PEA Soup is pleased to revitalize the “Soup of the Day” series (once known as “the Pebble”).

The aim of this series is to host philosophical discussions of current events. For each instalment, we will invite two philosophers to offer different perspectives on a topic that has been in the news.

We are starting the series with a discussion on free speech and academic freedom, which focuses particularly on the appointment of Arif Ahmed as UK government’s point-person for regulating free speech at universities. This thread features a piece by Gerald Lang (Leeds), and a reply from Robert Simpson (UCL).


 

Selective Pressures: No-Platforming and Academic Freedom

GERALD LANG

Earlier this year, the UK government passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, and appointed Cambridge University’s Arif Ahmed as the new Director overseeing free speech at the Office for Students. (He’ll be known, more informally, as the new ‘free speech tsar’.) The fundamental purpose of the Higher Education Act is to permit academic staff ‘to question and test received wisdom’, and ‘to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions’, without risk of professional reprisal. The cases landing on Ahmed’s desk will presumably be ones in which these protections are alleged to have been compromised.

 

I. PROFESSIONAL REPRISALS AND ACADEMIC EVALUATION
Which specific forms of reprisal does the Higher Education Act take an interest in? The Act aims to protect academics who advance controversial or unpopular views against ‘loss of their job or privileges at the provider’, and to ensure that they don’t face ‘the likelihood of their securing promotion or different jobs at the provider being reduced’. Difficult questions arise immediately. Intuitively, academics who peddle controversial views should not face dismissal. But the calibre or quality of their work will typically be relevant to the case they can amass for further academic honours, and it’s difficult if not impossible to get a handle on the quality of an academic’s work without either reading it for yourself (if you’re a disciplinary insider), or else noting how the work has been received in the wider academic community (if you’re a disciplinary outsider).

To make the point vivid, consider the following slightly outlandish case (‘Tsarism’): a mid-career political philosopher, Alice, has cut her scholarly teeth on detailed work on liberal egalitarianism, but has had a surprising change of heart and now wishes to champion a revived form of tsarism. The following questions arise about Tsarism, together with some suggested replies. Should Alice be stopped from attempting to promulgate her tsarist vision? No. Should she be muzzled or ‘cancelled’? No. (More on this below.) Is she guaranteed to accumulate the professional brownie points that would allow her to make a convincing case for promotion? Again, no. If Alice’s peers regard her views as ludicrous, her papers are heavily criticized or remain unpublished, her invitations dry up, and her professional influence recedes, her career will have faltered.

Does the Higher Education Act wish things to be otherwise? There is at least the risk that the Act may be exploited to protect academic freedom by placing unpopular or marginal ideas on an artificial life support system, as opposed to seeing how they fare in the cut and thrust of open academic discussion and allowing them to wither or flourish accordingly. Insisting that the proponents of such ideas, such as Alice, be protected from any loss of professional reputation would amount to interference with the normal processes of academic evaluation, not a way of shielding those processes from the corrupting effects of censorship or ideological groupthink. We want ‘internal’ academic evaluation to be unimpeded, but this doesn’t mean we’re committed in advance to being undiscriminating. Indeed, it can’t mean that. Any recognizable form of academic freedom will permit us to make differential judgments as to the quality or value of academic work.

It may be asked, nonetheless, who ‘we’—the academic evaluators or discriminators—are. It’s often noted that the academic population, particularly in humanities departments, is more left-leaning or politically progressive than the general population. There aren’t too many card-carrying conservatives in the philosophy departments with which I’m familiar. So, even if it’s granted that academic freedom consists in the freedom to engage in unimpeded ‘internal’ evaluation, perhaps we need to reconsider how these communities are populated in the first place. This isn’t a credible line of argument, either. The truth about the matters we investigate is not neutral: we won’t get further in geology research by ensuring that a respectable number of Young Earth creationists are gainfully employed by geology departments and then assuming that a rich seam of geological knowledge will be opened up by the struggle between creationists and non-creationists. We’ll already have interfered unjustifiably with the parameters for producing new knowledge in this area. Absorbing new researchers into the academic community is all of a piece with the conditions of academic freedom we associate with the evaluation of academic work and the pursuit of knowledge. Any imposition of quotas or ideological or political restrictions on the employment of new academic staff would be a clear breach of academic freedom. Perhaps some supporters of the Higher Education Act are after this sort of top-down rebalancing. But others, I suspect, don’t have this in mind.

In truth, the Higher Education Act is probably intended to focus our attention on other incidents and flashpoints in the last few years. One of the issues fought over in our culture’s increasingly heated free speech battles concerns ‘no-platforming’ or ‘cancelling’ in academic institutions. The Higher Education Act is fundamentally concerned to prevent no-platforming at academic events in departments and faculties and also student unions. Following Rob Simpson and Amia Srinivasan, I shall understand no-platforming to be ‘the practice of blocking an individual speaking at a university because of her professed moral or political views’ (2018, p. 186). The platforms blocked to potential speakers might include research seminars, workshops or conferences, or university clubs or societies, such as the Oxford Union debating society. No-platforming removes opportunities for these speakers to provide inputs into academic or more broadly intellectual discussions. Clearly, you can be worried about this form of exclusion without insisting or even preferring that these views should prevail. The underlying issue is why these speakers should be excluded from the conversation in the first place.

A quick scan of news outlets yields obvious cases of no-platforming. In recent years, cases of no-platforming have largely concerned individuals with controversial views about gender, sex, and race: Germaine Greer, Kathleen Stock, Selina Todd, Maryam Namazie, Julie Bindel, and Peter Tatchell have all been on the receiving end of no-platforming policies. I don’t want to focus on any of these specific cases, nor on how widespread or frequent the practice of no-platforming really is. There are clearly points of principle to think about, however frequently or infrequently no-platforming occurs.

These cases of no-platforming take the form of cancelling previously issued invitations to certain individuals, and they generate all the headlines. As I understand the term, no-platforming also encompasses the principled refusal to issue any such invitations in the first place. Because these latter decisions are made behind closed doors, they’re not newsworthy, but both forms of exclusion plausibly count as forms of no-platforming. Now some of these cases of ‘quiet’ no-platforming involve thinkers whose influence has to some degree faded following accusations of bullying or sexually predatory behaviour. These particular concerns don’t appear to lie at the heart of the Higher Education Act, however, and they undoubtedly raise other sorts of issues. In any case, I’ll focus in what follows on the no-platforming of speakers for their professed views rather than their previous conduct.

