Jan Narveson

Presented at the annual SAFS meeting (May, 2002), in a symposium entitled: Academic Freedom in the light of September 11.

My first thought when a student rushed in and told me about the WTC attack was, “Well, we’re in for it now!” What worried me was was the government response to this. Partly, of course, it was to send soldiers to Afghanistan and such, which was not a surprise, and whether it was a good idea is irrelevant to the present panel. But most of what I was referring to is what has actually transpired: huge restrictions on the liberties of Americans,  visitors to America, and more or less as many people as possible, in many annoying ways. The American administration has said many things, too, that strongly suggest that anyone even speaking up against its policies is a traitor, more or less, and the cops will be watching out for them.

Overreaction is what government, especially democratic government, is mostly about. We can hardly be surprised, though we can be unhappy, that all these restrictions have been put in place. The interesting question for us theoreticians is: when and why are restrictions on liberties appropriate? And  for the purposes of this panel, the question is, when and why restrictions, if any, on specifically academic liberty is appropriate.

This question is much complicated by the fact that all of us in Canada are, in effect, public servants. In a private university, restrictions on academic activities could be imposed by the institution’s terms of reference. For example, back in the days when Wilfrid Laurier University was Waterloo Lutheran University, its faculty were forbidden to “advocate atheism, secularism, materialism, and agnosticism” or some such list, though they were allowed to “discuss” them. When you were hired there, you signed something to the effect that you would refrain from those things. So instead they hired people who advocated Marxism, Maoism, and of course faithful adherance to the Crown of Canada, whatever.

The example of Marxism is not entirely facetious. Indeed, it exemplifies a fundamental problem with the whole idea of academic freedom. Namely: we are all in thrall, totally, to the general goal of Truth: of advancing human knowledge. Being so, it is simply not true that people can say just any old thing in academia. Anyone who knowingly advocated what is false would be flaunting this fundamental academic ideal, obviously. In the special case of plagiarism, where it isn’t what is said that is false (perhaps) but rather, that the person who claims to be the author is not in fact so, we rightly think that corrections may be imposed.

Anyway, it is not often, I think, that people in academia do say what they know to be false, just like that. Very much more often, though, they say what they should have known was false, if they would just think about it for a minute or two. Now, we want to say that the cure for this, insofar as there is one, lies in the presence of academic peers who will lunge forward and point out their mistakes. This expresses a hope that is surely honored more often in the breech than in the observance. But the question raised by this, surely a most serious one, is whether the institution should do any more than that. We are inclined to think not, of course. But we don’t actually believe that, and for good reason.

For example, we surely hire new people in a department on the strength - to some degree ranging up to pretty nearly 100% - of their research. And that research, we hope, is itself evaluated on the basis of its contribution to human knowledge, meaning in plain language that we think that what the researcher says in his publications is, considerably or largely, true, or near it, or at least likely to be so, or at least plausible. We discriminate, quite properly, against the ill-informed, the incompetent, the fuzzy-headed, the hopelessly vague.

Again the example of Marxism will serve well. There was a time when some people actually thought Marx was basically right. We know now that he was wrong, demonstrably, definitively. Marx, as a contributor to economic knowledge, is dead. Anyone who applied for a job in the philosophy department at my university on a platform of plain old-fashioned Marxism would be shown the door, promptly. The same person would have been enthusiasticaly embraced in earlier days, even though Marx’s ideas were just as wrong then as they are known now to be. The point is that “we” didn’t know this at the time, and “we” do now. (I speak here as a starry-eyed academic utopian, to be sure; no doubt there are still some few who cling to the dead Marxist dogmas.)

OK, now: the point is that the general goal of academia imposes obvious criteria of selection on appointed personnel, both staff and students. In academia, you can say whatever you please, provided that you are honestly and competently attempting, in saying it, to contribute to human knowledge.

