Academic Freedom in Crisis

Academic Freedom in Crisis September 22, 2016

The Sage Publishing Group is hosting a great conversation about Academic Freedom in Crisis with an opening article by Daniel Nehring and Dylan Kerrigan. They post six questions and trends for discussion:

    1) exploring the censorship of ideas and the erosion of universities as places of debate. What are the long-term effects of preventing alternative ideas from being aired and how does this impact the diversity of ideas essential to a university’s purpose as a space of academic freedom?
    2) The more general question of what is academic freedom is also considered. What are its limits, what actions impose force on its possibilities, how does it shape our individual behaviours, where and when does power curtail scientific distance, and when did academic freedom move from insubordination toward control and what sorts of (emotional) people must academics become to function in this new academic world?
    3) Providing a more historical lens an account of what really happened to the British university system between the late 1960s and today is also provided. What were the changes that took the system from its gains in the post social movement era to its situation today of the neoliberal university and how did the changes emerge?
    4) In a similar vein we also tackle what happened to universities during the Thatcher era as they where subjected to processes of the competitive accumulation of Capital, and how as a result the Soviet-esque ‘command economy’ is a useful analogy for the neoliberal transformation of the university.
    5) We also look at the financialisation of the academic book publishing industry and raise questions about changes in the production cycle and ethos of academic publishing in the 21st century. What does the emergence of a franchise system within academic publishing suggest has happened to the traditional purpose of academic knowledge production, academic disciplines and academic authors themselves?
    6) And finally, in this new academic marketplace of academic entrepreneurs, competitive labour and audit cultures what happens to academic lecturers? How are they controlled, how is the precarisation of their labour used to shape and tame them in line with managerial demands, and who wins in the battle between bureaucracy and academic knowledge production?

It sounds like a great conversation is happening over there and there are still more posts to come.

Here are some of my own fleeting thoughts about how political correctness as enforced by the social progressive Taliban is stifling academic freedom:

The liberal pre-occupation with micro-aggression and micro-invalidation, where a person of a privileged gender or ethnicity inadvertently affronts a minority, goes far beyond notions of tolerance and respect. These protests rest on the idea that society can be transformed into utopian equality by top-down institutional engineering of its language and the sanitization of dissident ideas. European philosopher Thomas Wells argues in contrast that banning speech that offends sensibilities is not in the spirit of true liberalism which safeguards personal autonomy. Rather, the liberal project of political correctness has instead manufactured the “wave of ridiculousness now sweeping across college campuses, first in America and now Europe, in which students seek to protect themselves from the trauma of hearing disagreeable views and ideas.”[1] In some instances this leads to a form of student censorship whereby any view point that does not affirm the philosophical framework of the moral superiority of the minority is shut down or else any view point other than the social progressive one is treated as contraband. British academic Joanna Williams points out that:

There have been high-profile cases of students’ unions banning from campus anything from newspapers, songs, greetings cards and hats to fancy dress costumes, on the grounds that they objectify women, promote rape culture or demonstrate cultural appropriation. This new form of campus censorship extends into re-writing history with the demand for statues, such as that of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, to be removed if the ideology of the person represented does not meet the political standards of the students of today. Such campus censorship often hits the headlines when high-profile speakers are ‘no platformed’, or in other words, banned from speaking on campus … The ongoing campaigns that have emerged in the US and the UK against ideas that are labelled as offensive by a vocal minority of students close down debate and discussion on campus. They perpetuate the notion that words can wound and that vulnerable students need to be protected from ideas, or knowledge, they consider distasteful rather than university being the best place in society to discuss, question and challenge everything in the interests of promoting understanding and the pursuit of knowledge. The role of the academic risks becoming less concerned with prompting debate or pushing the boundaries of knowledge into new areas and more to do with shielding students from ideas that may upset them. When universities are happy to put ideas beyond discussion their mission is no longer education.[2]

The objection of Wells and Williams is justified by looking at university campuses where students learn to react with righteous indignation and complain that they have been violated if they are exposed to a perspective that resists their own dispositions. Student activists can be very savvy in weaponizing claims of trauma to create a controversy that places them in the centre of a carefully crafted story of victimhood designed to valorize themselves and their identity politics.[3] Many academics are reluctant to criticise student activists, even when they sense the silliness of the situation, because they have political sympathy with their associated causes, be they pro-feminist, pro-transgender, anti-Israeli, or anti-capitalism, and do not wish to be seen as remotely opposed to these things. Furthermore, even the academics who grieve that academic freedom is being undermined have learned to keep their mouths shut and play the game of political correctness by using a particular grammar in lectures, assigning sanitized reading lists, and espousing safe political views, all in order to ensure that they get tenure, promotion, and publication.

Just the other day, Australian journalist Janet Albrechtsen commented on the left’s assault on freedom of speech and how the leftist radicals of the 1960s would not recognize their descendants:

The critical question is why have so many on the Left taken this illiberal path? Whereas radical leftists in the 1960s were at the vanguard of libertarianism, challenging oppressive customs and canons, too many are now enforcers of their own stifling orthodoxies. The end of liberalism for many on the Left started more than 40 years ago when, by embracing identity politics, they untethered human rights from classical notions of freedom. Sex, sexuality, race and other forms of personal identification trumped Enlightenment freedoms and the very notion of universal, libertarian rights.

I find it sad that many manufactured claims of victimhood detract from the genuine victims of prejudice and discrimination who are more often than not too afraid to seek the protection that they need. In the interest of creating an environment of tolerance one should adopt a common sense censure of speech that is racist, sexist, homophobic, and designed to insult or promote hatred of a minority. But now speech as banal as “Good evening ladies and gentlemen” is being reprimanded as “heteronormativity.” The social progressive inquisitors of identity politics foster a hypersensitivity to causing offense to the point that we are breeding a generation of students who are simply afraid of saying anything less it offends or else they have been trained to treat conversation as the opportunity to ambush an interlocutor for saying something that is even remotely non-inclusive. In this environment, discussion and debate is no longer about an exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect; instead, social and political debate has become the process by which the social progressives ignore the substance of any opposing claims and simply listen for sound bites that can be used as evidence of micro-aggression, which can then be tweeted to mass audiences, and buoyed on by limitless outrage. Discourse with social progressives is not about a battle of ideas, their validity and consequences, but is sadly reduced to a game of predatory ambush where social progressives try spotting and magnifying any tactless adjectives used by their opponents. Consequently, the primary weapon in the social progressive arsenal is not justice, logic, or coherence, it is shame and sensation. The ideological battles on campuses are not about ideas and their merits, it is simply come down to power: who can get the media and the mob the most outraged. Academic freedom has become reduced to a battle of shame and trolling on social media.


[1] Thomas Wells, “Liberalism and the Freedom to Insult Religion,” ABC Religion & Ethics. 6 September 2016. Accessed 12 September 2016.

[2] Joanna Williams, “Why Academic Freedom Matters,” in Why Academic Freedom Matters: A Response to Current Challenges, eds. Cheryl Hudson and Joanna Williams (ebook: Civitas, 2016).

[3] See Julia Yost, “Episode 9 – Trigger Warning,” First Things Podcast, 9 September 2016. 32:50–35:22. Accessed 12 Sept 2016.

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