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How much do we really value free speech?

The investigation into Cambridge fellow Nathan Cofnas, a self-described ‘race realist’, has been deeply divisive. It illustrates deep and difficult questions about what freedom of speech and tolerance mean in a liberal society based on equality and mutual respect. The debate is particularly intense when it comes to academia. On the one hand, the right denounces ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no-platforming’, whilst on the other, academics are criticised – and even fired – for teaching critical race theory and supporting Palestine. The UK has experienced significant declines in the Academic Freedom Index, with the US and Netherlands the only other Western countries to face a comparable decline.

On 5th April, Emmanuel College, Cambridge cut ties with Cofnas, suggesting that things he had written in his blog could be considered a rejection of its Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) policies, whilst the University triggered an investigation that could lead to his dismissal. Cofnas had written in a blog post that “in a meritocracy … the number of black professors would approach 0%” and cited Harvard statistics to argue that in a colourblind system, black people would “make up 0.7% of Harvard students”.  

Emmanuel’s decision has led to much backlash, most notably in the form of an open letter to The Times signed by some people very familiar to any Oxford philosopher, including Peter Singer, Roger Crisp, Amia Srinivasan, and Steven Pinker. The letter notes that Cambridge first defended Cofnas’s freedom of speech, and attacks the reversal in policy, arguing: “Members of the college or university who disagree with Dr Cofnas’s views could issue statements repudiating those views and explaining why they believe them to be mistaken.” They of course don’t endorse his views, however.

Whilst Cofnas’s views are, I would hope, abhorrent to all readers, the point is not to suggest agreement with his work. It is that the principle of investigation, and potential firing, as a result of protest and moral disagreement, is a dangerous one. Professor Srinivasan, in an article in the London Review of Books, which expands on her reasons for signing, affirms her complete rejection of his racism, and emphasises the key distinction between research and teaching. Srinivasan rightly suggests that students should not have to be taught by someone who makes them feel justifiably uncomfortable. 

She cites multiple recent instances of academics having been disinvited from speaking or even suspended as a result of supporting Palestine or teaching courses in systemic racism and gender theory. In these instances, academic institutions have exercised their power based on feelings of offence or disagreement. The danger is clear: if academic freedom is rescinded, then there is no way to challenge hegemonic viewpoints and debate vital issues. Part of what academic freedom means is “vocational liberties”, which allow for the freedom to research and teach on all matters of professional interest. 

The other key element is that whilst the protection is expansive, content-based speech discrimination is permissible, even foundational. There are disciplinary standards and a level of rigour required of all researchers, which means there is an “inequality of ideas”. If an academic is clearly producing work which fails to conform to the minimum methodological standards, then it is unworthy of discussion, as it fails to contribute to the search for truth and understanding which is the whole point of academia. For this reason, it is not a violation of freedom for a climate change denier whose work is based on false empirical claims to be denied the right to speak at a conference. It would, however, be a violation if an economist, whose work is agreed to be rigorous and sound, is fired as a result of disagreeing with progressive welfare systems, due to student protests, say.

The point is that academic inquiry is a shared project of humankind, aimed at understanding life, the universe, beauty, and all things in between. If the work is of a sufficiently high quality, then moral disagreement is not enough to reject it. Standards of morality have been, historically, incredibly variable: one needs only think about Galileo being found guilty of heresy and made to live under house arrest for teaching heliocentrism. 

Perhaps the example feels outdated, though: we are hardly living during the time of the Inquisition anymore. It seems obvious that the dogma of mediaeval Catholicism is far removed from modern policies of tolerance and human rights. But Peter Singer, in his rebuttal to Cofnas’s investigation, suggests that: “at Emmanuel College, freedom of expression does not include the freedom to challenge its DEI policies, and that challenging them may be grounds for dismissal.” Of course, though, these policies represent beliefs which are practically axiomatic amongst most people in this country, and are values which many think of as fundamental to who they are. Equal rights and basic equality are the result of centuries of struggle, pain, and suffering. Speech which undermines this struggle is understandably seen as outrageous. 

But there is a major risk of any widespread and popular belief becoming institutionalised, transforming from something which has majority support to an unquestionable monolith. Free speech is almost always a stellar example of hypocrisy: everyone wants free speech, until someone says something they don’t like. Yes, there are many things, like values and rights, which we feel, passionately, to be just objectively true. But in fact, especially in the domain of philosophy, nothing is obvious, and nothing unquestionable. Emotions and passions are not the right way to deal with academic inquiry. It is methodology and rigour which are important, not one’s emotional or moral opposition.

That is to say, you can vehemently disagree with someone, but in dealing with academic research, the basis for these critiques should be ‘this is why you are wrong’, rather than ‘I don’t like what you are saying’. This is far from saying that Cofnas is remotely right: works he cites such as The Bell Curve have been roundly attacked as simply wrong. Cofnas holds a philosophical position, and it should be attacked as such. The danger when we allow universities to arbitrarily decide that some research area is ‘immoral’ or ‘illegitimate’ is that we are left speechless when they designate something we truly believe in to be outside the scope of research. Freedom comes with costs, of course, but the danger of doing otherwise is greater.

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