 

II. GATEKEEPING AND SELECTIVITY
The normal processes of ‘internal’ academic evaluation to which I alluded above, in connection to Tsarism, can be re-applied to the practice of no-platforming. This time round, however, I don’t think they conclusively demonstrate that there’s nothing to worry about, or that Ahmed’s appointment as free speech tsar can serve no useful purpose.

Still, let’s see how far we can get with these ideas about the shaping conferred on an academic discipline by internal academic evaluation. According to Simpson and Srinivasan (2018), the justificatory considerations that have a bearing on academic freedom are plausibly distinct from the justificatory considerations that apply to the regulation of public free speech. Following a liberal tradition inaugurated by John Stuart Mill, free speech, on a broad or societal level, is typically regulated by harm-prevention considerations. Harm-prevention policies permit individuals to express themselves and communicate their ideas to others as long as their speech doesn’t cause significant harm to others. Some will think that the same programme has to be applied to academic freedom. The value of both academic freedom and free speech, on this approach, will consist in whatever value ensues from unrestricted speech encounters—perhaps the value of individual self-expression, or the epistemic benefits of uncensored discussion and inquiry—and the disvalue will be measured in harms created by insult and defamation, misinformation, and so on.

Simpson and Srinivasan argue, by contrast, that we’re not centrally dependent on harm-prevention when we’re thinking about academic freedom. The conditions for upholding academic freedom aren’t in any straightforward sense continuous with the conditions for upholding free speech, and academic freedom isn’t most fully realized when we’re closest to an anything-goes speech environment in which serious forms of harm have been avoided. It is instead marked by the underlying commitment to critical orderliness and selectivity.

Academic freedom is just as concerned with keeping contributions out of academic discourse as with protecting the contributions that are made within it. For Simpson and Srinivasan, the conditions for realizing academic freedom must display a sensitivity to the more rarefied, critically selective nature of academic environments. There is a price of entry to platforms in these environments, and not everyone is going to meet it. If you are an excitable flat-earther, or an amateur climate change denier or vaccine sceptic, or a professional provocateur with a taste for outrageous breaches of respectful address, or a conspiracy theorist whose mission is to convince us that centrist politicians are running paedophile rings out of pizza parlours, you may not have what it takes. Your views may be no laughing matter, but nonetheless you are not a serious thinker. You haven’t acquired the sort of disciplinary or methodological credentials that would qualify you for a speaking platform, and thus you will lack a complaint if you are not provided with one. I’ll refer to this, in terms that Simpson and Srinivasan also draw upon, as the ‘gatekeeping argument’.

The gatekeeping argument may be partnered with considerations that apply to academic insiders as well as outsiders. The basic truth on which these further considerations rely is that no one, however unimpeachable their academic credentials, is owed the opportunity to speak. No one has a right—that is, a claim-right—to a platform, in the sense that others are under a duty to provide them with one. Supply exceeds demand. There are not enough speaking slots to go round even for accredited academics. Not everyone receives invitations to seminars, workshops, or conferences, even if these would be welcomed, and not everyone’s work turns up on reading-lists. Many academic researchers exist, but not everyone is influential. And that is not only inevitable—a deep fact of academic life—but welcome, because academic communities are entitled to be selective. (Grumbles will break out, of course, about how these selective pressures are being manifested: we’re free to complain about what’s hot and what’s not, about who’s overrepresented and who’s underappreciated, and about prestige bias.) I’ll call this the ‘selectivity argument’. Now the selectivity argument won’t provide any kind of justification for invidious forms of discrimination against proposed speakers based on their race or religion or sex. But it does mean that non-selection alone won’t give anyone a complaint.

How is the gatekeeping argument related to the selectivity argument? The selectivity argument may be regarded at first as a reassuring accompaniment of the gatekeeping argument. If even credentialed academics lack a complaint when they are denied a platform, according to this line of thought, then the same will a fortiori be true for non-academics with strong views about matters of public importance. On this way of looking at matters, no-platforming is only the limiting case of selectivity. Being excluded from the conversation because it’s judged that there are better, more helpful, and more interesting ideas and arguments to focus on, is the general rule in academic life, not a puzzling exception to it. The central message ensuing from the gatekeeping argument and selectivity argument, when offered as a joint package, is that academic freedom is committed to maintaining high intellectual standards, with the result that some people’s ideas can be simply dismissed as (a) methodologically incompetent or unacceptably ignorant; or (b) not distinguished or interesting or lively enough to be worth paying serious attention to. Many of us may worry, from time to time, about producing work that falls under (b). But (b) is nonetheless part of a spectrum of exclusion cases that runs continuously between (b) and (a).

When we view the practice of no-platforming through the particular lens of selectivity, it no longer seems to be an outlier in academic practice and a restriction on academic freedom which ought to alarm us, but only a more conspicuous manifestation of practices we embrace on a daily basis. As Amia Srinivasan wrote in a recent article for the London Review of Books:

… academic freedom… is the freedom to exercise academic expertise in order to discriminate between good and bad ideas, valid and invalid arguments, sound and hare-brained methods. This is what academics do when we curate syllabuses, make appointments, allocate graduate places and funding, peer-review papers and books, and invite speakers. (Srinivasan 2023, p. 3)

Generally speaking, we don’t regard these various curatorial or discriminatory practices as curtailing academic freedom, but as embodying it. We would actually lack academic freedom, or at least have to settle for a heavily diluted form of it, if academic conversations were open to all-comers. Judgments about quality of contribution, and our ability to use those judgments to focus on contributions that are likely to pay dividends, are a large part of what we value about academic freedom.

As a result, we needn’t take the wishes of various contemporary conspiracy theorists as our commands. Not everything that obsesses under-informed academic outsiders deserves attention from academic insiders. The same goes even for those comfortably positioned within the academic circle. Some ideas and arguments are more exciting than others, and we’re entitled to focus on what we judge to be the most promising leads and directions, rather than pretending that everyone’s contribution is of equal interest at all times.

