Finn McRedmond: Sock puppet twitter accounts part of a wider problem in public discourse

Fear of cancel culture may be stifling free speech, but there’s no easy solution

Without dissenting voices we would not have moved on very far from believing the Earth was flat. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Without dissenting voices we would not have moved on very far from believing the Earth was flat. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

 

Eoghan Harris’s exit from the Sunday Independent has got us all thinking about the ethics of anonymity. But, amid conversations about whether it is right to direct abuse at female journalists from behind a sock puppet or pseudonymous Twitter account (answers on the back of a postcard, please), another debate has been brewing.

The end of April marked the launch of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Its founders, a consortium of academics – including the standard-bearer of academic iconoclasm, Peter Singer – claim it is a necessary corrective to a climate where “freedom of thought and discussion” is no longer “a universally-held value”.

Their diagnosis may well be correct, as the boundaries of what it is acceptable to believe and say appear to narrow daily. Accounts of professors being boycotted, suspended, or sacked over vague accusations of moral impropriety are almost too numerous to count. So, a journal dedicated to controversial ideas – which allows its writers to publish under a pseudonym – seems a predictable response to these decades-old university campus culture wars. The most surprising thing about its arrival is that it took this long.

Death threats

Recently, the philosopher Galen Strawson spoke of being subject to sustained abuse and death threats for suggesting free will did not exist. Singer himself is no stranger to this treatment either. A survey of 445 academics, conducted by the Heterodox Academy, found more than half the respondents believed expressing ideas outside accepted consensus would harm their career. A professor at Skidmore College in New York was boycotted for attending a pro-police rally.

None of this engenders much confidence in the state of public discourse. In the pursuit of a healthy academic and intellectual landscape, shouldn’t we create space for people to put forward their ideas without fear of their life falling apart? Isn’t the free exchange of thoughts the very point of universities in the first place? Perhaps the only method to counter prevailing, and often unchallenged, orthodoxies is to artificially carve out an environment where people can posit unpopular hypotheses. An environment that only allows thinkers to reaffirm consensus views is a one-way ticket to stagnating progress, after all.

Plenty of the journal’s critics would say no: rather than offering a safe haven for those vulnerable to “cancel culture”, pseudonymity will simply provide professional provocateurs an outlet free from moral scrutiny; anonymity is simply a vessel for shirking responsibility, and if we allow that to happen it will quickly become a race to the bottom to see who can peddle the basest of ideologies; and ensuring academics are liable for their output will ensure only the highest moral standards are met.

Correct answer

As with all of these sort of questions, the correct answer probably lies between both possibilities. The first edition of the journal contains 10 papers, only three of which were written pseudonymously. Among the 10 are papers investigating whether there is ever a cultural justification for blackface; the ethical implications of putting prisoners in temporary comas; and, predictably, the definition of a woman in the context of transgender debates.

No matter your feelings on these particular topics, the crux of the issue extends far beyond the merits of one journal. If academics are sincerely concerned about deviating from doctrine – for fear of their safety or employment status – then the editors of the journal are right about at least one thing: a serious corrective is necessary. Whether this is the most effective way of doing that is secondary.

It is in vogue to claim there is no free speech crisis in universities, and to remind anyone who will listen that free speech does not mean freedom from consequence. In fact, suffering consequences for expressing your ideas is a natural dynamic in healthy public discourse; a social media storm caused by an idea deemed offensive is just the market self-regulating. This dynamic, so the argument goes, does not shut down the ability to think and speak freely about all ideas, merely the bad ones.

Repugnant

But there are a whole host of flaws with this reasoning. The world is not reducible to good and bad ideas: there are some that strike us as repugnant, plenty that seem fine, and most that exist somewhere in the middle. It is foolish to even suggest we may know where to draw those boundaries.

And, what we deem acceptable evolves over time. It was once heresy to suggest the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way round; the cruel practice of gay conversion therapy went, for a non-insignificant time, unchallenged. Without dissenting voices we would not have moved on very far from believing the Earth was flat.

So long as we embrace an environment that engenders fear of disproportionate reprisals the consensus remains the same, and the world fails to improve. Though the proponents of the current dynamic often understand themselves to represent progressive wings in society, this is a remarkably conservative landscape to endorse.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas is unlikely to be a silver bullet; the state of public discourse is a product of broad and slow-moving cultural forces that don’t change overnight. But while its editors may not have found the treatment to the problem, they seem spot-on in their diagnosis.

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