t agree with, would not be much of an asset to a departmental community, overall.

Again, it’s a moot point because I’ve never had any say in graduate admissions anywhere, and doubt I ever will. But tolerance for intellectual differences and a commitment to giving even the most unpopular and emotionally uncomfortable positions a fair hearing is one of the most fundamental things I’d look for in a member of any philosophical community.

Matty Silverstein
Matty Silverstein
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
13 days ago

I believe that there is a tenured professor at Northwestern University who is also an avid (and published) Holocaust denier. The case is not perfectly parallel to the one you’re imagining, Mohan, both because his area of professional expertise — electrical engineering — is quite unrelated to his outrageous historical views and because he’s not a “leading figure.” But it’s still worth asking whether his presence on the faculty of Northwestern has compromised the functioning of his department or the university. (I don’t know whether it has. It has certainly been embarrassing for the university.)

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Matty Silverstein
13 days ago

If we use Mohan’s metric of undergraduate enrollment, they seem to be doing fine: https://dailynorthwestern.com/2024/03/29/campus/northwestern-acceptance-rate-increases-to-7-5/

On the Market Too
On the Market Too
Reply to  Mohan Matthen
13 days ago

“the people who feel unsafe because [Cofnas] had a postdoc at Cambridge”

Hi Mohan,

I don’t understand the above. “Unsafe” in what sense or way?

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  On the Market Too
13 days ago

I don’t know. I said: “Put aside people who feel unsafe because he did.”

Daniel
Daniel
13 days ago

“I thought about the German Jews who have been disciplined by the state in their protests against Israel’s war, on the absurd grounds that they are being antisemitic. I thought about the students who have been arrested while peacefully protesting against an inhumane war, because they have been deemed by university administrators to be a threat to the safety of their fellow Jewish students (never mind that many of the protesting students are themselves Jewish).”

I appreciated much of this very strong essay, but I wasn’t sure how Srinivasan understands the significance of Jewish involvement in the protests. Is the idea that a protest cannot be antisemitic if it’s supported by Jews? That Jewish involvement provides at least strong reason to believe that the protest is not antisemitic?

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  Daniel
13 days ago

I’m not sure that Amia Srinivasan is responding to comments here, so let me take a shot. It’s absurd to think that protests against Israel’s war must be anti-semitic, and doubly absurd to accuse Jews of being anti-semitic on these grounds. I do think that it wouldn’t be absurd to accuse Jewish protesters of being anti-semitic, if you thought that protests against Israel’s war were intrinsically anti-semitic.

Simon Lucas
13 days ago

While I fundamentally disagree with the author’s stance on Gaza, I must acknowledge the validity of several points concerning free inquiry and freedom of expression. However, I believe there’s one additional and crucial distinction that needs to be addressed: There are open letters, and then there are open letters. It should be relatively straightforward for academics to engage in commentary and pen open letters on matters central to academia—such as defending free inquiry and speech or protesting unjust sanctions of academics based on their political or personal beliefs.

However, when confronting complex issues like Gaza, a nuanced approach—arguably preferable—eludes mere emulation through open letters, necessitating the expertise of well-educated individuals for meaningful insights. Yet, as we’ve witnessed recently, many academic letters on Gaza have been, frankly, ill-informed—it often seems like philosophers didn’t even bother to glance at a map of the Middle East—or at best, oversimplified.

David Enoch has rightly pointed out that this simplification renders these open letter-style contributions essentially worthless: “If there’s a point to intellectual interventions in public discourse, surely it is to help make people—perhaps including those who have spent at least some of their lives doing other things—appreciate the relevant complexities. The academics’ letter, however, plays a role in hiding complexities from plain view, in keeping public discourse (to which it hopes to contribute) simplistic.”

