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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

28 nov. 2017

Scruton: Universities are reviving the notion of heresy

Universities are reviving the notion of heresy (Roger Scruton in The Times, november 27 2017)

Religions offer more, and other things, than just membership.

Today’s university students do have time for exclusive groups. That's kind of the point.

It's not students who are "particularly insistent that distinctions [...] should be rejected, in the interests of an all-comprehending equality that leaves each person to be who she or he really is." It's the right that insists on that kind of equality and that refuses to make any distinctions other than certain performance measures.

"'Non-discrimination' is the orthodoxy of our day." Well, that sounds great! As long as it pertains to cultural background - and not to scientific rigor. Don't mix the two!

"The ethic of non-discrimination is constantly evolving to undo distinctions that were only yesterday part of the fabric of reality." Oh, look who's the social constructivist now!

The opinion that "men who regarded themselves as women were not, through the surgical removal of their penis, actually members of the female sex" should not be "judged to be [...] offensive” in and of itself. That's correct. It should only be criticized - if that is warranted - on methodological or empirical grounds.

"[M]aking a tactless remark about the difference between men and women in the laboratory" is just that - tactless. It has nothing to do with science or education but everything to do with general conduct, regardless of occupation. If such behavior - in any workplace or public space - warrants disciplinary measures or not is not a matter of scientific or educational epistemology.

"The ethic of non-discrimination tells us that women are as adapted to a scientific career as men are. I don’t know whether that is true. How would I find out who is right? Surely, by weighing the competing opinions in the balance of reasoned discussion."

Reasoned discussion? What happened to scientific investigation?

"A dissident within the academic community must therefore be exposed [...] to public intimidation and abuse"

Exposing misogyny - wherever it occurs - does not, or should not, entail disputes over academic merits. The critique may come from "radical feminists" but it is valid - or not - regardless of the critics' preferred field of study.

"This process of intimidation ought to cast doubt, in the minds of reasonable people, on the doctrine that inspires it."

It may be constructive to investigate a correlation between an academic field and its practitioners' values and behavior. If so, some statistical data would surely be helpful. But even if such a correlation can be demonstrated this in itself does not invalidate the critique.

The line between reasonable critique and unreasonable "intimidation" is, in any case, independent of the source of, or reasons for, that critique.

"Why protect a belief that stands on its own?"

Oh, there's plenty to protect. What about biological evolution, climate change or even the heliocentric world-view? It would be all to easy to claim that these "beliefs" stand on their own.

Not to mention social norms. Not so long ago, the inferiority of women and non-whites were beliefs that stood quite firmly on their own. Quite a few people protected them nonetheless. Still, in retrospect it was the beliefs that did not seem to stand on their own that needed protection.

"The intellectual frailty of the feminist orthodoxy is there for all to see..."

It might be. But are we talking about research methods, epistemology, fields of inquiry, quality of work, applications of that work... Or are we merely talking about "unreasonable" social activism? They are not the same, you know. That's kind of the point.

A "failure to protect [someone] from the cloud of twittering morons" is hardly a failure that any employer - or anyone at all - can be faulted for. One might even argue that it is a consequence of the very open-mindedness and freedom of expression we all seem to agree is essential.

If this failure displays "the sad state of the academic world today, which is losing all sense of its role as guardian of the intellectual life" then I wonder what kind of university would be preferable. What does "guarding intellectual life" entail? Censorship? No, that can't be right. Indiscriminately defending senior staff? No, that can't be it either.

"[A]t the very moment when universities are advocating diversity as an academic value [...] the true diversity for which a university should make a stand, namely diversity of opinion, has been steadily eroded and in many places destroyed entirely."

Well, what is an "academic value"? Is it diversity of theories, methods, fields of inquiry, people, values... What?

Diversity of opinion is not - apparently - a point of contention. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing, as long as those opinions are backed up by coherent arguments and empirical data. So where is the problem, really? Diversity of opinions to the detriment of scientific rigor or to the cost of excluding undesired questions and answers? No one wants that.

“Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are no more an issue for universities than for any other institution. What is acceptable or not in any public space is not a matter of academic debate. Yes, many students today are entitled, oversensitive and reluctant to accept differing viewpoints and consider facts and theories that challenge their preferred worldview. But that in itself does not constitute a valid critique of gender theory or any other academic field, nor of efforts to diversify students, teachers, topics etc. On the other hand, consciously or subconsciously disfavoring people based on personal preferences or institutional legacies and calling it "academic freedom" is just lazy and corrupt.

"[A]n institution in which the truth can be impartially sought, without censorship, and without penalties imposed on those who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy, is a social benefit". Of course! As long as both the "prevailing orthodoxy" and its detractors deal with the "matter of truth-directed argument".

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