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Free speech fetishism is inimical to the university


This excellent essay points out something that ought to be incredibly obvious but isn’t, because of a coordinated right wing abuse of the concept of “free speech” in general and the First Amendment in particular:

The function of higher-ed institutions is not to mirror public opinion but to inform it. A diversity of opinion — “intellectual diversity” — isn’t itself the goal; rather, it is of value only insofar as it serves the goal of producing knowledge. On most unanswered questions, there is, at least initially, a range of plausible opinions, but answering questions requires the vetting of opinions. As some opinions are found wanting, the range of opinion deserving of continued consideration narrows. On some fundamental questions, a diversity of defensible doctrines — what the political philosopher John Rawls called “reasonable pluralism” — may persist, as it does, for instance, with respect to certain philosophical questions. All of these are worthy of analysis and debate. But colleges are under no obligation to balance warranted, credible, true opinions with unwarranted, discredited, false ones. The purpose of considering differing opinions about disputed questions is precisely to sort the wheat from the chaff. Only those opinions that survive scrutiny deserve to be treated as authoritative, and only until something better comes along.

Universities as universities are not free speech zones, like a public park or an unmoderated internet site, and trying to turn them into such a thing is inimical to their whole reason for existing, which is the pursuit of true knowledge. In particular, the idea that academic disciplines should make the pursuit of “diversity of opinion” their prime goal is facially insane, and becomes so whenever the discipline involves something that the public actually cares about, like for example making sure that bridges and buildings don’t just fall down:

The truth-seeking function of colleges and the social value of scholarly expertise are, it would seem, reasonably well understood with respect to the natural sciences, medicine, engineering, and certain of the social sciences. Few would expect a biology department to hire a creationist or a geography department to host a flat-earther. In these contexts, a premium is placed on getting it right, in part because the social costs of getting it wrong are significant. Structural engineering is seldom described as a “marketplace of ideas.” 

Every time I hear more bloviation about how the university must be open to all opinions because of John Stuart Mill’s extremely inapt metaphor I’m keenly aware that no actual thought is taking place, and instead what’s going on is idiotic virtue signaling about how A Diversity of Views Is The Most Important Thing in the World

No it isn’t. Intellectual diversity is a good thing within a university to the extent it leads to true knowledge. To the extent it doesn’t, it’s actually a bad thing. Universities don’t exist to give everyone a chance to air their opinions. They exist if anything for the opposite reason: to give people who know what they’re actually talking about — always a painfully small minority on any subject — a chance to advance human knowledge in a systematic way.

The university shouldn’t be open to all opinions any more than virologist should be open to all opinions when giving advice about vaccines, because most opinions are actually quite stupid and useless, and should be ignored, and, in the context of a well-functioning academic discipline, actively suppressed.

I had this to say about this subject six and a half years ago, and since then the rhetoric around it has gotten much more poisonous and absurd:

Universities are ongoing exercises in massive content discrimination, and indeed have to be by their very nature.  The notion that universities should be open to all viewpoints is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe anyone would defend it, except at the highest level of abstraction, which is the level at which such defenses invariably take place.

Universities should not be open to the viewpoints of Holocaust deniers or Sandy Hook truthers, to pick just a couple of a basically unlimited number of possible examples, because such views are false, and false views should not be given a forum within institutions dedicated to the pursuit of truth.

But where do you draw the line?  You draw it right here, every day, that’s where.  (“Right here” being within the university itself).  But who should have the authority to make decisions about what constitutes a controversial view that deserves a hearing, and what is misguided nonsense, or a noxious calculated lie, or a paranoid delusion? We should — we being the members of the scholarly community — BECAUSE THAT’S LITERALLY OUR JOB, or part of it, anyway.

Sorry for shouting but come on.

The point is that, within the university at least, viewpoint tolerance is not and cannot possibly be some sort of absolute value.  It’s a pragmatic tool in the pursuit of truth, and, like all such tools, it has its limits.   Duly invited speakers should not be shouted down, let alone physically attacked, but making the decision whether a speaker should be heard in the first place is not “censorship,” unless censorship means making distinctions between speech that is likely to advance the mission of the university and that which will not.  And if making that distinction is illegitimate, then intellectual life itself becomes totally impossible.

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