 

III. NO-PLATFORMING, GATEKEEPING, AND SELECTIVITY
In my view, the worries raised by no-platforming aren’t satisfactorily tackled by the gatekeeping argument and the selectivity argument. Why so? I’ll make three points.

The first point is concerned with the gatekeeping argument in particular. Even if being no-platformed amounts to a form of exclusion, and exclusion is just an ordinary fact of academic life, the grounds for excluding those who are no-platformed are plainly different. Being excluded on the grounds that you are incompetent differs from being excluded simply because there was never enough room in the inn for everyone (cf. Tadros 2022, n. 3, p. 973). No-platformed speakers don’t merely fail to make the cut; they’re withdrawn from the choice pool. The grounds of exclusion are different, and thus the message conveyed to these speakers, and to others, is different.

Of course, this first point only withdraws a certain cushioning from the way in which the gatekeeping argument can be presented. The gatekeeping argument itself isn’t refuted by it. We can keep academic outsiders out with or without a smile and the kindly reminder that exclusion is an occupational hazard for everyone. But this brings me to the second point, which is that the grounds on which no-platforming is typically urged also suggest differences from the grounds encompassed by the gatekeeping argument. Those who are no-platformed are usually rejected following protests, among students or faculty or both, where these protests are explained by the dangerousness or harmfulness of the moral and political views of those being targeted for no-platforming. These speakers’ presence, no-platformers will say, would be an intolerable provocation to certain members of the audience, and cause some members of the community to be, or to feel, ‘unsafe’. Thus it is harm-prevention, not methodological incompetence, which lies at the business end of no-platforming.

In some cases, you might be dangerous or harmful precisely because of your incompetence or naïveté: think of the clueless conspiracy theorist. Even so, the grounds adduced for no-platforming and the grounds addressed by the gatekeeping argument seem unlikely to march in tight formation. When the chips are down, it’s the harmfulness of the views, not the fact that they’re the product of incompetent scholarship, which is going to matter to no-platformers. (Would a careful, scholarly-looking defence of racism or homophobia with a wide variety of sources be welcomed by no-platformers?) Moreover, it’s unlikely that we could demonstrate incompetence in individuals’ work simply because their views were such as to cause offence or alarm or to compromise others’ safety.

Now for some, this issue may actually be moot, because of the prevalence of theorizing in contemporary philosophy about conceptual amelioration or engineering. Our concepts may need to be revised to offset their oppressive footprints and to advance the interests of individuals who belong to historically oppressed groups. Those thinkers who advance doctrines which antagonize members of historically oppressed or vulnerable groups may be trafficking in concepts that haven’t been updated to reflect these particular concerns. So can’t a charge of incompetence be levelled at them? That looks like a rash judgment. These are unsettled, controversial issues, and the jury is still out on them. As I see it, new scholarly equilibria can be convincingly established only through patient discussion, not through the roughhouse tactics of no-platforming. If rival views are inadequate, they need to be tested and quarrelled with, not summarily dismissed as being unworthy of further engagement.

This suggests a third point: the gatekeeping argument may generate perverse incentives to label morally and politically contentious views as incompetent in order to justify their exclusion from debate. This seems common enough, at least in everyday exchanges on social media and elsewhere, about politically charged topics. Think of all those instances in which the recalcitrant or questioning are fobbed off with the stern instruction to READ THE LITERATURE. We probably wouldn’t encounter that timbre of response when half-baked contributions were made to exchanges about epistemicism or the normativity of logic. If I asked experts in these areas a naïve question, I might expect them, sooner rather than later, to bring to light my ignorance about those issues. But I wouldn’t expect the drawbridge to close immediately. I wouldn’t expect my interlocutors to instruct me in solemn terms to remain silent until I was up to speed on the literature. Everyday gatekeeping can be at its most strident in debates where the intellectual price of entry is actually more modest, and that should make us suspicious of the function it is meant to serve.

If gatekeeping is to play an active role in the explanation of no-platforming, then it will require gatekeepers. But gatekeepers may be simply those credentialed academics who have captured a certain debate and who then insist that their deep presuppositions and assumptions must be affirmed by anyone new who comes along. There are different ways of thinking about this state of affairs. On the one hand, certain assumptions may need to be upheld in order to yield a stable though provisional scholarly centre, one which will permit further orderly progress. On the other hand, we may have what can be honestly characterized as oligopolistic groupthink: a form of protectionism against honest intellectual competition, not a way of safeguarding genuine contributions to scholarship. We must find ways of establishing standard working assumptions without rushing to condemn those who question them for incompetence. Resisting calls for no-platforming may offer us a positive step in this direction.

 

IV. RESPECT, SAFETY, AND THE BONDS OF ACADEMIC COMMUNITY
The ‘Freedom of Expression’ protocol adopted by my employer, the University of Leeds, ‘tolerates a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial or provocative’, but it also reminds us that freedom of expression ‘has to be set in the context of the University’s values, and the values of a civilised, democratic, inclusive society’. What does this mean in practice? It means, in part, that freedom of expression is restricted by the University’s requirement to display ‘due regard to the need to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it’, and it obliges speakers to be ‘sensitive to the diversity of its inclusive community, and to show respect to all sections of that community’.

This protocol is a typical one: protocols and statements of academic freedom issued by other universities are phrased in a similar way. But it presents us with the challenge of having to reconcile respect with provocation. If I have an ascriptive characteristic which makes me part of an historically oppressed group, and I’m provoked by a view, or find it outrageous, because I think it mischaracterizes me and people like me, or sells us short, I will be much less likely to agree that it respects me. But if it doesn’t respect me, then it won’t be welcome on my campus. Now perhaps I’m simply not the best judge of which views respect me, and which don’t. If so, my protests can be overridden. That is an uncomfortable line to maintain, and not one to be embraced without careful thought. I’ll return to it below.

In the meantime, there is a more general point to think about. The management teams in universities preside over communities that must be willingly cooperative and reasonably harmonious if they’re to get anywhere in the activities of teaching, learning, and research. We all have to be steering together in the same direction. The ideal of an academic community, after all, is not fundamentally deferential. The ultimate aim must be to allow us to see things for ourselves, rather than blindly deferring to authorities because that’s what the authorities have instructed us to think. But the institutional complexities and realities of university life make us all too aware of hierarchies and asymmetries of power: there are relations of vertical authority wherever you look.

