Free Speech in Academe

Years ago when I first shuffled off the shackles of thesis-writing and struck out in the larger world of academe, I encountered the – to me novel and fascinating – idea that the attempt to maintain objectivity and neutrality in academic discourse demeans women. (I was reviewing a book edited by philosopher Christine Overall and colleagues.)

Men use the “standards” of objectivity and neutrality to dismiss women’s intuitive, sympathetic, and communal approach to the understanding of human relations. So said the women philosophers.

When I began the study of constitution making I encountered the idea that attempts to create an “objective” and “neutral” political constitution entrench the advantages and privileges of the founding class, and, given that founders are usually drawn from a certain stratum of society, entrench the interests of the bourgeoisie and capitalists. The search for standards and objectivity precludes marginalized people; it freezes discussions in a way that is profoundly anti-democratic. The rules of the truly democratic and inclusive constitution should be always in play. Etc. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Now I read in articles by Joyce Green that the imposition of objective and neutral standards in the study of Canada’s First Nations is “colonialist.” It’s an attempt by entrenched and self-satisfied interests to demean the aboriginal way of knowing. The demand for objectivity precludes understanding. I am no longer astounded.

So: what about free speech in academe? One’s first impulse is to argue that: “both sides must be heard.” Lets have both the objectivists and the – what shall I call them – those with doubts about objectivity. I’ve no doubt that at the session on aboriginal methodologies at the Learneds at UBC this spring, Peter Russell, who was in the chair, inclined to that position. “Let’s hear from both sides, in a civil discussion.” He must have said something like that. Professor Russell was my Ph.D. advisor.( See my blog entitled, Harvey Mansfield’s Canada, and the illuminating comments on it by Frances Widdowson and Andreas Krebs. Widdowson and Krebs were at the session.)

But the discussion that followed was not civil. And one can see why. The argument for hearing both sides evokes ideas of neutrality and objectivity. The argument for hearing both sides is one-sided. So says one side, at any rate.

Ain’t it interesting?

5 Responses to “Free Speech in Academe”

  1. 1 John September 11, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    I don’t understand how not wanting all sides heard helps the oppressed. After all, those deciding what gets heard (when we decide not to allow all sides to get heard) are the strong, by definition it seems.

    The anti-objective side (for lack of a better term) is on stronger ground when they suggest the objective side deludes itself into thinking they’re truly objective.

    But the solution ain’t shutting people up. It’s simply being open to opening the doors to a greater amount of arguments.

    Am I being intolerant for suggesting this?

  2. 2 Chris A September 27, 2008 at 11:53 am


    As Mill says:

    “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no grounds for preferring either opinion.” And “if opponents of all=important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”

    Finally, as Tom F. writes: “Respect for individual belief and decision is important precisely because every person’s intellect and knowledge is so limited. In a world where everyone might conceivably be mistaken about almost everything, the only corrective is constant testing through the confrontation of ideas and evidence.”

  3. 3 oonae September 27, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    There is a great deal to be said for your argument, as your supporters suggest. But since we are all for hearing both sides, I will speak against it.

    While I won’t go so far as to say you’ve erected a straw man (since people do make the arguments you describe), there can be little doubt that you’ve picked on an extreme (or dumb) version of an argument that’s not always so bad. Consider one specific policy advocated by the anti-objectivists: affirmative action. The argument here is that objectivity supports those already powerful, and therefore that a little non-objectivity is called for — the argument you’re addressing, right?

    And yet there is a lot to be said for affirmative action, maybe especially for black Americans. It does not result in hiring the under-qualified, just in hiring fully qualified people who are not the fully qualified one otherwise would have hired. There are injustices, sure, but then there always are. This is one anti-objective let’s-not-hear-all-sides policy that works.

  4. 4 anonymous October 2, 2008 at 8:19 am


    but even in the case of affirmative action, there is room for the objective argument, even if it does support those who are already powerful.

    By putting the affirmative action objective argument out there for consideration, it:

    a) allows the proponents of affirmative action to think more deeply and critically about their support of affirmative action

    b) and to develop arguments and greater moral force for advocating it

    So I would argue that even in the case of affirmative action, you need both positions specified and open to debate.

    To suggest that the anti-objective position should be the only put forward and all others surpressed, would be morally undefensible (or at least morally not-preferable)

  5. 5 Chris A October 5, 2008 at 11:35 am


    On the same topic, this time from Alan Cairns (2000) in Citizens Plus p. 16:

    “The claim of the formerly silenced for “voice”, for their turn on the stage, needs to be respected. In a heterogeneous democratic society whose multiple groups have separate identities, the argument that one has to be one to know one to speak for one is inevitable. The corollary, however, is sometimes forgotten – a conversation with the the “other” will follow. There is no point in controlling “voice”, in speaking with for “A” to”B,” particularly when the subject is the future relations between “A” and “B,” unless it is assumed that “B” can understand and respond.. The objective is to have a conversation, which not only informs each speaker about the other, but transforms the relationship between them and possibly, in addition, even modifies their self-understandings.”

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