Frictophobia: Law and Politics

Original positing: September 18, 2007

Do We Need Freedom Police?
Some Thoughts on
Academic Freedom in an Age
of Political Correctness

by Theodore Plantinga

Click here to go to the appendix by David Cameron

Philosophers disagree about freedom: so do people who have never studied the subject. Peculiar views are held by certain thinkers: some don't mind defining freedom in such a way that it becomes indistinguishable from necessity, or what the layman would consider a situation in which one has no choice whatsoever.

Among the laymen who side with certain philosophers in holding to a curious view of freedom is Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, who dismissed pleas that he should give his customers freedom of choice. In his autobiography Ford tells us:

... in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be "Model T," and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." [NOTE ford]

Spinoza identified freedom and necessity, [NOTE spinoza] as did Marx, albeit in a different way. [NOTE marx] For some, freedom is an inner surrender to what must be. If this is indeed an adequate definition, freedom has nothing to do with choice -- and even less with caprice, that is, with the kind of thinking we find articulated by Dostoevsky's "underground man." [NOTE underground] And then there are some for whom freedom is essentially rebellion. [NOTE rebellion]

A very popular conception is that freedom consists of the absence of restraints and constraints. This view could be called libertarian. As a political philosophy, it strives to keep government to the absolute minimum: the less government there is, the more freedom we have. A still more radical version of such thinking is anarchism, which maintains that there should be no government at all. Indeed, it is the effort to impose constraints on human behavior that produces evil and bad conduct in the first place.

If libertarians and anarchists were asked whether they are in favor of "freedom police," they would maintain that the term makes no sense. Many other people, being more of a centrist disposition, do believe in freedom police, even if the term itself is not familiar to them. These are people who acknowledge that there can be no freedom in the ordinary sense of the word apart from a framework of law that provides structure and constancy to everyday life.

Christians who teach philosophy often use the example of freedom and the fish: a fish out of water is not free -- not free to be a fish, which is what God made this creature to be. Liberate your goldfish by taking him from his bowl and depositing him on the carpet, and he will soon die. Hence God, providing a constant order of nature, is regarded as the ultimate guarantor of our freedom.

If God has a job to do here, so does society. Proponents of such thinking soon find themselves embracing what we might call "facilitated freedom" (another unfamiliar term, paralleled by "facilitated communication"). Perhaps an example can help us here.

Let's say that George Morello, a quadriplegic, has been accepted for study at Hirschberger College, a Lutheran institution in a small Canadian city with a remarkably cold climate. All Hirschberger classes are held in its main academic and administrative building, called Melanchthon Hall, which is an architectural gem dating back to the later nineteenth century. Like many another older building, it was not designed with wheelchairs in mind. And so Morello has no way of getting into the building. He complains and demands his freedom, his rights. But a hard-hearted administrator replies that Morello is free to enter Melanchthon Hall in the same way as the other students, namely, by climbing the impressive stone steps that lead directly into the building's second level.

Laws in most jurisdictions agree with Morello on this point: Hirschberger College must facilitate his freedom by making it possible for him to enter Melanchthon Hall without being lifted from his motorized wheelchair. It's an "equity" issue, some people would say. Not to make provision for wheelchair access is to "discriminate" against quadriplegics and thereby to take away their freedom. So whose problem is it that Morello has physical difficulty getting into ordinary buildings? Under the anarchist view it's his own problem. But modern society deems otherwise.

Now let's consider another mobility example. Harry Horsfleisch lives on the island, which is a sizable suburb separated from the city by a two-lane bridge. The bridge is the sole means for getting on or off the island. Harry runs a bakery and spends much of his worktime delivering his baked goods in the city and soliciting orders from restaurants and retail outlets. One morning he gets to the bridge and finds that it has been blockaded. An environmental activist group is making a statement about an environmental outrage taking place some three hundred miles to the east. By blockading the bridge, the environmentalists hope to attract television cameras, and they succeed. They promise to lift the blockade after a couple of days, once they feel their point has been made.

Harry is outraged. On the anarchist view he has nothing to complain about, and there is no one to appeal to. But Harry is a mainstream thinker who believes in facilitated freedom. His freedom to move around has been violated, and so he demands that the police end the blockade. But the police remain neutral: they tell him that their job is to try to prevent bloodshed, if at all possible. Harry writes an angry letter to the mayor, which he manages to get off the island through the miracle of email.

