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Eusebius McKaiser: Let’s slay some academic freedom myths

COMMENT

We need to tackle the myth that every criticism of a bigoted academic is a threat to academic freedom. There is an old and tired debate being rehashed across media platforms in South Africa right now about academic freedom. 

Not only are most of the contributions sleep-inducingly boring, they mostly trade on paranoia rather than a substantive commitment to and rehearsal of robust engagement about ideas.

Firstly, the right to free speech in general and academic freedom more specifically does not entail immunity from a charge of racism or sexism or bigotry or prejudice. There is a weird implicit premise in some people’s contributions to this debate that merely criticising the content of someone’s academic paper or work constitutes a threat to academic freedom. That is ridiculous.

A better dialectal move is one that defends the content of the work of the person who is being criticised. In addition to that, you may also want to defend someone against an actual charge of prejudice by carefully analysing the contours of that moral debate. This requires direct ethical argument rather than argument about academic freedom.

If I say that an academic is racist or that a work of theirs is racist, that does not make me an enemy of academic freedom. That makes me an interlocutor in the debate who has staked a claim. Demand of me to justify my claim or demonstrate that my claims are false or unjustified. That is the best way to be a useful academic. 

What is less useful is to ignore the letter and the spirit of your opponent’s criticisms and to fall back on the lazy assertion that academic freedom is under threat. That is becoming a hackneyed response that often simply reveals a refusal to engage on the substance of criticisms that have been levelled against someone. Too many academics have ridiculously thin skins.

So, it is possible to be committed to academic freedom and to think that an academic produced a paper that is at least shoddy and at worst racist.

Secondly, it is also possible to be committed to academic freedom and think that a shoddy piece of academic work should not have been published. This too is wrongly being described as a position that threatens academic freedom. Take examples from outside of the academy that are instructive here. On a daily basis, media editors make judgments about what not to publish in a newspaper or online. 

A few years ago, I was part of a panel that had to investigate whether Independent Media should allow comments on its websites below published articles and, if so, under what circumstances and with what model in place. The entire panel was deeply committed to the constitutional values of speech rights but recognised that there are both moral and legal constraints on speech rights that are compatible even with liberal conceptions of speech rights.  

The same is true of the academy. Journal editors make decisions all the time about what and who to publish and what and who not to publish. These judgments are made across the academy daily in other ways: who to include and who to exclude in your curriculum content, for example. We recognise the academic freedom to make these judgment calls as a cornerstone of our liberal democratic society.

But that does not mean immunity from robust critique. If I wanted to argue, for sake of illustration, that a particular thinker should not have been included by my lecturer in a module I have signed up for, it seems to me that the lecturer’s least productive response to me would be to assert that they have the freedom to decide what to teach. That is trite, lazy and cowardly.

A deeper commitment to the very freedom that academic invokes in that lazy move would be role-modelled if they justified their choices more substantially by articulating and defending the reasons they made the choices that they did.

A battle of ideas should see us all committing to offer reasons in support of our views without claiming that our freedom to think or say or publish what we want is being trampled on. Enter the argumentation arena. Don’t see the arena as an existential threat. Meta-debates and normative theorising about academic freedom matter — which is why I accepted an invitation to give a public lecture on academic freedom at my alma mater a few years ago, relishing the opportunity to reflect on these contours. 

I am alive to the importance of debating and making sense of the conceptual, legal and ethical complexities of a debate about academic freedom, what it means and what red flags to look out for when it is under threat. But it is also important to be aware of people who abuse the phrase “academic freedom” to run away from a sincere contestation of uncomfortable debate about their work.

Which brings me, thirdly, to the final point about the academy. In one of the many articles doing the rounds on this debate, I saw someone drawing a distinction between academic discourse and political discourse. They characterised academic discourse as being rigorous and based on evidence. By contrast, they suggested that political discourse is sloppy and shouty. Here too, a myth needs to be slayed. We have many excellent academics who are rigorous.

Just recently I had the pleasure of interviewing University of the Witwatersrand researchers for a podcast series that teased out their academic research and featured them describing it to the public in conversation with me. I was in awe at their rigour and academic excellence. But let’s be clear, some academic work is poor, and the veneer of being at a university gives some people a presumption of academic excellence. 

Not all academic journals are rigorous; not all academic journals do good peer review work. There is, contrary to the waspish distinction this writer made between academic and political discourse, also a lot of politics within the academy, including the politics of publishing. 

There are journals that are prestigious and hard to get into. And there are journals that will publish work that should not even pass as a semester undergraduate essay. We should stop romanticising universities and rather assess each person’s contribution to society based on their individual effort.

The same is true of political discourse and public debate generally. There are writers, artists, commentators, and thinkers who do not have university degrees who show more intellectual rigour than many of us with degrees. Of course, if you look at the worst examples of media, like social media platforms, you will see lots of examples of appalling content. But you can find appalling content everywhere if that is what you are looking for, whether inside the academy or outside of it.

I think a better shift in our collective attitudes should be away from obsessing about people’s titles, and CVs; instead, we should learn how to engage each other generously and critically. There are obviously experts and, in some fields, like the hard sciences, the layperson cannot compete even if they are an autodidact. Experts and expertise matter, still, and that will continue to be the case.

But academic snobbishness and demands to be taken seriously just on account of being a degreed professional, or having the title “professor”, must be pushed back against. Far too many of us want to be taken seriously solely on the basis of having a degree or three. If you are guilty of this tendency, then you should ask your university for a refund.

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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