There must be ways of curbing these asymmetries and fostering academic community. One obvious way of doing this is by listening to students. And that may give us some sort of case for acquiescing to students’ (and in some cases, also faculty’s) demands for the no-platforming of certain speakers, if it is seriously alleged that their presence on campus would lead to feelings among audiences of unsafety or ostracism or the conviction that they have been shown gross disrespect. The refusal to go along with these demands may increase disaffection among students and some faculty, thereby making it less likely that these individuals will engage productively and willingly with others in the academic community. If their complaint is that these invitations make them unsafe, one underlying concern may be that they don’t feel sufficiently valued as members of a community that in some sense makes collective decisions about whom they can profitably engage with. If their expressions of distaste or anger about speakers aren’t heeded, they may be more likely to conclude that they count for less. We should avoid this sort of situation if we can.

These dynamics are part of university life, and it is sensible to expect there to be some give and take. Not every battle has to be fought, and not every hill has to be died on. One thing we should note, though, is that the proper management of these issues isn’t fundamentally concerned with competence or the maintenance of intellectual standards, and it can’t be understood simply as a corollary of selectivity. At bottom, these issues present us with a trust exercise, an invitation to engage in quid pro quos and sensible management of potential conflicts among management, faculty, and students.

There are limits to this sort of accommodation, however. The ideas we’re exposed to in higher education should be capable of surprising us or making us uncomfortable. And that friction shouldn’t be unwelcome. (This is a familiar enough point from Mill’s On Liberty: how could it fail to be relevant to what we do in universities?) If these ideas disturb our worldview, we’re not entitled on those grounds alone to banish the speakers who espouse them, even if we think their ideas and arguments fall short. How do we distinguish, then, between unsafety and discomfort? Mere hostility to certain ideas or the speakers associated with them won’t be enough, because it won’t in and by itself discriminate between the feelings of unsafety we should be taking seriously and the feelings of wider intellectual discomfort we all need to put up with. We may know how we feel and what we think, but the significance and implications of those feelings and thoughts aren’t always luminous. More, then, will often need to be said before final decisions can be taken.

The point is sometimes made that the demand to say more will add to the burdens of those who are protesting against the invitations of controversial speakers; it will add to their ‘emotional labour’. There’s only so much we can do to eliminate this problem. Taking part in heated discussions in which one is heavily invested can indeed be laborious, and more laborious for some than for others. Emotional labour can’t be removed altogether, and we shouldn’t adopt the policy of avoiding discussions in which it may need to be expended. These burdens are simply a price that must be paid, however regrettably, for arriving at a more lucid view of what’s at stake in these cases, while respecting a university’s mission to advance truth and understanding.

 

V. NO-PLATFORMING: THE RECKONING
Some no-platforming goes on behind closed doors, because it takes the form of not issuing invitations to speakers in the first place. There’s little the UK government can do about this, short of imposing clumsy ideological or political quotas on who gets invited and who doesn’t. This would be an intolerable interference with academic freedom. Ahmed should leave these decisions alone.

But what about those who are invited, and then no-platformed? These cases are out in the open. We can talk about them, and approve or disapprove of them. In my view, we shouldn’t be relaxed about these cases of no-platforming on the grounds that it’s just a fact of life that not everyone who would welcome an invitation can expect to get one, or because we’re merely trying to maintain intellectual standards. Those considerations don’t get at the heart of the problem. Perhaps we might think that acquiescing to the demand for no-platforming is an acceptable way of managing community relations, or of helping to convince the protestors that they are equally valued members of university communities. That is a relevant consideration, though it doesn’t establish that no-platforming is the only or even the best way of showing relevant concern and respect for them. (It should also be noted that there’ll be other members of the community who’ll be disappointed or feel shortchanged if these speakers aren’t invited.) The central point is that we should be able to embrace the importance of discussing ideas we dislike or find disturbing or uncomfortable, and this commitment should be legible in the policies that universities adopt.

There is a bleaker underlying issue which I’ve barely touched upon here: many people used to think that uncensored discussion was a way of making progress, and now many people seem to think that uncensored discussion is just another way of maintaining power differentials or oppressive social structures. I suspect that our traditional assumptions about what universities stand for make fullest sense against a background of liberal optimism in which we can make some form of intellectual progress by talking things over. Universities aren’t activist centres or facilities for ideological reconditioning, the thought will go, because they’re places in which we can get somewhere through uncensored (though structured) many-sided discussion instead. On this view, valuable contributions can emerge, in sometimes unexpected ways, from any number of individuals, regardless of socio-economic background, with a shared commitment to truth and some capacity to contribute productively to the search for it. But what if many members of academic communities have become disenchanted with this broadly liberal vision? A tricky issue. Discuss. Nothing off limits. Speak your mind.[1]

 

[1] Thanks to Carl Fox, Kida Lin, and Joe Saunders for comments on previous drafts.

References
Simpson, Robert, and Srinivasan, Amia. (2018). ‘No Platforming’, in Academic Freedom, ed. Jennifer Lackey, pp. 186-209. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Srinivasan, Amia. (2023). ‘Cancelled’, London Review of Books, 45(13), pp. 3-10, 29 June.
Tadros, Victor. (2022). ‘The Rights and Wrongs of No-Platforming’, Modern Law Review 85: 968-96.

 

 

No Platforming: Academic or Moralistic?

ROBERT SIMPSON

Although Gerald Lang is critical of mine and Amia Srinivasan’s defence of no platforming, I agree with a fair bit of what he says. So I’ll begin with some stage-setting to bring our disagreements into focus. Lang is dissatisfied by the mismatch between

(1) The in-principle justification for no platforming that Srinivasan and I offer, and

(2) The actual motives that inspire real-life instances of no platforming.

What is our justification for no platforming? Building on work by Robert Post and Michele Moody-Adams,[1] Srinivasan and I defend no platforming by likening it to the ordinary processes of academic gate-keeping that surround discipline-based teaching and research. Gatekeeping sounds iffy, but it’s really just another way of saying that academic work is built on intellectual standards. We don’t rule out any view pre-emptively, on purely ideological grounds, but we do – in basically all of our teaching and research work – decide which views get a full hearing by judging how intellectually credible they are. Roughly, Srinivasan and I say that no platforming is justifiable when it’s an implementation or reasonable extrapolation of those ordinary processes.

