I came across an interesting post by Mark Carrigan called the (coming) crisis of free speech in the digital university. The underlying issue is the suggestion that there is a crisis of free speech in higher education. This is related, I think, to the lack of viewpoint diversity, highlighted by the Heterodox Academy, who seem to think that we should be actively aiming to increase viewpoint diversity because
[f]ree speech and the exploration of unsettling ideas is threatened on many campuses.
I’ve written about the Heterodox Academy before and have been mostly unimpressed by what they suggest. If you want to know why, you should really read the earlier posts, but it’s not because I don’t think we should have more viewpoint diversity. My main concerns are that if biases are influencing how research is undertaken then we should improve scholarship, not introduce new biases. Additionally, I don’t actually see how we can actively increase viewpoint diversity, at least not in a way that doesn’t ultimately suppress other viewpoints.
As Mark Carrigan’s post says
The crisis of free speech in higher education is overdetermined. ….
…. we urgently need to reject the idea that the crisis of free speech is a matter of censorious millennials undermining the institutional culture of the university. This is such obvious nonsense as an account of the change underway in our universities that it wouldn’t even be worth engaging with, if it were not promulgated with such vigour by so many influential outlets.
There clearly are things happening on campus that all who value free speech should condemn. There are indications that the institutions themselves are trying to discourage speaking freely, there are some cases where the state itself appears to be suppressing certain views, and there are also even some activities on campuses that are objectionable.
However, many of those who are arguing that there is a crisis of free speech in higher education seem to use isolated events to suggest that the problem is pervasive; that the academy is full of people who are trying to suppress alternative views. The problem with this is that isolated extreme events can then be used to delegitimise any criticism of alternative views, which – ultimately – then acts to suppress the criticism.
I’ve seen similar tactics in the climate debate. Many who are regularly criticised will use extreme cases to suggest that all their critics behave in this way and, hence, that their critics are not only behaving in an unreasonable manner, but can be ignored.
This is my problem with the claims of a crisis of free speech in the academy. I don’t think that it is motivated by a genuine desire to protect free speech, but by a desire to promote certain views that are not as prominent as they would like. Rather than simply finding stronger arguments, they’re attempting to suggest that the academy is full of people who are trying to actively suppress alternative views, rather than there simply being many people who happen to disagree with their views.
I think there are valid free speech issues in higher education, but I really don’t think that the problem is that higher education is dominated by people who want to suppress alternative views. It may well be that some views dominate over others, but that’s probably inevitable; if those who hold under-represented views want these views to be more prominent, they should make more convincing arguments, not try to suppress those who do not agree with them.