I was disappointed recently at a meeting that focused on freedom of speech and the related concept of academic freedom. In my opinion (and after all, that’s what this blog is largely for!) the current vogue for conversations about academic freedom is, at best, the most colossal waste of time and energy, and at worst, actively detrimental to diversity and equality goals in the higher education sector. This is most especially apparent in the claims of so-called “gender critical feminists” that their academic freedom is supposedly being curtailed.
The idea that academic freedom is somehow currently under threat is ridiculous. If people aren’t not interested in the nonsense you are spouting and no longer want to listen to you. If you are no longer invited to contribute to colleagues’ teaching modules. If your students question the spurious arguments made in your lectures. That is not a limitation on your academic freedom. Do not make the mistake of equating the fact that people do not care for what you have to say, with the experience of being silenced.
In this context, the time and energy being devoted to defining and defending academic freedom is a drain on resources that would be better spent elsewhere. It should not be this difficult for Universities to determine the difference between a discussion that has the potential to be fruitful, and one that is no more than posturing by those eager to ring-fence their privileges and deny access to others.
Take climate change for an example. If I invited a climate change denier to debate whether climate change is real at my University, I don’t think anyone would oppose it on a freedom of speech basis. Instead, quite rightly, I am sure my colleagues and the wider community would be asking “why are we talking about this when we KNOW climate change is real?” The relevant debate to be having now is not whether climate change exists – it is how we are best able to combat it. Hosting an event, spending time in student lectures, or carrying out research that aims to determine the existence of climate change is a drain on resources that could and should be better spent developing ways to lessen our negative impact on the globe.
But shifting attention to fabricated “debates” isn’t only a problem because it wastes resources. It can also be actively detrimental to the inclusion goals of a 21st century University. One argument often made is that individuals can judge whether an idea is offensive, and should act on their judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by contesting the offensive ideas. But one of the problems with this is that a heavy burden of emotional and actual labour is placed on people from marginalised and under-represented groups (e.g. trans people, people of colour) to contest ideas that are not a reasonable subject of debate at all (e.g. transphobic or racist beliefs). In fact, the position that it can be interesting to debate some controversial topics, and the intellectualisation of the lived experiences of others in the context of academia, is in itself a position of enormous privilege.
In worst case scenarios, topics can be falsely presented as a subject for academic debate explicitly in order to waste the time and energy of people who are then forced to counter those positions again and again. Asking Black people to prove that systemic racism exists, asking trans people to defend rights already enshrined in law… This burden contributes to the broader disadvantage experienced by people from marginalised groups. As a result, the fact that we are able as individuals to contest ideas we disagree with is not, in my opinion, enough to justify events taking place under the banner of “academic freedom” that fail to meet basic standards of human dignity and interpersonal respect.
So many of the current discussions are built on the baseless claim that academic freedom is currently under threat. It is not. In fact, valuable resources are being spent shoring up academic freedom, which is now roaring around like a pimped-up monster truck. Instead of reassuring academics – by definition a privileged minority – about our rights to freedom of thought and speech, how about we talk to each other about our responsibilities? what is our duty of care to our students, our colleagues and our community? what should we be doing with this academic freedom we apparently treasure so highly? how can we use our position to defend and liberate those within and beyond the University who are currently most poorly served by the system?