Is the Academy an Adversarial Institution?

The recent wave of student protests against racism have inspired significant opposition by some academics. The protests have prompted the formation of the Heterodox Academy, a “politically diverse” group of social scientists and other academics who are concerned about “the loss of lack of ‘viewpoint diversity’” on campuses.

One reason for this concern is that the liberal views and “PC culture” that are mainstream in universities may lower the quality of research and silence dissenting views, especially in notoriously/proudly leftist fields such as anthropology, sociology, and social psychology. Members of the Heterodox Academy, who include prominent members such as Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker, quote Mill’s On Liberty to illustrate their position:

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 ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

Philosopher Jason Stanley thinks this position is disingenuous: conservative academics have cried “free speech!” in response to social justice concerns, but have not shown the same zeal for free speech when it comes to pro-Palestinian (or anti-Israeli, or anti-Semitic, depending on your ideology) positions. Moreover, Stanley argues that the opposition between free speech and social justice issues is a false dichotomy. He writes:

What, exactly, is the tension between antiracism and free speech? If I tell you that you shouldn’t say racist things, am I really denying you the right to say those things? I told my mother the other day that she shouldn’t tell me that I am overweight. Was I challenging her freedom of speech? I tell students in my mathematical logic class they shouldn’t make certain errors. Is my class a hotbed of illiberalism? Is free speech really imperiled when activists argue that a football team shouldn’t be called “the Redskins”?

In other words, one can say whatever one wants, but be prepared to face the consequences of violating certain social and/or academic norms. What these norms are in the academy, and whether they should even include social norms (and what social norms should be included) depends on whether we conceive of the academy as an adversarial institution or a cooperative one. If it is adversarial, is the game fair? At what level do considerations of fairness come into play?

On the Heterodox view, an adversarial conception of the academy gives us our best shot at the truth. Scholarly debate is akin to Mill’s “marketplace of ideas”, where all ideas, however dangerous, should be allowed to have a go. Let the worst ideas be thoroughly investigated, falsified and drop out of contention. So much the better for social justice, if “unjustified orthodoxies” that have yet to be falsified prevent us from finding solutions to social problems. The role of the professor is to teach students how to think, not what to think. In order to do this job well, professors must expose students to ideas that they may find uncomfortable, instead of being “coddled”. Students should not take classroom debates personally, and should engage in debate with civility. Fairness comes in at the level of the competition in play.

If the academy is an adversarial institution, it is one where the playing field has historically been grossly uneven. From this perspective, the fairness of background rules is emphasized. The playing field is structured by domination by white males in the ranks of faculty, implicit and explicit bias, and social norms that legitimize racism on campus. In the eyes of student activist and their supporters, “sounding reasonable” is just a norm that favors the status quo. Thus, student protesters feel that they must resort to tactics that subvert the usual channels of reform. In a separate article, Stanley and fellow philosopher Kate Manne pose this objection to the norm of civility, which they see as a form of testimonial injustice:

But sounding reasonable can be a luxury. Such speech trusts, even presumes, that one’s words will be received by a similarly reasonable, receptive, even sympathetic, audience. Oppressed people are often met with the political analogue of stonewalling. In order to be heard, they need to shout; and when they shout, they are told to lower their voices.

On this conception, an asymmetry in power licenses the marginalized group to make moves in the game that would not be allowed if they were performed by the dominant group.

As one aspect of the issue is framed, the dividing line lies between those who think the academy functions best as an adversarial institution, and those who think the best ideas come out of a more cooperative institution. But the congeniality of the game metaphor to Stanley and Manne’s side of the arguments suggests that the line is not so bright as we might think.

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