What about (2)? What are the motives that inspire real-life instances of no platforming? Obviously different no platformers are driven by different things, but still, as Lang rightly observes, quite a lot of real-life no platforming (maybe most of it) isn’t aimed at academic gatekeeping. Often, instead, real-life no platforming is inspired by the no platformer’s desire to suppress views that are, by her lights, immoral or harmful.

So, Srinivasan and I are discussing and defending an atypical species of no platforming. We’re making the case for Academic no platforming. But despite various superficial resemblances, this species is distinct from – and crucially, it’s more easily defended than – the Moralistic variety of no platforming that dominates in the wild.

Beyond the initial observation that there is a mismatch between (1) and (2), Lang is worried that our defense of Academic no platforming might support groupthink in the academy. University departments and scholarly disciplines shouldn’t be run as intellectual fiefdoms. We can’t let scholarly cartels exploit their disciplinary authority to suppress heterodox views. And no platforming can be used like this. Opposing it can therefore be a way of protecting heterodox ideas and resisting groupthink.

Srinivasan and I basically agree with Lang about the badness of groupthink. But we have a less pessimistic view about how gatekeeping is related to it. Where Lang thinks that gatekeeping supports groupthink, we think it can also potentially disrupt it. It depends on how the power to gatekeep is distributed. (Consider what happens when a journal appoints a new, young, hip editorial team, who then launch a plan to broaden the journal’s scope and stylistic norms.) In any case, we agree that the experts in any academic discipline are fallible – that they are affected by biases, in-group pressures, disciplinary inertia and methodological conservatism – and that heterodox views sometimes need to be protected. Chauvinistic gatekeeping, via no platforming or any other means, clearly undermines the epistemic success of academic communities.

The real crux of Lang’s worry, though, with mine and Srinivasan’s focus on Academic no platforming, is that it invites Moralistic no platformers to speciously denounce the academic competence of views that they oppose, in order to rationalise the suppression of those views. We’re saying people can be properly denied an academic platform if their work is intellectually sub-par. Of course there are caveats. There are good reasons to avoid rescinding invitations, and very good (academic-freedom-based) reasons not to rescind invitations issued by academic staff under the auspices of their teaching or research. But regardless of such caveats, Lang thinks our approach “may generate perverse incentives to label… contentious views as incompetent in order to justify their exclusion from debate.” In short, folks who want to Moralistically no platform others will pretend they’re engaged in a legitimate form of Academic no platforming.

I don’t want to brush this aside. These pretences are real and worth worrying about. We’ve all seen cases of people being disingenuous or self-deceived about why they dislike the views they dislike. We’ve seen people pretend that they find some view to be intellectually sub-par, when what’s really going on is that they’re outraged and they want to see it quashed. Probably lots of us do this, and it’s a cheap move at best.

So, point taken. But I still want to push back on two fronts.

First, at the risk of being a bit cute, I don’t think these incentives are generated by mine and Srinivasan’s argument. They’re just there, in lots of debates, including over which views get platformed at universities. In the midst of a hard-nosed debate there is always a temptation to undercut opposing views by saying that they’re too stupid or ill-informed to deserve a hearing. People seeking to justify the no platforming of views they oppose don’t need a philosophy paper to entice them into this style of critique.

Second, regardless of how these incentives arise, isn’t this – that is: the question of academic competence – still an appropriate place to focus our attention, when we’re judging calls for no platforming? The reason Holocaust denialism doesn’t get platformed at universities isn’t only that it’s anti-Semitic. So is a fair bit of 19th and 20th century German philosophy, after all. Holocaust denialism is out of bounds in part because it so shamelessly and moronically flouts the canons of serious inquiry. It ignores facts, brazenly reasons in circles, and conspiratorially dismisses counterevidence.

If you want to claim that other controversial views – ones that haven’t been conclusively discredited – nevertheless should be placed outside of the university’s sphere of serious inquiry, alongside Holocaust denialism and other quackery, then you have to make your case. And if your case holds up – if the views in question can be shown to be anti-intellectual rubbish; if the only way to buy into them is by echo chambering yourself – then that suggests those views really aren’t owed a platform at universities.

The evaluation of such charges can go awry, and that’s obviously a bad thing. But I don’t believe that a defence of Academic no platforming is responsible for either (a) attempts to disguise Moralistic no platforming, or (b) others being taken in by those attempts. Disciplines and departments (and individual academics) need to be able to make credible judgements about which views satisfy the standards of disciplinary competence, enough to get a hearing in academic settings, and which don’t. Pretty much every piece of syllabus design, teaching delivery, academic writing, refereeing, publishing, and visiting speaker planning rests on a foundation of these judgements.

Participants in an academic field are within their rights, then, to argue that particular ideas and arguments are outside the bounds of proper disciplinary attention. It’s then up to all of us to assess the charges. We should do this carefully, open-mindedly, and in a way that resists the vices of in-group ignorance.[2] And yes, it will also help if charges of incompetence aren’t tossed about willy-nilly – if people pause and take a breath before trying to academically exile the views they dislike. Still, academic communities had better have the capacity to tell the difference between credible charges of incompetence, and those that are just Moralism masquerading as critique. I suppose I’m more optimistic than Lang is about whether this capacity remains intact, overall, in today’s academic communities. (It’s also worth asking: if this capacity isn’t intact, then wouldn’t a surge in crypto-Moralistic no platforming be the least of our worries?)

Part of Lang’s dissatisfaction with our defence of Academic no platforming is that it’s dodging one of the pressing questions in the vicinity. How should we deal with Moralistic no platforming? Lang’s sketch of an answer is attractive. He acknowledges, helpfully, that there’s a need for pragmatic give-and-take. He also suggests – more controversially, but again, helpfully – that feelings of offense and disrespect can receive some consideration, in how we do the give-and-take. If having certain speakers on campus “would lead to feelings among audiences of unsafety… or the conviction that they have been shown gross disrespect,” this may “increase disaffection among students and some faculty, thereby making it less likely that these individuals will engage productively and willingly with others in the academic community.”

