A time and place to shout out 'fire'

August 25, 2006

Academics must be free to express opinions, says Bob Brecher, but in the right situation and the right context.

Academic freedom has been in the headlines over the past few weeks: racist views at Leeds University; telling prospective London School of Economics students they will be taught by postgraduates; and then a survey showing that 39 per cent of academics "are silenced by fear of reprisals" (August 4).

But the debate as it is conducted does us little credit. One side rightly insists that academics must be free to express the truth as they see it, whether anyone likes it or not; the other insists, equally rightly, that the expression of some opinions is so insulting as to be unacceptable. Of course academics must not be prevented by their employers from stating inconvenient views; and of course academics cannot insult people with impunity.

If we are to defend academic freedom - as we must - we need to be clear what it is. An obvious starting point is that opinions are one thing, while who states them and in what circumstances is another. John Stuart Mill sorted this out more than a hundred years ago when he argued that every opinion must be aired, but one can't "shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre".

So a scholarly defence of the purported merits of fascism is one thing; a fascist activist airing it as part of a verbal attack on someone is another, whether or not that activist is an academic.

Or take the commodification of the universities. It may be inconvenient for some employers when the academics they employ criticise growing commodification. But that is too bad: academics' fundamental loyalty must be to the truth, not to their employer. On the other hand, that loyalty has to sit alongside academics being citizens. Haranguing first-year students during a lecture on commodification about how they meekly go along with the values of the marketised university would be unwarranted rudeness. But doing that at a political rally would not.

So why is it all so difficult? For two reasons, I think. First, students - like anyone - can be genuinely offended by something there is no good reason to be offended by. You cannot effectively teach people who know that you hold them in contempt; but neither can you teach people to think critically if they do not recognise any distinction between what they feel and what is the case. That position is founded on what some see as a hopelessly outdated rationalism but which is nothing of the sort. If we do not recognise that, then we cannot begin to make any appeal to academic freedom.

Second, there is a difference - too often unrecognised - between academics having the freedom to say what they think and anyone who is an academic having a right to be heard whatever they say and in whatever circumstances.

Heidegger comes to mind here. Saying whatever he thought in a seminar was one thing; his praise of Hitler in his inaugural address as rector of Freibourg University was another. Academic freedom is relevant to the seminar. It has nothing to do with the Freibourg address. Nor did Heidegger's being an academic make it incumbent on other academics to listen to him if they thought it was their responsibility, as citizens concerned with the fight against Nazism, not to. Similarly, whichever side you take, the debate about boycotting Israeli academics who do not raise their voices against their Government's policy is not a matter of academic freedom but of political responsibility.

We could start by at least getting those two things clear.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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