Consider, for comparison, a scenario where bioethicists, supposedly contributing to the abortion debate, merely echo pro-life chants such as ‘life begins at conception’ (the equivalent of ‘peace and ceasefire’), citing it as the “minimal statement to which all signatories can agree,” while dismissing the possibility of a more nuanced compromise. If this represents the zenith of academic engagement, perhaps it’s best to retreat to the comfort of the armchair and refrain from concocting simplistic letters that add little value.

junior
junior
Reply to  Simon Lucas
12 days ago

This may have made sense if they were opining on something truly as contentious as the abortion debate. The call for ceasefire and peace is a low bar – it merely asks for an end to the killing of 40000 Palestinians. It is akin to signing a letter that says “murder is bad” except such a letter would never circulate, we seem to all agree on this point. Yet on a plausible case of genocide, the call for “nuance” obfuscates more than it helps. You do not need academics to explain why bombing children is bad.

The reason letters are helpful for such a simple call for peace is because, evidently, many want imaginary nuance and debates where there aren’t any needed. Of course on the more detailed answers to the conflict, or discussions of Palestine, you can push back on simplistic slogans. Seems odd to do so for people saying murder is bad.

Not as simple as that
Not as simple as that
Reply to  junior
12 days ago

This may have made sense if they were opining on something truly as contentious as the abortion debate. The call for ceasefire and peace is a low bar – it merely asks for an end to the killing of 40000 Palestinians.’

But again the situation is not as simple as that. Just to highlight one recent nuance that does seem to matter for claims like this, UN has revised the number of ‘women and children’ to the half of what it estimated (https://www.ochaopt.org/content/hostilities-gaza-strip-and-israel-reported-impact-day-215). Such a revision has a nontrivial impact on the debate held in this blog about the nature of war crimes and casualties.

My point is not that half the number of women and children make the war between Israel and Hamas any less of an issue. It is that there is a presumption of simplicity to the issue at hand and the call to sign an open letter is uncontentious.

Not as simple as that
Not as simple as that
Reply to  Not as simple as that
11 days ago

Just to make the comparison about the changing numbers of casualty groups, compare:

  1. Day 213: Children ~14,500, Women ~9,500 (https://www.ochaopt.org/content/hostilities-gaza-strip-and-israel-reported-impact-day-213)
  2. Day 215: Chilren ~7,700, Women: ~4,900 (https://www.ochaopt.org/content/hostilities-gaza-strip-and-israel-reported-impact-day-215)

It has been noted in the media (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/gaza-death-toll-ocha-un-confusion-anger-rcna151934) that the change in numbers were due to how the numbers are calculated (now they are only reporting the ‘identified’ bodies rather than counted(?).

In any case, when even the bare number of individuals are not being transparently reported, the accusations of genocide or intentional civilian massacre seem unreasonably simple and the open letters citing claims of genocide etc. as facts are also oversimplifying an issue which is anything but simple in virtue of its history and the perpetrators of atrocities.

Simon Lucas
Reply to  junior
12 days ago

To many pro-lifers, the issue of abortion is not contentious either: they consider aborting an embryo as nothing short of murder—why bother with nuance? However, in the conflict at hand, the mindless parroting of refrains such as genocide, apartheid, colonialism, and the like shows that much more nuance is indeed required. While peace and ceasefire are undoubtedly noble aspirations, the simplistic call for unconditional ceasefire is not a low bar—it is a moral obfuscation.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Simon Lucas
12 days ago

Would an open letter that merely condemned the ongoing mass murder of Palestinians and called for Israel to stop engaging in mass murder lack needed nuance? It seems to me plainly obvious that there is no possible justification for Israel’s murderous campaign in Gaza. Am I missing something?

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Kaila Draper
12 days ago

The claim that Israel is engaging in “genocide” or “mass murder” is ludicrously absurd. So, evidently you’re missing quite a lot.

If Israel is engaging in genocide, then it’s the most ineffective genocide in human history. According to you, one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world has been trying to eradicate 2.5 million Gazans in one of the most densely populated regions of the world for six long months and they have only managed to kill 34,000 people.

I’m not trying to diminish the death of civilians. The death of innocent civilians is always tragic and horrific. And if 34,000 innocent civilians have been killed (which is questionable on multiple grounds) then that is horrific in a way that is barely comprehensible.

But if Israel has been advancing a genocide for six months, then we would expect the death toll to be in the hundreds or thousands at very least.

So, the claim that Israel is committing genocide is not even remotely credible. Of course, Israel might be committing some other kind of moral evil, but not genocide.