I agree. To say this isn’t to deny that the university’s core purposes are inquiry and knowledge. It’s to recognise that we’re pursuing these things communally, and that communities need some degree of respect and moderation in order to hold together. There are complex balancing acts to be figured out, and hard choices to face.[3]

Still, Lang says, “the proper management of these issues isn’t fundamentally concerned with competence or the maintenance of intellectual standards.” I guess it depends on exactly what we mean by fundamental. As I said above, the reason Holocaust denialism lies outside the bounds of serious academic discourse isn’t only that it’s anti-Semitic, but also that it’s complete bunk. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for scientific racism. It’s primarily political opposition that leads to climate change denialism being no platformed at universities, but the fact that it’s built on a bed of anti-scientific, conspiratorial lies lends support to the widespread view that this ostracism is justifiable.

What do these examples indicate? Roughly, they indicate that our ethical and intellectual reasons for gate-keeping interact. Not always, but fairly often. And when they do interact, their interaction isn’t some unaccountable coincidence. If the Holocaust denier’s factual claims were true then their denialism wouldn’t be rank bigotry. The abhorrence of their view is intimately tied to the patent indefensibility of its intellectual / academic foundations. In sum, then, the management of these issues – that is: the work of deciding how the curation and platforming of speaking events at universities should be handled, and when it may be guided by considerations of respect, safety, inclusion, etc. – plausibly does relate to the maintenance of intellectual standards. The question is how the various relata fit together. Our defence of Academic no platforming isn’t a final answer to that question. But it does some real work in explaining why academic gatekeeping and adjacent considerations do need to be part of the answer.

I’ll finish by commenting on Lang’s remarks about open debate and liberal optimism. He says “traditional assumptions about what universities stand for make fullest sense against a background of liberal optimism, in which we can make… intellectual progress by talking things over.” And he worries what will happen if “many members of academic communities… become disenchanted with this broadly liberal vision.”

I think these are the right sorts of questions for us to wrestle with. But I want to pull apart some things that seem to be welded together in Lang’s framing of the issue. There are different ways of envisioning liberal progress, and different forms of discursive disenchantment. I would ask: what sort of “talking things over” are we, or should we be, vesting our hopes in? Is it a no-holds-barred, Millian free-for-all? Or is it more like the expert back-and-forth that characterises serious scholarly discourse in a mature field? To put the question another way: is it more like a debate on X / Twitter, or more like a debate in the pages of a high-quality and scrupulously-edited journal? The right answer may well be “a mix of the two.” In which case my next question would be: “what’s the best role for universities to play in helping to achieve the right mixture?”[4]

Maybe I’m pulling the wool over my own eyes, but I’m pretty sure that I do have a healthy liberal optimism that we can make progress by talking things over. But I don’t think the more naïve Millian forms of that optimism have a lot going for them. I think societies have a better chance of making progress if they set up some discursive venues in which attempts at “talking things over” have more onerous barriers to entry, and are governed by more exacting intellectual standards – more exacting that the ones that govern debates on Twitter, on talk radio, at family gatherings, or at the pub.

You could see this as a pessimistic view. But it’s better seen as a way of reviving a form of liberal optimism, among the ranks of those who’ve lost faith in the pollyannaish social epistemic hopes that underpin classical liberal ideas of the university and its discursive norms. Universities do contribute to progress by making spaces for talking things over. When this works it’s often because of academic gatekeeping, and the way it makes our debates unlike the ones on social media or at the pub. To see no platforming through this lens isn’t to call for disenchantment. It’s about offering a different vision of how universities contribute to intellectual progress by means of debate.

 

[1] Robert C. Post, Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Michele Moody-Adams, “What’s So Special About Academic Freedom?” in Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole (Eds.), Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[2] I have in mind the kind of vices, especially ones linked to active ignorance, that Jose Medina theorises (especially in Chapters 1 and 2 of) The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] I offer some thoughts on how to approach these choices, and what they indicate about the ethical foundations of the university, in Robert Mark Simpson, “Doing Collective Inquiry Better – The Alignment between Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and Academic Freedom/Free Speech in UK universities,” Advance Higher Education, 18th October 2023; https://advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/doing-collective-inquiry-better-alignment-between-equality-diversity-and-inclusion.

[4] These are rhetorical questions for the purposes of this piece, but I do a bit of work to try to defend the answers I’m hinting at in Robert Mark Simpson, “The Relation Between Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” Ethics 130/3 (2020): 287-319.

12 Replies to “Soup of the Day – Free Speech and Academic Freedom, with contributions from Gerald Lang and Robert Simpson

  1. I’m very grateful to Rob Simpson for taking the time to reply to my piece. There’s much in it with which I agree. In fact, I’d like to agree with Rob on pretty much everything, since he paints an attractively optimistic picture of how the academic community can contribute usefully to matters of public importance while maintaining its intellectual shape and integrity. This is something we’re both keen to see. Like Rob, once more, I see academic contributions as being structured, not the product of an unseemly free-for-all.

    We can also agree on some of the cases he mentions. Holocaust deniers aren’t just bad people, but intellectually incompetent people; they’re not just anti-Semites, but lousy historians. The same will go for some conspiracy theorists who systematically distort, disregard or fabricate evidence in pursuit of questionable ends. The gatekeeping argument can satisfactorily reconcile us to the fact that many speakers and viewpoints don’t receive any significant airtime in the vast majority of universities, and I didn’t mean to imply in my piece that I’m unhappy about any of this.

    Still, this isn’t why the UK Higher Education Act was passed, and I tentatively assume that Arif Ahmed isn’t spending his days cutting better deals for Holocaust deniers and loony tunes conspiracy theorists.

    I didn’t say much about this in the piece, but I suspect that one of the relevant obstacles to having satisfactory policies about academic freedom is the conviction among some members of the academic community (both teachers and students) that academia is in the service of promoting progressive political causes. On this view, we know about these causes on the ground, and academic work should be in the business of furthering them. Anything else would be self-indulgence at best, and complicity at worst.