A good deal else is said in the halls of academia. For example, a fair amount of verbal energy is expended in joshing with colleagues, finding our way to the Department of Gerontology, overseeing the coffee supply, and so on. All of this is perfectly OK, we think, within broad limits imposed by the need to get one’s student’s papers graded and one’s own papers written, and so on.

But what about political activity on campus, or off-campus but engaged in by academics - students or professors? Here things are less clear. We had once upon a time, at U of W, a professor of psychology who was a dedicated Maoist; he went about campus putting up ads about the evils of capitalism, etc., etc.
So far as I know, there was never any restriction on this imposed by the university’s administration. Could or should there have been? There could, of course, have been a problem about available bulletin-board space, and priorities for allocating same. But we would not account that as a restriction on academic freedom, as such, even though, of course, it is. (Lack of astronomical budgets is always a restriction on academic activity, but it is not a restriction on academic freedom. Making it impossible for researcher A to pursue subject S because we just don’t have the money to support it is not the same as forbidding him to do it because his research is incompetent, biased, stupid, or too crazy to be worth supporting; and neither is quite the same as forbidding it on the ground that his theses are false.)

After Sept. 11, there has been a huge amount of discussion, on e-mail lists and elsewhere, about the meaning of the WTC attacks and various components of their aftermath. One special subject, which I am guilty of having devoted rather too much, probably, of my time to pondering, is a special aspect of the professed motivation of the attackers, namely their claim to be pursuing “God’s (aka Allah’s) will” in the process. That inspired me to write a couple of articles (so far) restating the ancient case (it’s due to Plato originally, after all) for why those claims have to be false. It cannot, I suggested, be true that god or the gods are in favor of actions like this, inciting some of his subjects to murder a good many other of his subjects who are, by any sort of familiar or rational criteria, innocent of anything except perhaps the crime of not sharing the attackers’ religious views. The intention of this activity was to explain something that might possibly have been unclear to some people. For example, some people think that morals can be “founded on” religion. That is a view which, looked at carefully, can be shown to be impossible, despite its being, apparently, very widely held. (Since it is, even among otherwise quite intelligent people, the arguments of people like Plato and myself are still worth restating, I think.)

Nevertheless, a good many people in the contemporary world are ready to impose injury and death on a good many others for religious reasons. Let us now imagine that there is, within the jurisdiction of some government, a school of some sort which was devoted to teaching its students to do precisely those things for those reasons. Here is a case where thought, such as it is, stimulates actions, and actions of a particularly dangerous kind. Suppose that you, the High Potentate of that kingdom, thereupon concluded that the school in question should be shut down, its teachers reassigned to safer activities, or perhaps confined to jail, its students subjected to a program of reeducation, and similar measures. Is this something on which the advocate of Academic Freedom should look with disfavor? I confess that I am hard put to say that we should.

Persons of very different political persuasion than myself have often enough insisted that academia must be socially responsible, etc. Those who say that usually mean that the academy should inculcate some variety of Marxism much more vigorously than they already are; or, contemporarily, that it should be industriously spreading, say, the gospel of environmentalism, or multiculturalism, or egalitarianism, even more thoroughly than it already is. The examples certainly suggest the problem, big time: Can academia be “socially responsible” without obliterating academic freedom?

It does seem to me that it can be irresponsible to protect, under the banner of freedom of speech or academic freedom, terrorist schools (to take a very relevant present case in point). A recent experience of mine suggests some other things as well. I participated in what was billed as a “debate” with a man in the Islamic community hereabouts (specifically, at U of W). “Secularism vs. Islam”, was what they billed it. It soon became fairly clear, however, that this was apparently going to be literally a “debate” in a sense in which debates, I think, have no place in academia - namely a sort of verbal war in which the purpose was to make verbal points regardless of their relevance, insight, etc. What I had hoped it would be, this being a university and all, would be a symposium - that is, a forum in which arguments were presented for identifiable positions, the holding of which by various people was contingent on their being perceived to be true, and the arguments for which were intended as precisely that: sets of propositions, whose premises looked to be and were claimed to be true, and whose conclusions were claimed to follow from those premises. When you have an academic argument, what should be the case is that when somebody comes up with a sound argument, you accept its conclusion. True premises, valid reasoning - once we’ve got that far, there is no option but to accept the conclusion thus supported. And so, if that conclusion is inconsistent with what we believed before, then we must change our minds. Or at least, we accept the responsibility for finding out where the premises are, after all, in error, or the reasoning invalid after all, contrary to first appearances.

