Thornton on Free Speech

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

At City Journal is an article by Bruce S. Thornton that both names an important truth about how leftism has damaged the state of free inquiry on our college campuses and yet still makes a major mistake. The piece does this while considering two noteworthy recent cases: Columbia University's invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a guest speaker and the cancellation by the University of California at Davis of a speaking engagement by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers. I'll concentrate on the first of these here.

First, Thornton hits upon a noteworthy fact about the Columbia case that my moral outrage had caused me not to pay much attention to:

The purpose of academic freedom is to encourage the search for truth and the exposure of error, an endeavor conducted through what Matthew Arnold called "the free play of the mind on all subjects." ...

At the same time, since academic intellectuals are supposed to be trained in the principles of sound thinking, one should expect higher standards for the ideas considered on campus than for those that contest in the town square. Not every idea is worth the university’s attention. Today, no one wants to give time to someone arguing for a geocentric cosmos, a flat earth, or space-alien construction of the pyramids. ...

Columbia, then, was terribly mistaken in inviting Ahmadinejad onto campus, for what serious ideas did he present? That the Holocaust never happened, that a cabal of Jews runs the West, and that homosexuals don’t exist in Iran? ... [bold added]
As Thornton's title puts it, the selection of this speaker trumped the pursuit of the truth.

This is the case, but it is in addition to the gross injustice -- the moral treason -- of inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia in the first place. Oddly enough, there is no sense of outrage in the Thornton piece, or even mention of the moral dimension of this controversy.


One need look no further than how Thornton differentiates between academic free speech and political free speech or, more precisely, how he defines each of them in the process.
John Stuart Mill articulated the rationale for political free speech, with which most of us are familiar: even noxious ideas should be publicly aired so that they can be exposed and refuted. Moreover, ideas that in one era seem pernicious or absurd -- abolishing slavery, or giving women the franchise -- may wind up considered worthy and true in another. This process of refuting or acknowledging ideas requires a "town square" free from censorship or punishment, so that as many voices as possible -- and as many ideas as possible -- can be heard. Political free speech serves a practical end: to discover the best public policies through citizens' raucous, sometimes woolly discussion in the town square. As Mill put it, "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." [bold added]
This is mostly good up until the Mill quote. Mill to the contrary, we can, in fact, objectively evaluate an opinion, and it is precisely this fact that makes political free speech necessary and good.

This is because man's survival as a rational animal depends on his having a firm grasp of reality, including how his society ought to govern itself. It isn't that we can "never be sure" whether an opinion is worthwhile or hogwash: It's that we won't have a way to tell without freedom of speech.

Thornton sees that political speech is a call to action and that as such, calls for deliberation. (So he does have a partial, albeit implicit and slippery grasp of this fact.) And yet he sees it as divorced from truth. Conversely, he sees also the quest for truth in academia as nearly divorced from action!
The purpose of academic freedom is to encourage the search for truth and the exposure of error, an endeavor conducted through what Matthew Arnold called "the free play of the mind on all subjects." As such, it is less practical and more speculative than political speech, and more frequently at odds with the accepted views of society. Unlike political speech, its goal is not to persuade fellow citizens to action, but to get closer to truth. [bold added]
On the one hand, it is true that the more abstract ideas typically discussed in academia are not always obviously applicable to politics or other aspects of our daily lives. In that sense, academic free speech is "less practical and more speculative" than political speech. But this does not mean, as many (and it can be argued that Thornton isn't among them) hold, that academia has nothing to do with the real world.

For example, suppose this were still the days of slavery and an academic were holding forth the notion that the black man is, too, a rational animal with rights. Although he is speaking in abstract terms, it is plain that practical discussions of how to implement his position will need to follow swiftly once he makes his case, and that his lectures imply a call to intellectual action on the part of those who agree with him. That is, his views will need to be debated more broadly as quickly as possible.

Lost in this discussion is the fact that abstract philosophical ideas have practical consequences. Indeed, such ideas guide the rough-and-tumble of non-academic political debate as they penetrate the broader culture through the efforts first of academics, then of intellectuals of varying prominence and influence, including authors, columnists, and other political commentators.

And so to invite a speaker like Ahmadinejad was not just a lowering of academic standards as Thornton argues, or a tacit endorsement of his views as rational as I did here. It was a display of contempt for the truth as such, and therefore of the value and practical consequences of man having a better grasp of the truth.

To fail to seek the truth is immoral. Even setting aside for the moment my own original reason for outrage at Columbia University (related as it is to the additional one I am about to name), there remains much to be indignant about. Thornton is right that the left has trod the truth underfoot, but a longstanding confusion about the relationship between the abstract and the concrete causes him to miss the fact that that's our neck down there under the hooves as well.

-- CAV


Monica said...


A friend of mine with an odd political mix of views (some of them extremely liberal) wrote me this morning and remarked that when she got her PhD, she didn't want a job in the "cult" of academia. (She's in psychology.)

Sometimes non-Objectivists say pretty profound things whether they mean to or not. I mean, many people bandy words about carelessly without regard to definitions, so I'm not sure if she meant exactly what she said or not, or whether she was exaggerating. However, what she said is bordering on accurate. Academia can be very cult-like in its pursuit of elevating the irrational.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an elaboration of the is-ought dichotomy. Academic speech is about the "is," political speech is about the "ought."

Gus Van Horn said...


This is true even, sometimes, in science.

I recall a guest lecturer once saying that in essence whether his approach was better than that of the competitors in his field was a matter of subjective whim.


Sort of, but I'd reverse the "is" and "ought". Academe discusses "impractical" ideals, while politicians get down to the nitty-gritty, abandon all principles, and deal with the "real world".

It's a false dichotomy, of course, but this is how most people think.


Ergo said...

I loved this line:

"It isn't that we can "never be sure" whether an opinion is worthwhile or hogwash: It's that we won't have a way to tell without freedom of speech."

It highlights the reciprocal relationship between reason and freedom. Both entail each other: without reason, one is not free; without freedom, one cannot reason.

Gus Van Horn said...


You remind me of a funny thing I noticed when writing this.

I had originally intended to get back more explicitly to the lack of indignation about helping Ahmadinejad look rational and civilized, but ended up finding this subtler angle, instead.

And so what you point out here is true not just of public debate, but personally, for individuals: My freedom to spout off my thoughts into the ether has directly led me to improving my understanding of such matters.