    We need to abandon this stance. We have to go beyond optics in academia. Academic discussion is always going to be messy and complicated, and it’s always going to be full of awkward customers and awkward conversations. It’s not a branch of activism or retail politics. It’s not trying to get from A to B. It always takes the scenic route.

    Now you can of course be politically committed and you can be a committed activist while being a serious academic scholar. But these spheres of activity are very different. Academic discussion is never going to be like a march or a protest, where everyone is on-message, and the message is plain, and the power of the protest consists, in part, in the fact that everyone visibly stands as one under that banner. So it’s important not to exclude voices and positions and views which you think get it wrong, because the truth, or at least your reasons for supposing certain views to be true, is going to emerge out of engaging with this complicated mix.

  2. Many thanks for these terrific pieces. I have a few questions/comments for Rob:

    [1] How would the gate-keeping argument apply in cases where students, rather than faculty members, demand no platforming? Should students’ demand also be conceived of, and be judged by the standards of, academic gatekeeping?

    [2] The following seems possible. View X has been sufficiently debated, and has been judged by most disciplinary experts to be mistaken. But the view is still widely held by the public. So while view X fails the standards of academic gatekeeping, it ought not to be no-platformed in certain venues (such as talks at student societies, or debates at public-facing debating chambers). Relatedly, there may be a need for spaces that are less serious than seminar rooms and academic journals, and more serious than pubs and Twitter. It may be inappropriate to apply the standards governing seminars and journals to these spaces.

    [3] It can often be difficult to know whether a conclusion can be competently defended until we see how it is defended. No platforming preempts certain conclusions from being defended in the first place. This may give us a reason to err on the side against no platforming.

  3. I agree with Kida Lin that a distinction should be made between academic and non-academic venues: different standards may be appropriate to both. I also have a couple of comments for Gerald Lang. I agree with the drift of your article, but I think you could have pushed harder against the no-platformers in a few places.

    First, you rightly note the deadening intellectual homogeneity of many academic communities, but are oddly dismissive of the thought that “perhaps we need to reconsider how these communities are populated in the first place”. We can all agree that quotas for creationists (your example) are a non-starter, but surely efforts can and should be made to create more interesting and sane kinds of intellectual diversity. A department of political theory that contains no conservatives at all, or only one – this is not uncommon, by the way – is likely to be a dull place to work, not just for the single conservative but for his or her colleagues, who need never be confronted with searching criticisms of their own first principles. It will also contribute to the common public image of universities as partisan institutions, rather than as places in which a wide range of opinion is aired and debated – and this is bad for their authority.

    Second, I would be more critical than you of the rhetoric of “unsafety”. You say that there might sometimes be a case for “acquiescing to students’ (and in some cases, also faculty’s) demands for the no-platforming of certain speakers, if it is seriously alleged that their presence on campus would lead to feelings among audiences of unsafety…”. I see such demands as a form of emotional blackmail. If a speaker’s presence on campus actually makes audience members unsafe – by threatening to provoke a riot, say – we may be obliged to rescind the invitation. But if it merely makes them feel unsafe, we are not obliged to do anything. Subjective feelings of unsafety can not be the basis of claims against individuals or institutions, or we would all be hostage to the hypochondria of our fellows.

    Anyhow, I’ll stop there. Let me know what you think.

  4. This is a wonderfully educational exchange. My thanks to both authors.

    I do wish conversations like this among academics could suffice, without inventing modes of subjection to administrative energies. “There must be ways of curbing these asymmetries and fostering academic community.” Indeed. There must be, and a good question to ask is whether new concentrations of top-down power are among those ways.

  5. This is a very thoughtful and useful discussion. I would like to observe, however, that it in discussing moralistic no-platforming, attention is only paid to no-platforming that threatens in some way members of the academic community that hosts the person who is no-platformed. No-platforming efforts are often motivated by a desire to block speech that is judged by the no-platformers as contributing to an unjust threat to some wider group (e.g., attempts to no-platform Peter Singer because of a perceived threat to disabled infants). I believe that, in principle, this sort of no-platforming can be perfectly justified. Even if a speaker’s talk at a single university clearly won’t, by itself, inflict unjust harm, it can be part of a broader effort that does inflict unjust harm. Although stopping the talk may be an ineffective or even (by creating yet another free speech martyr) counterproductive way to defend those unjustly threatened by the ideas that would have been expressed, the speaker may be liable to necessary and proportionate defense because they are among those who, collectively, pose a threat of unjust harm. No-platforming can be an instance of justified defense.

  6. Thanks so much for the thoughtful posts and discussion so far. I agree with Kaila that there are justified instances of no-platforming that are concerned with protecting people external to universities. These may well be the strongest cases. I think that justified cases are rare, but there are such cases. One case that I consider in the piece that Gerald cites is the no-platforming of those supporting apartheid South Africa in the 1980s; especially South African politicians. One way of justifying no-platforming in that case is 1) apartheid supporting speakers were reinforcing the apartheid system. So 2) They forfeited their right to a platform (unlike some of the others in this debate, I think that people have rights to platforms, and that those who allocate platforms owe potential speakers a fair allocation of speaking opportunities). 3) public protest and the denial of a platform made an important contribution to ending apartheid; and 4) challenge in the course of debate was much less likely to make that contribution because of social disadvantage of the victims of injustice.

    One thing worth noting about this case, and other justified cases, is that those who are victims of the injustice are not equal participants in discussion. The defence of free speech that relies on the free marketplace of ideas to foster challenge, debate and discussion of offensive views relies at least to some extent on access to the marketplace for victims of injustice who can then mount challenges in their own voice, and where they will be listened to and not just dismissed. Where access is grossly unequal, and participants fail to understand injustice, or are disposed to perpetrate it, no platforming can provide an important corrective to inequalities that can become entrenched and reinforced by the distorted market of ideas. So I think that no platforming tends to be easier to justify where unjust attitudes that foster social injustice are deeply entrenched, excluding victims of injustice from equal participation in academic discourse, and where the free marketplace of ideas is therefore much less likely to result in successful challenge to wrongful speech. Victims of injustice, and those that support them, are then entitled to use other methods of securing justice, such as no platforming.

  7. Thanks to Ed, Kaila, and Victor for their comments. I’ll deal with Ed’s worries now, as best I can, and reply to Kaila and Victor later on.

