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In my opinion

The possible excesses of academic freedom, put into perspective

Academic freedom means academics can reflect on any topic, but can they fuel racist thinking?


To paraphrase a post by York University sociologist Sheila Cote-Meek, it is always relevant to talk about discrimination in academia. I would add that it is equally important not to hide behind academic freedom to make baseless statements and fuel prejudice and discrimination. In the last few centuries, it was men of science who promulgated the most widely accepted racist theories, and not only in Hitler’s Germany.

Guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of freedom of expression is cherished by all and is considered by some to be absolute. In itself, the freedom to say whatever we want appears to be an ideal that should have no limits. For many, the freedom not to censor anything they say publicly means the freedom to think according to their conscience. Freedom of conscience is also guaranteed by the Universal Declaration.

“And yet it moves”

All academics – and not only historians – remember the heartrending case of Galileo, a man of science par excellence, who had to renounce his assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun in order not to contradict scripture about our planet being at the “centre of the universe.” “And yet it moves,” he let slip, dejectedly. There’s also the case of the German sociologists of Theodor Adorno’s generation who, a few years before World War II, were forced to leave their homeland because their post-Marxist teachings did not align with the view of the new Germany. In countries such as Belgium and the United States, there are religiously affiliated universities and colleges that teach a world view founded on the Bible; this faith-based perspective is clearly stated and often supported by facts, in the way courses are oriented; professors are recruited according to these criteria and their adherence to this view.

These famous examples remind us of the importance of academic freedom: the ability to challenge traditions, accepted discourses or religious dogmas in order to advance knowledge, encourage questioning and spark debate without the risk of running up against a divergent or all-knowing religion or school of thought.

The word “university” contains the word “universe,” which supports the logic that students take courses to be exposed to a multitude of views that when taken together seem to contradict each other.

Students will agree to listen to the doctrine of a professor who is anti-American, Marxist, devoutly religious or atheist, or politically engaged but only on the condition that they can hear the diametrically opposed point of view and then make up their own minds without any form of coercion.

Modern universities must be able to venture into unstable, contaminated terrain, to study the most devastating microbes and viruses, to examine the darkness of our societies and the most deranged minds in order to make sense of them and try to find solutions. This is their mission. As academics, we must also explore disturbing topics such as discrimination, stereotypes, racism, intolerance and others. But why spend time studying evil, malice and misconceptions?

Just as criminologists study deviants and archaeologists dig up forgotten garbage from another millennium, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to understand humans.

How did this come about?

Academic freedom exists to allow professors to wade into controversies and the most critical issues to compare and frankly discuss divergent points of view. Not so much to declare who’s right and who’s wrong, but to understand “how did this come about?” This question can be applied to many complex issues. There are an infinite number of questions we could ask, in a multitude of fields. How did genocides come about? What is the definition of genocide? How is it that we tolerate racism? Why do we let people blindly adhere to religious sects that ruin so many lives? Many forms of emerging systems of beliefs seem to be taking a dangerous path.

In a perfect world, academic freedom would allow us to say one thing and its opposite, because study and analysis must be based not on buy-in, belief or imitation but on an understanding of the internal logic of each attitude and position. The most difficult thing – but this should be our aim – is to put ourselves in the shoes of those who don’t think like we do, who voice ideas we find abhorrent. We need to be able to “step outside ourselves” and briefly put ourselves in the skin of the other, not to adopt or approve of their attitude, and certainly not to excuse it but to better understand their points of reference, sphere of ideas and the foundation of their morals, but also to detect their errors of judgment and faulty reasoning. We need to then be able to get out of this unstable position and come back to ourselves. If students are exposed to and come to understand opposing points of view, professors can say they’ve done their job. Academics are asked to distance themselves from the prevailing discourse, to rise above prejudices, to explain scientifically rather than resort to unjustified accusations.

To say that freedom of expression must have no boundaries is a mistake that stems from an incomplete reading and a flawed conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which places human dignity above the principle of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech ends when the dignity of a person, group or nation is no longer respected. With fundamental rights come duties and responsibilities for each citizen. The demarcation line seems to be obvious; but it is not always easy to draw the line. The freedom to say anything must stop as soon as a person’s dignity is attacked, and even more so when it is done systematically, when it’s a part of someone’s job, profession or livelihood. If an academic, a public figure or anyone with a platform uses their status to repeat the same discriminatory message over and over again, they have failed in their mission and deserve blame.

As Raymond Aron wrote, drawing on Montesquieu, “We all enjoy certain liberties, and we never enjoy all of the liberties.”

Yves Laberge is a sociologist and regular contributor to University Affairs.

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  1. Stuart Chambers / August 10, 2021 at 10:18

    But what do we mean by “dignity” no longer being respected? If a professor lectures about the weaknesses of the radical feminist position against prostitution and then presents research on the benefits of decriminalization, is the professor treating women in an undignified manner? If a professor criticizes Israeli policy against the Palestinians, could some Jewish students find this an affront to their dignity? If a professor denies the existence of systemic racism on his/her university campus, is this attacking the dignity of BIPOC students? Dignity is far too subjective a term to limit academic freedom and can easily be used as a tactic to censor uncomfortable truths.

  2. Jim Clark / August 11, 2021 at 15:06

    Yves appears not to appreciate the irony of an article on academic freedom that includes the following statement. “In the last few centuries, it was men of science who promulgated the most widely accepted racist theories, and not only in Hitler’s Germany.” Apparently, scientists (at least the male ones) who investigate certain theories or hypotheses can be labelled racists and Nazis, although it is not clear who gets to make these decisions or what criterion is used. If enough people, informed or not, say that an idea is “racist,” does that make it so? Similarly who gets to say what is discriminatory in his closing line? “If an academic, a public figure or anyone with a platform uses their status to repeat the same discriminatory message over and over again, they have failed in their mission and deserve blame.”

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