On the other hand, Hamas IS trying to commit genocide. It says so in no uncertain terms. And its actions on October 7 (and elsewhere) cannot be construed in any other way.

Given this, it’s totally perverse that pro-Palestinian activists accuse Israel of genocide, on the one hand, and lionize Hamas as freedom fighters, on the other.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Louis
12 days ago

I didn’t say anything about genocide. And mass murder doesn’t require that one’s objective is the death of innocents. If I blow up the police evidence room to destroy the evidence against me and the police officer working there is foreseeably killed, I have murdered that police officer even though my objective was to destroy evidence and not to kill them. Israel is clearly committing mass murder by unjustifiably killing loads of innocent bystanders in Gaza. Your claim to the contrary is ludicrously absurd.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Kaila Draper
12 days ago

In the police case, I think that you’ve committed manslaughter rather than murder. You say, in the description, that it was not your objective or intent to kill.

Of course, manslaughter is a very serious crime but it’s less serious than murder.

You say: Israel is clearly committing mass murder by unjustifiably killing loads of innocent bystanders in Gaza.

Much of this can be reasonably disputed. Your basic claim (as far as I can see) is that none of this can be *reasonably* disputed.

Consider the issue of justification. The government of Gaza is a terrorist organization that regularly commits attrocities against its own people as well as Israeli. Its entire raison d’etre is the annihilation of Israel and the genocide of Jews–it says so in its own charter, and it members say so on a regular basis.

On Oct 7, this government massacred civilians in the most barbaric way possible and one of their official spokesmen publicly announced afterwards that they would do it again, and again, and again.

Given this, I think that Israel is justified in trying to eradicate Hamas at this point, even if it means civilian deaths just as the Allied forces were justified in trying to eradicate the Nazis even thought it meant civilian deaths. (Of course, Israel has a duty to try to reduce the number of civilian deaths, just as the Allies did).

Many (including you) think that Israel has no such justification. Fine. But are you really saying that you cannot see how any reasonable person could come to believe that Israel has a justification?

David Wallace
Reply to  Louis
12 days ago

Just as a matter of law, I’m pretty certain in the police case it’s murder, not manslaughter, at least in the US and English legal systems. Murder doesn’t require intent to kill. If you’re doing something which you can predict will kill (and if the killing is unlawful, e.g. not self-defense) then it’s murder. Come to that, it’s murder if you’re acting with malice even if you didn’t foresee the death: in Kaila Draper’s example, it would normally be murder even if you didn’t know there was a police officer in the evidence room where you planted the bomb.

(This without prejudice to the larger point.)

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
12 days ago

Lawyer here (as well as philosopher) – the police evidence room case is almost certainly murder in the US. (Maybe there are some weird facts we could add to avoid that, but as written it would be murder, not manslaughter.) The “intent” in most murder cases is the intent to do the thing that reasonably could be expected to kill someone, not necessarily the intent to kill them. (So, if I beat you very severely, and you die, it’s murder, even if I only intended to beat you up badly, assuming I’m not under mind control or insane or something.) The typical requirement is “malice aforethought” or a “depraved indifference to human life”, either one of which would be plausibly found in the police bombing case. (It’s a bit less clear to me that they’d be found in military cases, but I think it’s often, maybe usually, difficult to apply criminal law to military actions.)

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Matt L
11 days ago

This is just to make clear that the “Louis” who is commenting here is not me. This is the one blog in the blogosphere where I comment under my full name. (Elsewhere I usually comment under my initials; although there are contexts in which I have used my first name alone, I don’t do that here.)

Louis
Louis
Reply to  David Wallace
11 days ago

This is interesting, and good to know. Thanks for clarifying.

Simon Lucas
Reply to  Kaila Draper
12 days ago

Yes, you are—hence the case for more nuance.

Kaila Draper
Reply to  Simon Lucas
12 days ago

Tell me what I am missing then. My claim is that Israel is unjustifiably killing huge numbers of innocent bystanders and that they don’t have anything close to an adequate justification for doing so. If I am underestimating the available apologetics for mass murder, please enlighten me.

