A new refuge for controversial ideas is an indictment of academia
In a better world, the Journal of Controversial Ideas wouldn’t need to exist
Backbiting and cattiness among academics is both legendary and long-standing. Many novels using higher education for background radiation (think Gaudy Night or The Masters) work for readers outside the universities in part because this stereotype is true. Even people who’ve had only minor contact with the tertiary sector are familiar with a version of the old saw that academic fights are so medieval because the stakes are so small. Sadly, publication last month of the inaugural issue of the Journal of Controversial Ideas seems unremarkable to those of us who were educated and once worked within the academy but then chose to leave it.
JCI allows academics of all disciplines to publish peer-reviewed research anonymously. The first issue has three such papers. It also seems likely to provide a home for non-pseudonymous articles that – while they would probably be accepted by established academic journals – are at risk of retraction for reasons that have nothing to do with scholarship. Several named papers fit this bill. Many attacks on those who write something not in tune with current progressive orthodoxy are no more sophisticated than shouting, “your mum smells”.
Unsurprising as the emergence of JCI may be, it’s fair to say that phenomena already obvious to Dorothy L. Sayers in 1935 have become notably worse of late. The last time I saw the inside of a classroom from the chalk-wielder’s perspective was in 2010: like most lawyers, I went into practice. JCI editors describe behaviour from academics that has degenerated, and obviously so, since then. Instead of detailed (if somewhat intemperate) rebuttals published in the next issue, pressure is now brought to bear on editors to resign and journals to retract. Another favoured weapon is the open letter or petition, where – as the JCI editorial points out – angry denunciations are circulated and “signed by academics who seem to be unwilling to rely on the traditional academic practice of finding flaws in the arguments with which they disagree”.
This can lead to sackings, typically of junior staff, the so-called “precariat”. In Britain, the most notorious recent example was that of Cambridge statistician Noah Carl. Similar attempts to remove John Finnis or Selina Todd or Kathleen Stock failed thanks to their seniority, although their lives were actively made unpleasant (at one point, Todd required police protection during lectures). In all four cases, however, the rest of us got to see a large number of academics – including at Britain’s famed Russell Group – behaving like the worst sort of foul-mouthed playground bullies.
When Sayers was writing Gaudy Night, collectives of PhDs did not get together to misrepresent people they disagreed with and congratulate each other afterwards, all in front of an audience who could see exactly what they were doing. That, I’m afraid, is new. At a basic level, Twitter is bad for the academy. Every time I see some lecturer or another using it to indulge in ad hominem attacks – especially on ordinary members of the public whose taxes pay their wages – I find myself thinking, have you never stopped to consider how you look?
Significantly, the JCI co-editors – Peter Singer, Francesca Minerva, and Jeff McMahan – have all courted controversy in the past. Singer and to a lesser extent Minerva have become notorious for their views on everything from animal rights to infanticide. All, however, defend rigorous argument and academic freedom, and are alarmed by the now widespread post-publication “pretend-peer review” of controversial papers via social media.
“Some academics get death threats,” they note in their editorial, “while others may justifiably fear that their career prospects have been irreversibly damaged”. Minerva told me when I spoke to her of her particular concern with “institutions caving in and firing people in response to petitions, rather than people signing them in the first place”.
And sad as it is that things have come to this, perhaps it’s just as well the Journal of Controversial Ideas now exists.
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