Well of Course Academic Freedom is Political

January 2022

The scope of my academic freedom and of your freedom of expression are not coextensive. That is, I can, and regularly do, say all kinds of stupid things in the bar that I would be rightly disciplined for publishing in a professional journal or claiming as a fact in a classroom. Such as? Such as the kinds of drivel that comes out of QAnon. In the bar I can say that the Dems are a coven of pedophiles. I can even name names. But not without evidence in the journals or in the classroom.

On the other hand there are questions I can ask, and offer tentative answers to them, in the journals or classroom that arguably could count as hate speech if articulated elsewhere. Such as? Such as that trans women are not women, or that the Indigenous people of this continent no more owned the land than did the buffalo that once grazed on it, or that slavery was a godsend, not just for their descendants, but for those who were themselves sold and shipped across the Atlantic in 1619. I can write or say these things not because they might be true – though I think in all three cases they are – but because they raise, respectively, important conceptual issues about identity, property, and harm, and because the raising of important conceptual issues is what philosophy is all about.

There was a time – albeit briefly – when academic administrators understood this. That time is now behind us. But notwithstanding they no longer understand this – or perhaps because they now understand it all too well – they still have to pay lip service to the language of academic freedom, while treating the raison d’être of it with utter contempt.

And how are they managing to pull this off? By disguising this abrogation of academic freedom as paying due attention to student safety. Each of the above-cited discussions makes trans, Indigenous, and black students, respectively, feel unsafe. In what way unsafe? That’s the question upon whom neither the petitioner nor the petitioned-to considers it incumbent on herself to answer. If pressed – and it’s regarded as churlish to press on this – what it is to feel unsafe is to feel uncomfortable. And what it is to feel uncomfortable – not unlike what it is to be trans or Indigenous or black – is to so self-identify.

Do I have a problem with any of this? I do and I don’t. I do because the invocation of woke-ism to abrogate academic freedom amounts to constructive dismissal from what, when I signed up for it, I had reason to believe I was signing up for. So I’m no longer writing and teaching philosophy. Pity that!

But I don’t have a problem with it insofar as the university continues to pay me rather well for performing this revised service. And insofar as I recognize that the kind of academic freedom we once and temporarily enjoyed was itself among the dividends of a radically contingent political victory, a victory that has been, as its detractors rightly lament, at the expense of competing political interests. That is, when trans, Indigenous, and black lives finally begin to matter, this is not the time to suggest they might not. And if that requires silencing these suggestions, even within the otherwise safe space of the academy, well, so be it!

So, it would seem, the struggle on behalf of and against academic freedom is, like everything else, a political one. In a political struggle appeals to principle are post hoc. All we can do, for what little it’s worth, is try to direct the attention of the widow whose mite has been paying for the one but now for the other, to the longer-term consequences of replacing critical thinking with the policing of thinking. Right now she’s a tad preoccupied with more pressing issues, like Covid. So I’m not holding out a whole lot of hope.