Against The Grain: It is an academic's right to cause 'reasoned' offence

Steve Fuller is a professor of sociology at Warwick University. He argues that academics should have a right to offend.

In our society, free speech means a licence to speak as a general part of a licence for free action. So we always have to take into account whether our words are going to have an impact on other people. Speech is treated as a kind of action.

Academic freedom is about a very specific use of speech. Academics have the freedom to raise certain kinds of issue in ways that members of the public do not. This is very much to do with the way academics are trained and the community in which they work.

Let's take Holocaust denial. Academics can debate whether the Holocaust happened in terms of reason and evidence. If they're ready to accept criticism and admit that one can't argue against certain points, then that's fine. They're exempt as far as they're acting as academics.

It's to do with how an argument is delivered, not your specialism. So, if a homophobic physicist, who knows something about genetics and evolutionary psychology, puts an argument that can be assessed, that's permissible.

It's really important to see exactly what they're saying. It's not enough to sack someone because people are offended. If it's backed by reason and evidence, even if it's flawed, then that's permissible.

A lot of the creationist and intelligent-design guys are arguing for a public debate. If evolution is so true, then it can defend itself. Academics aren't in the business of providing some absolute truth. We're in the business of enquiry. Every belief has to be open to challenge and revision.

It might be true that academic Holocaust deniers are basically anti-Semitic, that bell-curvers are racist. A lot of Darwinists and evolutionists have been racist. That doesn't matter if the ideas stand alone and don't need racist suppositions.

I would fund all this stuff. We should fund Holocaust denial and intelligent design. The best way to deal with these fringe academic claims is to put some light on them. What we don't want is for creationists to set up their own think-tanks so they can preach to the choir. That really kills academic freedom. Look at the David Irving trial, where Holocaust denial was properly discussed. That only happens if the stuff is brought out in public.

Steve Fuller's latest book is 'The Knowledge Book: Key Concepts in Philosophy, Science and Culture' (Acumen)

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