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Whistles and sirens: the chilling debate around academic freedom revisited


Whistles and sirens: the chilling debate around academic freedom revisited

Dr Chris Beighton continues to explore the debate around academic freedom of speech.

In a recent article about academic freedom, The Ghost of Joe McCarthy, American sociologist Carol Tavris links today’s debate around freedom of speech and the McCarthyist witch-hunts in early 1950s America. But if the parallels between the crass illiberalism of the “Red Scare” and recent debates in academia around antisemitism, gender theory and “cancel culture” spring to mind, so does Marx’s claim that history tends to repeat itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. 

As I suggested in a previous post, precisely which applies to universities today is moot. Since mentioning culture wars and academic cancellation generally acts as a dog-whistle for the intellectually entrenched rather than those seeking enlightened debate, the latter seems most likely.  

However, Tavris finds two more nuanced points in recent work on this question. Both are worth underlining insofar as they echo recent research at CCCU which tends to bear them out. The first is that any organization in which people are afraid to challenge dominant ideas becomes “structurally stupid”, “unmoored from reality” and “unable to achieve its mission” (p.4). This point was made in two articles published in 2020 and 2021 respectively: in the first, I suggested that the excising of ethical questions from institutional governance underpins this trend, and in the second Zahra Kemiche and I drew on her doctoral research to show how attempts at brand management lead precisely, if perversely, to the same conclusion.  

Tavris’ second point concerns the claim that “everyone knows the rule: conform or you’re out” in such organizations. Her belief is that this particular version of mob rule is only new because of the technology that allows it to “congeal in a nanosecond”. It is screen-based, (pseudo-) social media technology which indulges the inability (or refusal) to speak openly by facilitating the pusillanimous, the superficial, and the disengaged. Parallel technologically-assisted processes reward the nonage of those who seek out an adult to solve the issue for them, she says: punishing those who have been fingered by the self-righteous merely indulges the inability to separate emotional associations with words, events and gestures from concern for their usage. Any resemblance to the events of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (2000), is of course purely coincidental. But its farcical aspects will doubtless be savoured by anyone even remotely interested in the distinction between medium and message, author and narrator, word and deed.

In a recent article (Beighton, 2024), I conclude that the “growing technological aptitude for data farming, prosumption, and educational throughput“ is indeed problematic for these reasons: the distancing of the individual from complex realities risks unmooring us from reality, collective or otherwise. Adrift on this ship of fools, tempted to follow the waves of both tragedy and farce, we would do well to remember why Margaret Atwood, in her 1974 poem “Siren Song”, laconically says “it is a boring song, but it works every time”.

Dr Chris Beighton is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education.

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