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Freedom of speech cautiously?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:  “My Life as a Cautionary Tale: Probing the Limits of Academic Freedom,”  by Steven Salaita.

So what does freedom mean in an academic economy structured to reward obedience? No thinking person buys the myth of merit. Academe is filled with mediocrities who achieved stardom by flattering the ruling class. Already, then, freedom is tenuous because livelihood is contingent on respectability, itself contingent on pleasing the ruling elite. Cultures of online exchange promise a kind of freedom, but more than anything they illuminate the preponderance of coercion. Nobody who covets white-collar stability will make a comment on social media without considering the possible fallout. Every hiring committee you’ll ever encounter staffs Twitter’s electronic panopticon. 

Academia has its limitations and the most perplexing of these is that it limits discourse while pretending to encourage open-mindedness and rigorous debate.  The article from which the material cited above is taken delves into the restrictions on academic freedom that prevent free and open discussion of all and every topic from all and ever perspective.  There are things that cannot be said in classrooms and things one cannot be known to believe and support.  As the author acknowledges, there are good reasons for such.  However, as happens anytime restrictions on speech, on the expression of thought are imposed, no matter how good the reason, the very principle of free speech, the rights of everyone to honestly express their views, the principle of free speech is threatened because somehow someone, some body, is given the power to distinguish allowable from disallowed and someone, some bodies, freedom of speech is curtailed.

Free speech, the freedom to speak, is no easy right to get right in terms of who is served by it and who is harmed.  The possibility–the probability—of someone being hurt or even damaged by the speech of another or others always exists and in an environment where people are free to express their thoughts freely, inevitably, some will be hurt and some harmed.  The question becomes one of whether it is important enough to protect those who might or will be harmed to place restrictions on free speech.  As the author writes, it is not the illiberal alone who advocate for controls on speech, the justifications different, of course, but the effect on freedom of speech similar if not the same.

Importantly, the author explores some of the complex issues surrounding freedom of speech on university campuses and the willingness of some–sometimes backed by good reasoning–to impose limitations on speech.  The real consequences of doing so are, in my mind, profound, not alone for what is said or not and what is felt but for the effect restrictions, made allowable because, in some situations, they are both reasonable and reasonably humane, have on freedom of thought, on the kinds of intellectual pursuit those who teach and those who are students come to allow themselves in consideration of the real penalties and the possible penalties for thinking astray from what is or is thought to be the acceptable.

Thus, the following passage from the Chronicle of Higher Education article by Steven Salaita titled “My Life as a Cautionary Tale: Probing the Limits of Academic Freedom,” struck me because it reminded me of my years as a professor and the institutional knowledge in which I was versed that always told me to proceed with caution in regards to what you say, what you teach, what you discuss with students and colleagues because engaging in certain kinds of speech, discussing certain ideas and kinds of ideas could get me in trouble.  I did get into trouble and what was troubling was that I was working for an institution that spoke proudly to the fact that encoded in its academic protocols was respect for academic freedom.  Interestingly, as Salaita seems to be pointing out, we, the professors, censored ourselves, in good part, because we wanted to succeed in academia, curtailed our speech and our thinking so that we could remain a part of a profession that allowed us to get paid for thinking.





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