The Other Side Of The Academic-Freedom Coin

In defending the right of Larry Summers to suggest that maybe there are innate differences in the cognitive strengths of men and women, I suppose that I am also beholden to defending the right of this guy, who is a tenured professor at the University of Colorado, to compare 9/11 victims to "Nazis."
In an essay, Churchill wrote that workers in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of "little Eichmanns," a reference to Adolf Eichmann, who ensured the smooth running of the Nazi system. Churchill also spoke of the "gallant sacrifices" of the "combat teams" that struck America.
It's cases like these that make the free speech issue really tough. On the one hand, people invoking the free speech clause usually do so under the assumption that their message is valid, and the truth is somehow being repressed. On the other hand, not everyone agrees on what constitues "valid" or "true," and so the right to free speech cannot be defined on these grounds. It seems that in order to function, the right to free speech must be absolute. Hence, when Noam Chomsky chooses to defend the French Holocaust Revisionist, he has every right to. (Actually, this case is a little more complicated, because Chomsky is actually defending someone else's right to free speech.) The repulsiveness or downright innaccuracy of the thing whose right to be publicized he is defending does not affect his right to defend it.

However, the way I see it, there is a countervailing factor here. And that is the force of public (or professional, or community opinion). Everyone has a right to say what they want, but complimentary to that, everyone else has a right, and even an obligation, to assign creedence as they see fit. The law does not dictate that people have to listen. This system strikes me as good because it allows for unfit statements or conclusions to be weeded out democratically, according to the opinion of the public, or the relevant community.

The problem here is that there is a distinct difference in the ability of communities of people to reach a consensus on the credibility or validity of a claim in the scientific communities versus the humanitarian communities. This is because scientific hypotheses are specifically constructed to be falsifiable, so that if they do not live up to a pre-agreed burden of proof, they are not considered as valid theories. Claims in the other half of academia, the humanities, are not subject to the same standards of rigor. Although something may not seem agreeable, perhaps to many people, there is no way to definitively say it is false. Anything conceivably can pass as "intellectually admissable." Hence there is potential for people to say many outlandish, offensive, or harmful things with no inborn mechanism by which the statement is automatically weeded out.

The real problem here is not that this professor is saying this, but that there are people listening. Ward Churchill is a tenured professor, and the chair of an entire department at a major university. Either he changed his modus opperendi dramatically since being hired, or some tenure committee made a really bad decision. Why are thousands of people attending his talks? The professor has the right to free speech, but this also means he has the right to take an extremely stupid comment back when he realizes how off-base it is. The fact that he's not, and he's standing by it, is extremely troubling. Even Larry Summers apologized for his remark. Our professor has pledged "I'm not backing up an inch."

Perhaps it is somewhat indicative of the current state of affairs in academia today that a scientist who suggests innate differences in the sexes might explain some factual data gets walked out on in disgust, and a tenured professor who compares the victims of a terror attack to genocidal exterminators is rewarded with audiences numbering into the thousands, and defended by the ACLU for his right to free speech.

Oren Cass must be beside himself on this one...

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