Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech Under Threat

There is a concerning trend today in academia and public discourse.

It is the claim that not all views are worthy of being heard or discussed seriously. The idea is that certain ideas are beyond question or debate, and that there are settled truths which must be accepted by everyone.

Then, if a person does want to question or debate these ideas, that person's credibility, reputation, or job is instantly threatened. In academia, they might simply not be hired in the first place, because they don't share the same views as the hiring committee. Journals or book publishers might not be willing to publish their ideas, and they might not be able to receive necessary grants or funding. Thus, a person's academic career can be destroyed by simply wanting to discuss an idea that is unpopular.

For example, there is the worrying case of the TA Lindsey Shepherd at Wilfred Laurier University, who showed a clip of the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson expressing his controversial views in one of her classes. Yet she was reprimanded for this, when she was just trying to present multiple points of view to the students.

Or the many well-documented examples of scientists who have lost their careers for questioning the theory of evolution.1

Or the hypocrisy of a professor speaking at a conference on academic freedom, who in his speech argues that news programs should not allow critics of climate change to be heard alongside scientists who accept climate change (see story here).

Or the news stories about various activist groups trying to shut down debate on university campuses, by threatening violence, or shouting down anyone who tries to say something they disagree with. For example, in August 2018, Ryerson University in Toronto ironically had to cancel it's event "The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses" due to "safety concerns".

Even an article in the New York Times claims that certain ideas are "violence" because they may cause a person stress! And therefore, they say, certain ideas cannot be discussed on university campuses. (A great rebuttal to this can be found here).

This is simply not how academic debate or free speech works! All ideas should be up for open and serious debate, because the best ideas will eventually be revealed as having the most support of reason and evidence. In some cases, there may be many equally plausible interpretations or arguments, and if so, then the ideas should be fairly presented along with the alternative theories or ideas, and let individuals make up their own minds. We win people over to our view by persuasion and compelling evidence, not by coercion or preemptively silencing any opposition.

(And no, it's not hypocritical for me to be criticizing the idea that certain ideas do not deserve to be considered. I'm not saying that we should prohibit anyone from discussing this idea. I just believe that it must never be implemented, for the good of individuals and society as a whole.)

This is why - as a future professor - even if I have my own preferred views, I am committed to fairly presenting and discussing other points of view. I will give the students freedom to disagree with me and write papers that advocate for views I do not personally endorse, and provided they can provide decent arguments and plausible evidence, I will give them a good grade. This is all part of the learning process and a necessary part of critical thinking.

In fact, I actually do hope that students will not just accept whatever I say as absolute truth, for this shows they are thinking for themselves. We need more people to do this and not just parrot whatever their favourite source has claimed.

To decide ahead of time that a particular idea is unacceptable, and being unwilling to debate it or hear any arguments in favor of it, and disparaging or threatening those who feel it is worthy of discussion is not academic, but totalitarian.

The only reason why someone would want to exclude any legitimate discussion or debate is if they fear that their own idea cannot withstand criticism.

The claim that some ideas are dangerous, harmful, offensive, or even just unpopular, and therefore unworthy of debate is not legitimate. Ideas and words are not violent. The law already has categories for things such as uttering threats, advocating for genocide, or slander.

The freedom to disagree with popular ideas is extremely important. We can’t let this be taken away from our society, because if we do, then all academic freedom disappears. It turns universities into indoctrination centres where only the approved narrative and viewpoints are taught. This is doing a disservice to students and to society, since the only way for society to determine which ideas are the best is for all ideas to be considered and discussed openly and vigorously, yet without violence or coercion.

Christians should be especially concerned about these recent threats to free speech. Jesus said that he was offensive (Matthew 11:6; Luke 7:23). He said he would lead to division between people, even between family members (Luke 12:51-53). And if people were offended by Jesus, and insulted and hated him, then Christians will also be deemed offensive and insulted and hated by society (Matthew 10:25; John 15:18-20).

So Christians absolutely must defend freedom of speech to protect our ability to freely share the Gospel, to maintain our freedom to preach and teach what we believe in our churches, and even keep ourselves, our families, and our churches physically safe from violent mobs that may be offended by us and our beliefs.

This means being strong enough to allow others to say things we disagree with. For the alternative is much worse; once we give someone the power to silence our opponents, it can easily be used to silence us.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Jerry Bergman and Kevin Wirth, Slaughter of the Dissidents (Port Orchard, WA: Leafcutter Press, 2011).

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