Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Free Speech for the Decidedly-Wrong

by Joe Miller

As many of you already know, the UNCP group Fusion Campus Ministry is presenting “Lies in the Textbooks” next week. The video presents a critique of evolution from what is purportedly an explicitly religious perspective. I have not actually seen the video in question, and given that its running length is said to be 3 hours and that it is being presented on a Monday evening and that my three year old isn’t exactly old enough to put himself to bed yet, it’s pretty unlikely that I will do so. Many of you were torn between annoyance that creationists still exist and eagerness to flaunt your argumentative skills debating them. I had chalked the whole incident up as simply another instance of the joys and challenges of teaching at a university in rural North Carolina. So I was rather surprised to receive an e-mail on Monday announcing that:

The Biology Department feels this program [Fusion’s airing of the video] questions our credibility in the classroom and voted unanimously to protest the showing of this video.

The message went on to invite the remained of the faculty to join the biologists’ protest. The announcement of a faculty protest provoked a hailstorm of replies, with some pointing out that among the other videos in the series is one with the charming title, “Why Satan Loves Evolution.” Others mentioned that as a university, we have a particular obligation to air all sides of a debate, or at the very least, that we have an obligation not to protest when someone decides to present the other side of a debate. And still others maintained that political protest is just as much protected speech as Fusion's video.

Now of course you know that there is no way that any self-respecting Mill scholar can possibly pass up on the opportunity to comment on a free speech discussion. I figure, though, that there is no need for cheap substitutes when one can have the original. So here is Mill, from chapter 2 of On Liberty:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

This of course is not to say that I have much sympathy for creationism. Indeed, on the No-Chance-in-Hell-of-Being-True List, I’d say that creationists rank somewhere between flat earthers and phrenologists. Nor would I ever dream of claiming that, say, Professor Kelley ought to be required to discuss creationism (or it's bastard step-child, Intelligent Design) in Bio 422: Evolution. I do, however, join with a number of others on the faculty who think that protesting the airing of the video is the wrong thing to do.

The fact is that however vile the video itself may turn out to be, its mere existence raises at least two important philosophical questions: what is the nature of science? and what is the proper relationship between science and religion? Not coincidentally, the Philosophy & Religion Department at UNCP takes on both of those questions, the former in Jeffery Geller's philosophy of science course and the latter in David Nikkel's science and religion course. We can hardly hope to answer these questions if we deny those with alternate answers a chance to air their position.

Yes, I do agree with Pembroke's biologists that creationism threatens to undermine one of the key assumptions of their entire discipline. And yes I also agree that Fusion could have chosen a better way to make its case than to air a video that--at least implicitly--accuses members of the faculty of being in league with Satan in a secret plot to convert the world to communism, spread infanticide and genocide and eventually wipe out the human race (sadly, I'm not actually making this up). At best, Fusion's decision shows a stunning lack of tact and at worst a blatant contempt for a segment of the faculty. The folks at Fusion probably owe the biologists an apology, not for airing their views, but for airing their views in a manner that seems likely to be abusive and accusatory and not particularly likely to spark much in the way of reasoned discourse.

Still, all that said, I submit that protesting is the wrong answer here. Consider what it perhaps a less-heated analogy. I am, as I've mentioned before, a hyper-analytic philosopher. (I gather, by the way, that 'hyper-analytic' is supposed to be derogatory. I've always felt that being called hyper-analytic is just about as insulting as being told one looks like Brad Pitt or that one has a 175 IQ or that "my god that was the most incredible thing I've ever felt." No one has ever said any of those things to me, mind you, but if they did, I'm certain that I wouldn't take any offense.)

Anyway, one of the things that we hyper-analytic philosophers tend to accept is that there is such a thing as Truth (as opposed to contextual, relativized 'truths') and that reason is adequate to the task of ascertaining Truth. Many humanists reject that claim, adopting instead some variety of post-ism (postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, etc.) that holds that humans can never really have access to Truth. Now if these folks were right (and let's face it, they've only slightly better odds than the creationists. Sorry, couldn't resist.), then it would completely undermine my discipline--or at least my version of my discipline. So what are we analytic philosophers to do? Well, we could try picketing the theory course in the English Department and protesting student theses on Derrida. But I think that it makes a lot more sense to show that the post-isms rest on mushy, non-rigorous arguments that, once stripped of their meaningless jargon, fail to hold up to rational scrutiny. The Nothing noths? WTF?