Arsenik Bluete
Arsenik Bluete
Reply to  Kaila Draper
12 days ago

“Would an open letter that merely condemned the ongoing mass murder of babies and called for physicians to stop engaging in mass murder lack needed nuance? It seems to me plainly obvious that there is no possible justification for physicians’ murderous campaign in abortion clinics. Am I missing something?”

Chris
Chris
Reply to  Arsenik Bluete
11 days ago

Yes. You’re assuming killing a fetus is equivalent to killing a baby? Now you try it with the Israel example. What’s their excuse?

Gerard
Gerard
Reply to  Kaila Draper
12 days ago

It is very obvious that Israel’s campaign in Gaza, and Western enabling of it, are depraved crimes. That this is obvious is supported by the fact that the vast majority of the global population, across a great variety of social and political contexts, believe it. The only significant demographics that disagree are Hindu nationalists in India, and white people of middle age and older in the imperial core. It’s not at all plausible that these groups have some relevant epistemic advantage over the rest of the world.

The tendency of the comment sections on this site to question or deny such an obvious fact quite frankly brings the discipline into disrepute, and it would therefore be better if comments were closed on Gaza stories.

David Wallace
Reply to  Gerard
12 days ago

Whether or not Israel’s actions are wrong, or indeed obviously depraved, the inference ‘most people think X, so obviously X and it is disreputable to think not-X’ is inadvisable. At various times in the not-too-distant past (possibly in the present, too; worldwide opinion polling is not always easy to find) it would have implied the obvious rightness of corporal punishment of children, and the obvious wrongness of homosexuality; it would have implied the obviousness of the existence of God and the obvious necessity of belief in God to live a moral life.

(That said, separately I do agree with you that a philosophy blog is normally not the right place to dispute first-order questions in geopolitics.)

Gerard
Gerard
Reply to  David Wallace
12 days ago

The consensus gentium is of course fallible, but I didn’t actually take myself to be giving a deductive argument.

‘P(a large majority believe x | x is obviously true) > P(a large majority believe x | x is not obviously true)’

seems pretty good to me.

David Wallace
Reply to  Gerard
12 days ago

Yes, agreed. I took you to be asserting something more like

P(x is not obviously true|a large majority believe x)<<1

but happy to be corrected.

Gerard
Gerard
Reply to  David Wallace
12 days ago

Worth noting also that if you already have a high credence in x, then consensus gentium evidence could significantly shift upwards your credence that x is obvious, even if it doesn’t much move your credence in x.

This could be important in a case where it’s blameworthy/disreputable to deny x if x is obviously true, but not if it’s non-obviously true.

Louis
Louis
Reply to  Gerard
11 days ago

Gerald, I am very suspicious and always deeply dismayed whenever a philosopher (of all people!) suggests that a opinion in a current debate (especially one that a significant number of people hold–even if they are not in the majority) should be shut down or silenced because it is blameworthy or disreputable.

Surely, these are the very issues on which we should have more conversations not less.

Who decides which opinions should be silenced or which conversations should be shut down to avoid “bringing our discipline in to disrepute”? Will we let the majority or the mob decide? Or will it be a panel of the benighted few who knows best for everyone?

Further, there are lots of reasons to think that peoples judgments about Israel (on both sides, including my own) are extremely clouded and that we, as philosophers, should be helping facilitate discussion on this issue, not proclaiming our certitude and shutting the discussion down.

Here are some reasons to believe that the discussion is clouded on both sides:

(a) The emotional intensity on both sides is extreme. People rarely make clear-headed objective judgements in such situations.

(b) There is a stunning amount of conflicting factual information about issues that are essential for the moral judgments that we want to make. Indeed, it is very hard to find some set of basic facts that all sides agree on.

(c) Related to (b) above. There is an extraordinary amount of exaggeration and hyperbole and inflammatory language. How often are the facts and events on which we base our moral judgements and condemnations described in detailed value-neutral language?

For example, Gerald, you rely on the opinion of the majority many of whom are simply told the following: “Israel is a settler-colonial apartheid state that has been oppressing the Palestinian people for 75 years and exists on stolen land. Now Israel is committing genocide and unjustifiable mass murder.” Given this, it is hardly surprising that the majority find it obvious and undeniable that Israel is to be morally condemned.