In principle, it seems to me, public events purporting to be about issues of intellectual interest, and held at universities, should always be understood to be symposia in the above sense - not “debates”. And when they reduce to name-calling and the like, it seems to me, the university’s authorities could be justified in imposing order. Having said that, of course, we come up against the awesome problem of keeping any official university action in this direction from being an over-reaction. It is easy to imagine sets of rules imposed by university administration that would be a lot worse than the disease they are designed to cope with. Not having any ready idea of just what such rules would look like, I would hope that a general affirmation that on-campus meetings on topics of public interest should be carried on in a civilized way, and that violence, both nonverbal and even, in severe cases, verbal is eligible for suppression.

Too often, of course, in universities on both sides of the border, people proposing controversial theses have been treated to highly unacademic receptions, or have been turned back at the doors. And here, it seems to me, we should agree that the controversality of those views, as such, is absolutely no ground for such exclusion. On the contrary: universities owe it to the presenters of such theses that they be heard and, as may be, refuted or not on grounds of relevant arguments, and nothing else.

On the other hand, if it is clear that the point of some allegedly public discussion is to organize assassinations, or other violent attacks on persons and property, then the university has every right to prevent such things, and if need be to clamp down on them retroactively.

Well, suppose that what is billed as a theory or viewpoint implies that it is the duty of all persons in good moral standing to kill, or assist in the killing, or at the very least not to interfere with the killing, of all members of some religious (or ethnic, or whatever) group?

The right response to this is, for one thing, to do some moral theory and patiently explain why there are good reasons for denying that there can be any such duty. But of course a rub here is that the members of a religious (or other sort of ideological) group might itself be telling its own members to get out there and kill members of the first group.

The correct formula is that we tolerate all and only religions, or other ideologies, which tolerate all and only religions which tolerate others. Intolerant religions and ideologies not only do not need to be tolerated but, in the light of 9/11, ought not to be tolerated, and this has to be made extremely clear. In the “debate” referred to above, it was repeatedly pointed out by members of the audience that Islam rejects the separation of church and state. My response to this is that they’d better think twice about that view, for if it were true, it would be grounds for expelling all Muslims from our shores. All religions and ideologies must tolerate all others; none may aspire to getting control of the reigns of power, to exercise in the name of their particular creed.

That the 9/11 sort of thing is possible, and historically has happened often enough, is excellent reason for imposing a regime of religious, and more generally, ideological, freedom, which entails an obligation on the part of all participating religions or ideologies to respect the differing ideologies of others. This should be seen to be a fairly obvious point, and those who, upon contemplating these words, immediately react as if here is just one more intolerant religion, need to get their thinking caps on. The moral and political outlook of western society is, indeed, liberal in the sense just enunciated. But the point is, we are right about this: so long as we think that governments should be operating in the interests of the people they govern, and not in the interests of some special parties among them, then we have no rational option but to insist on tolerance. We in academia get to insist, in addition, on intellectual discipline and clarity. The two, I think, work together.

The trick, then, is to maintain an environment in which ideas can be pressed, and examined and judged, on the basis of their strictly academic virtues, while attempts to disrupt these processes by violence, both physical and verbal, be frustrated. It’s an old problem that has perhaps become significantly more pressing in these troubled times. We should be able to solve it without seriously suppressing the very liberties we stand for.

Jan Narveson is a professor at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Philosophy, also a SAFS member.

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