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Rescuing Liberalism from Silencing

Abstract

In this paper, I criticize two recent and influential arguments for no-platforming advanced by Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan and by Neil Levy, respectively. What both arguments have in common is their attempt to reconcile no-platforming with liberal values. For Simpson and Srinivasan, no-platforming does not contradict liberalism if grounded on the distinction between norms of free speech and norms of academic freedom; for Levy, those who defend the practice need not be accused of promoting paternalism. I argue that neither view succeeds: these authors’ views are in strong tension with core tenets of liberalism. I proceed as follows: after introducing some basic liberal principles, I explain Simpson and Srinivasan’s argument in more detail and argue that it is too strong for some their stated purposes; then I proceed to show that both Simpson and Srinivasan and Levy’s arguments would justify extremely closed universities; finally, after arguing that Levy’s stance does not circumvent paternalism, I present some evidence that no-platforming would be captured by censors and probably threaten the very academic freedom that the authors want to protect.

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Notes

  1. A left-liberal such as Nagel, for instance, writes that the “liberal ideal is not content with the legal protection of free speech for fascists but also includes a social environment in which fascists can keep their counsel if they choose” (2002, p 22). We can probably say the same of libertarians such as Robert Nozick, who would accommodate freedom of speech within his theory of individual rights. But the strength of John Rawls’ commitment to free speech is a separate case. It is well known that in his Theory of Justice he includes the right to free speech in his First Principle of Justice. What not many people know is that in 1991 the philosopher himself was involved in a free speech controversy. In an interview for a Harvard Crimson issue, he was asked about the case of a student who had hanged a confederate flag in a dormitory window. Rawls acknowledges that the idea transmitted by the flag is utterly unjustified, but he also suggests that he would not sanction the student. The interview can be read at http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hrp/issues/1991/Rawls.pdf. Access on June 08, 2020.

  2. See Kramer (2000) for a contemporary articulation of this view.

  3. Of course, if I’m not a Harvard student, I can’t invite people to give a talk there. Nor am I saying that a university is never allowed to withdraw an invitation or is always obliged to invite all points of view. Rejecting no-platforming is consistent with all this.

  4. Although CLU is a fictional institution, its values are not. The Woodward Report, issued by Yale University in 1975, can be understood as a strong commitment to CLU’s central values. Drawing on the experience of several instances of disinvitations and deplatforming attempts, the signatories agreed on many proposals about speech policies. Here are some examples: “It is desirable that individuals and groups register in a wide-open and robust fashion their opposition to the views of a speaker with whom they disagree or whom they find offensive. When such a speaker has been invited to the campus by one group, other groups may seek to dissuade the inviters from proceeding. But it is a punishable offense against the principles of the University for the objectors to coerce others physically or to threaten violence” (p. 30); “Nor does the content of the speech, even parts deemed defamatory or insulting, entitle any member of the audience to engage in disruption” (p. 31); “The banning or obstruction of lawful speech can never be justified on such grounds as that the speech or the speaker is deemed irresponsible, offensive, un scholarly, or untrue” (p. 30); and “The University and its schools should retain an open and flexible system of registering campus groups, arranging for the reservation of rooms, and permitting groups freely to invite speakers” (p. 32). The document can be found at https://www.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/freedom1975.pdf. Access on august 06, 2020.

  5. Second-order evidence about universities can be found on the Internet too. Greg Lukianoff’s FIRE makes an annual list of what it sees as the worst colleges for free speech; Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy displays a lot of material on this issue (one of the reasons stated by this advocacy group for awarding The University of Chicago’s commitment to free speech is its ban on no-platforming); and Quillette, an online magazine founded by Australian journalist Claire Lehmann, is very attentive to campus issues. A more detailed discussion, connecting the debate to recent cultural developments, can be found in Campbell and Manning (2018).

  6. Thus, the example seems to match Levy’s more precise definition of epistemic paternalism: “the management of an agent’s epistemic environment without (or regardless of) her consent, in order to promote her epistemic welfare” (2019, p. 5).

  7. Notice that I have no reason to complain if a TV channel decides to remove disreputable people from its shows. Since TV channels are autonomous, they can hire or fire whoever they want. Most instances of no-platforming, however, involve interference similar to that of the NGO.

  8. When discussing Levy’s thesis, I assumed that being given a platform automatically generates credibility for the sake of simplicity. My objections against it do not depend on the denial of this effect.

  9. Some of these ideas are defended by academics themselves. The work of the philosopher Stephen Kershnar is a case in point.

  10. More details on Tuvel’s case can be read at https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/05/transracialism-article-controversy.html. Access on June 08, 2020.

  11. Notice that if the absence of controversies justified no-platforming, it would be hard to see how one could challenge wrong consensuses previously established. How would we defend a lecture by Galileo if all other relevant experts were geocentrists?

  12. Langbert (2018) provides data on the political imbalance at American universities. Needless to say, the same arguments could be soundly offered if the imbalance favored right-wing views.

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Acknowledgements

thank Lucas Miotto, Hélio Carneiro, Claiton Costa, Bruna Frascolla, and Eduardo César for helpful discussions on earlier drafts of this paper. I also thank the anonymous referees for their invaluable suggestions.

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Correspondence to Aluizio Couto.

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Couto, A. Rescuing Liberalism from Silencing. J Acad Ethics 19, 465–481 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-020-09383-0

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Keywords

  • Academic freedom
  • Censorship
  • Liberalism