Academic Freedom, Cancel Culture, and the Ethical Failings of Higher Education Professionals

September 2021

Over the past several months legislators in approximately twenty US states have introduced bills threatening the academic freedom of university faculty. Although the laws and proposed laws vary somewhat (you can read about them, along with some analysis, here, here, here, and here), they generally try to counteract the perceived adverse effects from teaching “divisive concepts,” mainly relating to race and sex, advanced from a supposedly critical theory perspective. For example, several bills prohibit teaching the idea that either the United States or any individuals are inherently racist or sexist. The legislation threatens to partially defund schools for noncompliance.

The legislation will limit open enquiry into a range of topics on college campuses. Several bills prohibit teaching ideas deemed false or wrong. The Pennsylvania bill prohibits colleges from hosting events in which the targeted ideas would be expressed. Several bills use vague and general language that will have chilling effects on learning. Teachers afraid of breaking the law will likely avoid topics that might be banned, and some of the ideas that are banned arguably have some merit and remain contested in academic circles. And obviously students will not learn why the banned ideas that are false or wrong are false or wrong if teachers will not be able to critically examine them. For supporters of academic freedom these legislative interventions are regrettable.

Some of these points have been made in a high-profile statement released on June 16th by the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and PEN America. Since then, 145 other higher education associations have signed onto the statement. In it they argue that the bills are too vague, that they will suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in American history, and that they violate faculty’s right to teach and students’ right to learn. The authors affirm the value of academic freedom and denounce political interference in the exercising of faculty’s rights. Their message to the politicians is clear: butt out.

The authors are right to denounce censorship and advocate for academic freedom, but their response is at best a half measure. Their insistence that the lawmakers should butt out because they are only making things worse misses the point. The obvious response to an attempt to solve a problem by adopting a “solution” that makes the problem worse is not to simply abandon the “solution” and live with the problem. It is to abandon the “solution” and solve the problem. Their statement is striking for what it omits – any recognition of, let alone culpability for, why the legislation was introduced in the first place. On this matter they are simply in denial. Many of the ideas that the legislators are trying to ban would not have gained the currency they have if the checks and balances that regulate the academic marketplace of ideas had not been corrupted by the subversive and unethical conduct of so many professional academics. Who is responsible for this? As self-regulating professionals, we are. Those 149 higher education associations, which consist mainly of faculty and who claim to represent faculty, can easily confirm the existence of the problem that prompted the legislators to act. All they need do is look in a mirror.

Higher education mainly operates on trust in the professionalism of experts. Trust consists in the three Cs – care or concern, competence, and character – and all three operate in healthy trusting relationships. We turn to professional experts in the expectation, or at least the hope, that they will act as our fiduciaries, specifically by caring for whatever aspect of our well-being with which they are entrusted, by exercising their competence reliably and dutifully. For academics this means not only that we will voluntarily observe ethical norms that guide us to seek the truth and knowledge fairly and objectively, but that we will hold each other to these norms and impart them to our students. We owe these duties to ourselves, as self-respecting agents, but we mainly owe them to society. It is part of our compact with the wider world: in return for the privilege of engaging in our intellectual work, we promise to seek the truth and the advancement of knowledge for the greater good while, minimally, adhering to basic standards of competence, and, ideally, aspiring to standards of excellence.

In denouncing the political motivations of the legislators as partisan (they accuse them of trying to promote a “state-ordered ideology”), the authors of the statement are engaging in some misdirection and political posturing. They are casting what is a failing in the professional ethics of their members as a divisive political issue. But a simple truth about politics is that democratic governments tend to interfere in the regulation of the professions only when prompted to by the public because self-regulation has failed. This is the case now in our profession. We have lost the trust of much of the public. It is also wrong to think that academics who oppose the political beliefs of their colleagues would support legislated censorship. Principled academics support the rights of other academics to study critical theory, and to present and defend their ideas even if they disagree with them. Those who have confidence in the functioning of an ethically regulated marketplace of ideas, one in which academic freedom rights are tempered by professional duties that guide the pursuit of truth and knowledge, believe that the truth will out. We can best facilitate this not by censoring those ideas, as the state legislators would do, but by subjecting them to sustained critical scrutiny.

The apparent reasonableness of the joint statement belies its obtuseness and self-serving motivation. The authors of the statement utterly fail to acknowledge the many and widespread transgressions of the norms of professional ethics by many of the faculty they represent. In recent years there have been a number of insightful critiques of our current situation. Heather Mac Donald, in The Diversity Delusion, Douglas Murray, in The Madness of Crowds, and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in The Coddling of the American Mind, to take three examples, all defend the view that a form of intellectual extremism associated with critical theory and its woke adherents are driving a reckless political culture that is pursuing a set of radical and flawed political goals while inflicting a variety of wrongful harms across society. What these analyses mostly undersell (Murray’s brief discussion of the fraudulent practices of some faculty notwithstanding) is the extent to which wrongdoing initiated or encouraged by university faculty members transgresses the ethical norms of our profession.

Consider cancel culture. In The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Jonathan Rauch argues that we are currently embroiled in an “information” or “epistemic war” in which the social and institutional supports that distinguish the formal constitution of knowledge from an unregulated marketplace of ideas are under threat from tactics that include the methods of cancel culture. Although we tend to think of cancel culture as a social movement that causes people to be fired from their employment for often minor reasons, this is just one of several tactics that undermine the constitution of knowledge by suppressing and stigmatizing the examination of ideas that challenge cancellers’ beliefs. Rather than refuting those ideas by appealing to evidence and argument, cancel culture techniques are forms of social coercion that deploy lying, irrelevant personal attacks, threats, and intimidation to try to silence, demoralize, isolate, and shame its targets.

Cancellers subvert the main justifying goal of professional academic enquiry: to search for truth and knowledge fairly and objectively, and to do so without regard for, or fear of violating, the social taboos of the day. Instead, cancellers amplify these fears, including by deploying what Rauch refers to as “secondary boycotts” – threats by association – that target anyone who would support or defend the primary target of a cancelling effort. In these endeavours they have been quite successful. They have fostered climates of fear and apprehension in our workplaces, including, sadly, in our classrooms. Of course, the authors of the statement, along with those 149 associations, fail to mention this. They could have used the opportunity of issuing a statement to show some leadership and courage by speaking out against this climate. They could have called on all faculty to uphold their duties to hold their colleagues to account, and not simply stand idly by while their colleagues are attacked by other faculty who practice the methods of cancel culture. Instead, they acted just as faculty who turn a blind eye to the shameful conduct of their colleagues act. And like these people, they continue to perpetuate this climate of fear. This says something about them, something quite apart from their failings of professional ethics.