I wrote a post a while ago about the newly formed Heterodox Academy. The basic motivation of the Heterodox Academy is [t]o increase viewpoint diversity in the academy, with a special focus on the social sciences. The basic idea being that there is too little political diversity in some academic areas that and this creates an environment with little viewpoint diversity and in which certain ideas become orthodoxy.
I had two main criticisms of the basic premise of the Heterodox Academy. One was simply that if there are biases in academia that can lead to poor scholarship, then the solution – in my view – is to promote good scholarship, rather than simply introducing a new set of biases. The other criticism I had was that even though I am a huge fan of diversity, there is – again, in my view – a difference between a diversity of intrinsic characteristics, and a diversity of viewpoints. I think it quite reasonable (in fact, essential) that people should not be personally challenged because of their characteristics; people of all races, genders, sexual orientations,…. should feel welcome in an academic environment.
Should this also be true for people of all viewpoints? I can’t see why. The right to express one’s views (within the law) is a fundamental part of a free and open society. Universities are intended to be sites of Academic Freedom, where people are free to do research that might produce inconvenient results, and to express views that may be uncomfortable to some. That doing so may create an environment in which people with certain viewpoints may not feel comfortable, or welcome, is not a reason to discourage people from doing so. Of course, doing so in a classroom setting may not be appropriate, but we’re talking here about viewpoint diversity amongst academics, rather than between academics and students. Which brings me to the reason why I’m writing this post now.
Something that has struck me about this whole topic is that it is often framed in terms of being a “free speech issue” and yet some of the proposed solutions (or some of the criticisms of the current system) appear to be suggesting that we attempt to constrain what others can say. This, to me, seems rather ironic, and is the topic of a recent article called The Free Speech Fallacy that discusses this in the context of the Heterodox Academy (H/T Joshua).
The basic point is that arguing against what others have said on the basis that what they’re promoting would impinge free speech, seems to essentially be doing what you’re critising others for supposedly doing. You’re not actually addressing what they’re saying; you’re simply trying to deligitimise it on the basis of it violating something we hold as fundamental to our societies. Even if you have a point, your argument is not really any better than the argument you’re criticising. Of course, given the existence of free speech, one is quite entitled to make such an argument, but then it’s hard to believe that you’re doing so because you greatly value free speech; it would seem more likely that you just don’t like what the other parties have said.