So to return to our topic, then, I would argue that while of course the biologists (and anyone else) have a complete right to protest whatever they like, doing so is the wrong course of action. Open debate is the only way to ensure the triumph of truth in the marketplace of ideas. Moreover, protesting speech that we don't like, especially when we turn around defend the rights of other academics to make equally outrageous claims (I'm looking at you Ward), merely cements the image of academics as liberal PC thugs who advocate free speech only for speech we like. Protesting actions we don't like is a great thing and highly encouraged. Protesting ideas we don't like, at a university...not so much.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Wesley Frazier said...

I became aware that the biology department was going to "go" to the video seminar roughly a week or so ago, while conversing with physics majors. I thought they had the same motivations I was tempted to act on. Where they thought they might be able to pose questions durring a question and answer session that may cause various people to think about the claims they were making.

The knowledge of an outright protest admittedly shocks me. Such a thing strikes me as fundamentally flawed, about on par with counter-protests (people who protest the portesters).

They will not sway opinions by such a thing, and almost certainly will cement their opposition more firmly in their opinions.

That being said I can understand where they are comming from. Being associated with satan (and not just being falacious) is close to slanderous. And people have a tendency to fight against name calling.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

If acknowledging the theory of evoloution as the closest damn thing to the truth puts me in league with Satan...well then, Rock On, Prince of Darkness!
By the way, for those of you who don't know, I'm a Pagan, not a Satanist.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Dr. Broscheid from Political Science has posted a number of links relevant to this discussion at his blog. You might want to check it out.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I protest protesting the protest! Even idiots have the right to declare themselves as such.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Jamie McCall said...

I find it absolutely fascinating that we actually have to have this debate within a University environment. I believe in creationism, and while I am in agreement that the approach by Fusion was extremely misguided, there is no excuse for the amount of hysterics that this has caused in faculty and in some (not all) students.

Free speech is part of life, and even more so, it should be part of the academic realm. We attend a University, where we are _supposed_ to be able to express our ideas freely for anything, no matter how others perceive them. Fusion should be completely free to call evolutionists whatever they want, and the biology department is completely free to hold a counter-presentation calling creationism advocates whatever they want. That this is even a debate astounds me.

Of course, if we really wanted to play “who is smarter” here, the Biology Department would realize that the intelligent option is to politely ignore Fusion and hold their own presentation, or even politely attend the presentation and ask for a question and answer section. Holding a protest is laughable, and it will only increase the level of stupidity that this has already caused. No one is right here, and yes, Fusion started it. But why people are playing to this level I just dont understand..

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I'll have to agree pretty much whole-heartedly with both Wes, Joe and Jamie.

I take Mill pretty seriously when it comes to protecting speech, no matter how ridiculous it is to those hearing it. Mind you, I think the whole thing is a sham set up by the group that produced the video in the first place to rile up the opposition. No more, no less. I doubt very seriously that there will be any content, whatsoever in the video to substantiate or even to relatively support the creationist agenda aside from references to Genesis.

Let them have their cake. When they're done, they can have a little of mine too.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Jamie,

You're a creationist? You know we'll have to kick you out of the philosophy department now, right?

Seriously, though, you're exactly right that both Fusion and the biologists have the right to call each other whatever they want. But to say that they have that right is to express what is effectively a legal position. Of course the Constitution protects all sorts of speech, even when it's mean-spirited.

That, however, is a somewhat different question. A university has an obligation to protect free speech, but its obligation goes further than that of just allowing all sorts of speech. I submit that our obligation is to encourage reasoned discourse and to discourage, to the extent possible, irrational ranting.

Obviously we can't simply ban speech that doesn't live up to some standard of reasonableness. It does mean, however, that we as a faculty can endeavor to ensure that our speech does meet that standard. Protesting a student group doesn't strike me as meeting that standard.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous jimi said...

*Sigh*

sSill can't resist the opportunity to kick around poor ol' Derrida, eh?

11:34 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Jimi,

Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. Actually, "The Nothing noths" is Heidegger. The Derrida quotes are all about 17 lines long. They're still about as meaningful as making "noth" into a verb.

12:24 AM  
Anonymous jimi said...

in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the straw man sleeps tonight....

tonight's gem from christian right radio: naturalist evolutionary theorists have made a big deal about apes (read: primates) using tools but are (apparently) unaware that otters and some birds also use tools or simply want to hide these (well-documented) phenomena.

*boggle*

um, that last bit of info came to us via naturalist evolutionary theorists who have no intention of hiding these facts and whose theory of evolution is in no way threatened by these observations.

on the other hand, creationism might take a hit in the face of these data.

10:56 PM  

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