    Ed raises two issues: one concerning academic demographics, and the other concerning unsafety. I’ll say something about them in turn.

    On academic demographics: I’ll make a few quick points, starting with the most concessive. (a) There’s certainly a danger that hiring practices may sometimes be skewed towards ‘people like us’: people we warm to or feel that we have something in common with over and above the more abstract commitment to inquiry. And that might generate certain clustering effects. (Other dimensions are also relevant here, such as age.) We need to make serious attempts not to exhibit those biases. (b) We should fear cures that are worse than the disease. We surely don’t want top-down quotas on the moral or political composition of academic departments. (c) I don’t think conservative writings – to take the example you cite – need local advocates for political philosophers to be able to engage with them, learn from them, etc., any more than I think that our ability to engage with Marx’s writings depends on the presence of card-carrying Marxists in the same corridor. I’m perfectly happy to read both Marx and Roger Scruton. Why do I need the nearby presence of advocates for them? (d) Perhaps, notwithstanding (a), there’s something to learn from the fact that most academics in humanities gravitate towards centre-left political positions. Is that necessarily the product of groupthink or an unreasonable distaste for rival views? Why should it be? Why can’t it help to indicate – I don’t say demonstrate – that this may be where the truth roughly lies? (I know there are debunking explanations for this view out there, but let’s look at them one by one.)

    On unsafety: I don’t think it’s irrelevant to how universities should be managed that students (or faulty) are greatly distressed by the visit of a speaker. What matters is that those who claim that their safety has been compromised should be able to explain why that is so. Part of what we might expect to get out of those conversations is to establish that the demand for no-platforming isn’t the product merely of intellectual distaste or resistance. Universities can sometimes be fairly acquiescent to student demands out of concern for the bottom line: money. This tendency should be resisted.

  8. On to some of the points raised by Kaila and Victor.

    Kaila’s other-defensive angle is interesting, but I think it has limitations. Let me focus on just one of the examples she gives: Peter Singer’s no-platforming. Now I am no supporter of Singer-style utilitarianism, but we either talk about his views, or we don’t. Surely we should! Is utilitarianism really beyond the pale? Of course not (say I). The decision to talk about Singer’s arguments, and the decision to extend an invitation to him, won’t imply any indifference to the fate of those individuals who would be adversely affected if his views were treated as a blueprint for policy. Our engagement with him might instead by explained by a particularly vivid interest in the protection of disabled infants. Why is it supposed that disagreeing with Singer (which presupposes engaging with him) is morally or politically questionable, while ignoring him is morally or politically valuable? I sense the influence here of a more activist conception of academic discussion, where the main thing is to be seen to be visibly for or against this view, this thinker, that cause. That conception of academic (and more broadly intellectual) discourse carries little appeal for me. Or perhaps the idea is that, if no one shows any willingness to discuss a particular view, then the view will simply wither away. This isn’t the way forward, it seems to me.

    Victor raises the instructive case of the no-platforming of South African spokesmen for apartheid in the 1980s. Of course, there were good reasons at the time for not extending invitations to paid shills for the apartheid state; and that lesson readily generalizes. There are also very good reasons for those with opportunities to provide speakers with platforms to ensure a lack of one-sidedness in who gets a voice. (I still don’t think that this sort of consideration can give anyone a right to speak, however.) Finally, I don’t think we’re dependent here simply on a ‘marketplace of ideas’, embedding various inequalities in influence and loudness of voice, because of the filtering role for academic gatekeeping that Rob discusses. It seems to me that no-platforming is a crude mechanism for furthering the ends of justice.

  9. Thanks for the reply Gerald. Nothing you say in that reply is inconsistent with anything I said in my comment. I don’t believe that people should refuse to discuss Singer’s views, I don’t suppose that disagreeing with Singer is questionable and ignoring him is valuable. I am not under the influence of some ridiculous activist conception of academic discussion, and I do not naively suppose that ignoring a view causes it to go away.

    Bottom line: I don’t deny that, in deciding how to defend oneself or others against a threat posed by unjust speech, it is a good idea to ponder carefully what would be the most effective way to defend. How often no-platforming is the most effective response is an open question, of course, and I am inclined to say that suppressing unjust speech is often but not always counterproductive.

  10. Thank you Gerald. Let me respond to the first point, about academic demographics. I think it’s important to have intellectual diversity within departments as well as across disciplines as a whole. There’s no substitute for face-to-face argument. Besides, if all departments in one discipline become homogenous in the same way – and this is a real danger – then even literary argument is ruled out. True, one can always spar with dead conservatives, like Roger Scruton, but it’s not quite the same.

    As for the thought that most academics are centre-left because that is where the truth lies – well, I think the onus is on you to eliminate more plausible explanations. Pre-1914 the overwhelming majority of German academics were nationalists and militarists. Is that where the truth lay? And if not, why assume we are in any better a condition?

  11. Thanks, Ed. Just a quick reply.

    I agree that conservative writings can be usefully engaged with, and that any writings or arguments worth engaging with are worth engaging with energetically. But I’m inclined to deny that there is any particular political or ideological composition to which the members of a department ought to conform. That is, I don’t think that any particular department of political philosophers would (ideally) require, say, the left-liberal egalitarian, the libertarian, the Straussian, the Marxist, etc., so that all non-crazy parts of the political spectrum were represented.

    This raises two potential worries. First, discussion will be less vibrant or revealing. Second, favouritism or prejudice will have been involved along the way. Now if favouritism isn’t involved, then we might expect to see a fairly loose distribution of expertise and coverage. But this is only a loose presumption. ‘X knows all about liberal egalitarianism, but Y covers all this stuff already. On the one hand, it would be good if Y and X had each other to talk to. On the other hand, we’d add breadth by adding Z rather than X.’ Etc. These types of conversation take place all the time. I don’t think any corruption is involved if hiring practices take the consolidating-strengths option rather than the adding-breadth option. The trade-offs here are subtle, and non-obvious. But it would be a shame, yes, if the adding-breadth option wasn’t enacted at least some of the time.

    You’re right, of course, that the academic community shouldn’t pat itself on the back for being on the centre-left simply because most of us happen to be on the centre-left: this is too quick a path to vindication! The tests do need to be sturdier than that.

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