(c) Religious (Jewish and Christian) beliefs systems are biasing many people on the pro-Israel side, and anti-semitism is biasing many people on the pro-Palestinian side (including people who are not themselves antisemitic–I’m not saying that most people on the pro-Palestinian side are antisemitic, but it’s not totally implausible that antisemitism is influencing and distorting the pro-Palestinian narrative, especially given (b) above).

Maybe, you think that there is no distortion. Okay. But we at least have a reason to worry that there might be, and that is a reason not to shut down conversations like this.

giulia
giulia
Reply to  Louis
11 days ago

Louis,
you write here that “we, as philosophers, should be helping facilitate discussion on this issue, not proclaiming our certitude and shutting the discussion down” since the discussion on this particular issue is “clouded” (by emotion, by hyperbolic excesses, by the lack of uncontroversial factual information).
Yet in a previous comment, responding to Kaila Draper, you write: “The claim that Israel is engaging in “genocide” or “mass murder” is ludicrously absurd.”
This sounds like a proclamation of certitude to me. It is also difficult to see it as indicating a willingness to consider further reasons – and so, to continue the discussion vs shutting it down.
Would you agree?

Louis
Louis
Reply to  giulia
10 days ago

Hi giulia,

I don’t agree. I think that the claim that Israel is committing genocide is ludicrously absurd, but I’m still willing (and frankly interested) to listen to why people believe it. Moreover, I think it is very valuable for people on both sides of this issue to debate this.

For comparison: I also think that a lot of religious doctrines (maybe all of them) are ludicrously absurd but I’m willing and interested to listen to why religious people believe what they believe (and often have such conversations).

Having a high confidence in a view and thinking that the opposing view is absurd doesn’t mean that one is not willing to engage in a debate.

(Note, in this regard, that I gave reasons for believing that the claim of genocide is ludicrous.)

If philosophy has taught me anything it is that there is a lot to gain from having conversations with people who hold views you find ludicrously absurd and being genuinely interested in their reasons.

By contrast, Gerald seems to be suggesting that his beliefs are so obvious that no conversation on the issue is worthwhile–indeed, that it would it be an embarrassment for our discipline allow such conversations.

You might fairly say that if I want to have a productive conversation then I’d do well to be a bit softer in my tone. I think that’s probably correct, but it cuts both ways–I’m NOT referring to you, you’re tone is perfectly amiable.

Tim Ashley
Tim Ashley
5 days ago

Srinivasan is about the clearest thinking exponent of practical moral philosophy I’ve ever come across and I wish that, when I was studying at Oxford, I had been taught by someone half as good.

However…. Whilst I agree with almost everything she writes in the LRB, there’s one little slip I think: she says that

…protest, too, is a mode of public speech, which – like free discussion – is vital to democracy…’

but she does not identify the other distinguishing features of protest, which are, often; demands beyond the remit of the protesters; threats, real and implied; denounciations that can be considered intimidatory; and disruptions to normal organisational and institutional functions where are out of proportion to those expected from the normal exercise of free speech.

In other words, protest is not just free speech. It is larded with a plethora of other characteristics that make treating it as ‘just’ free speech (my ‘just’ not Srinivasan’s) is to commit a category error – or an ontological one.

Matthew Murphy
Matthew Murphy
4 days ago
Awaiting approval

Signing an open letter is staking your reputation on what it seeks to alter, and the better your reputation, the more it counts (and the more you have to lose). This is precisely why open letters calling for ceasefires are, if I may be impolite, either naive or stupid. There have been countless ceasefires between Israel and the rotating cast of terrorist organizations that seek its destruction over the years, including one just last year (which hamas violated). Of course, hamas has promised to repeat the events of October 7th (which has strong support among Palestinians) until the destruction of Israel. You would have to lack even the most basic critical thinking skills to believe that even if there is a ceasefire you would be able to pat yourself on the back before hamas is back killing Israelis.
While the thought of so many student and faculty groups having egg on their faces amuses me, the innocents that hamas will kill as a result reminds me of the kind of evil we are dealing with.