Leader: We must guard the right to say the unthinkable

October 26, 2007

Two recent events on either side of the Atlantic have done little to iterate academe's commitment to free speech. Earlier this month, the University of California withdrew an invitation to former Harvard president Larry Summers because some of its academics felt offended by what they perceived to be his unacceptable views on the scientific capabilities of women.

Last week, Nobel laureate James Watson had to skedaddle back to the States after suggesting in a newspaper interview that blacks were on average less intelligent than whites. His appearances at the Science Museum in London and Bristol University were called off, his UK lecture tour abruptly cancelled and his job at a leading US research institution put on hold. One could at least conclude after these sorry episodes that academic celebrity offers no protection from outraged opinion. But demotic comfort aside, that is all that can be said of them.

The rebuff to Summers attracted little attention here; Watson's unvarnished views received blanket coverage. But whatever the dissimilarities of the opinions expressed (or in Summers' case largely inferred), or the manner of their expression, or the personalities involved, the two share the distinction of attracting unprecedented amounts of "liberal" obloquy and only sporadic collegial support. Support, that is, not for their views - purported or real - but for their right to express them.

Is this healthy? Almost certainly not. However appalled many academics were and are by Watson's insulting recent racial conclusions (or his earlier musings on the possibilities of aborting gays, artificially enhancing blondes or generally damning the religious), and however aghast they may be at the paucity of the science behind any of them, the worst possible response is to howl, to shut down debate, cancel lectures and replace discussion with deaf outrage.

This is not to minimise the offence caused nor to be blind to the vulnerability of those casually demeaned by ill-thought-out theses. In truth, those at the sharp end of discrimination are badly served by censorship. It should be obvious, for example - though many in higher education appear inexplicably unaware of it - that many who are susceptible to the blandishments of bigots are only confirmed in their prejudices if the highly educated react with collective horror to provocative theories on race and intelligence, or women and science, or gays and genetics. All they hear is collective denial - a conspiracy of the bien pensants to mask the truth.

Neither should we spend any time excusing Watson's asides as the confused mutterings of an elderly laureate or shrugging them off as the allowable eccentricities of a titanic thinker, as some have sought to.

The case for allowing disagreeable things to be said or not is not dependent on a person's age or stature. It is not even dependent on intellectual coherence - stupidity generally defies attempts to ban it and, after all, featherweight arguments are easily blown away. The case for allowing the difficult to be pondered, the shocking to be entertained, the offensive to be uttered and the unimaginable conceived is that the quest for knowledge demands it.

Universities exist, as everyone knows, solely to seek and impart that knowledge. What some have forgotten is that that journey inevitably includes episodes such as Watson's glorious discoveries as well as his intellectual cul-de-sacs. Knowledge cannot be pursued rigorously without the freedom to think the unthinkable and speak the unspeakable. And if academics cannot do that, who can?

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