In terms of this essay, the police who refuse to do their job when Harry's delivery van shows up at the bridge are freedom police, although they do not seem to be aware of their mandate in this regard. By enforcing the law, they are supposed to make it possible for Harry and other residents of the island to go about their normal, legitimate pursuits. Hence those who imagine that police are always and necessarily the enemies of freedom do not get much of a hearing from Harry.

The same dynamics exist on a college campus. Let's say that Magnus Eisenhonk is a professor at Hirschberger College. Being an unreconstructed conservative of the old school, he has gotten on the enemies list maintained by feminists on campus. They decide that he needs to be shut down, and so they organize a blockade of his classroom. Eisenhonk needs the freedom police: he calls for campus security. But the campus security folks also strike the "neutrality" pose and maintain that they just want to avoid overt violence. Eisenhonk decides that his academic freedom is being violated. His throws up his hands in anger and goes home for the day.

But the local feminists aren't done with him yet. They have planted a couple of members in his class. Before long, Susan Swanshiver, one of their more outspoken members, lodges a complaint of sexual harassment against him because of what he teaches. Eisenhonk immediately drops the line of thought he was pursuing in the lectures and waits to see what happens next. To his dismay, the ill-founded complaint is taken seriously by the college, and soon a full-fledged prosecution is underway.

Eisenhonk now appeals to freedom police of a higher order. He contacts the college's president and demands that his teaching be evaluated in terms of the college's creedal documents. But the president plays the "neutrality" card too: he expresses the wish that the two sides will eventually come to understand one another. In the meantime, we should let the process that was initiated under the college's sexual harassment officials chug along. Eisenhonk is disgusted: he maintains that his academic freedom has not been upheld, for he realizes that it is a facilitated freedom. Eisenhonk, as a conservative, is no anarchist.

I believe these examples and stories can help us toward an operative definition of academic freedom. By an operative definition, I do not mean a comprehensive one: the definitions already in use have plenty of useful elements. The classic definition adopted many years ago by the American Association of University Professors is a good place to start:

Academic freedom is the freedom of the teacher or research workers in higher institutions of learning to investigate and discuss the problems of his science and to express his conclusions, whether through publication or in the instruction of students, without interference from political or ecclesiastical authority, or from the administrative officials of the institution in which he is employed, unless his methods are found by qualified bodies of his own profession to be clearly incompetent or contrary to professional ethics. [NOTE definition]

But even with such a definition in place, we need to ask how it works in practice. When you buy a piece of merchandise and are sold a wonderful guarantee for an extra fifty dollars, you might do well to ask how you would make a claim on that guarantee in case there is a problem. Sometimes the answer is disturbing: it's such a rigmarole that you finally conclude that you don't really have a guarantee at all.

Consider religious freedom for a moment: we guarantee such freedom in Western democracies like Canada. Orthodox Jews, for example, are free to worship undisturbed in their synagogues. But what happens if anti-Semites beat them up on the way to the synagogue, break windows in the synagogue, and generally make a nuisance of themselves whenever the Jewish sabbath rolls around? The rabbi complains to the chief of police. Because the chief is a libertarian, he replies sweetly that the police have no objection whatsoever to the synagogue services. Do as you like. But this is not a helpful answer: someone needs to drive off the anti-Semites. In short, the rabbi is appealing for facilitated freedom. He needs help from the freedom police.

My thesis in this essay is that academic freedom is, among other things, a facilitated freedom. Unless freedom police of some sort or other are willing to dismantle the blockade to the classroom and are willing to defend what is being taught as in harmony with the expectations of society, Hirschberger College's sponsoring church community, and so forth, Prof. Eisenhonk's academic freedom is like a worthless guarantee.

Abraham Kuyper founded a "free university" in Amsterdam. He understood that the work of professors and researchers needs to be protected, for he was no anarchist. But is Hirschberger (my fictional example) a free college? Clearly not.

We live in the great age of privatization. We are told: don't whine and look to the government to solve all your problems. If George Morello wants to get into the main Hirschberger building every day, why doesn't he hire some guys to carry him and his wheelchair inside? If Harry Horsfleish wants to get over the bridge into the city, why doesn't he supply some muscle of his own, perhaps by carrying a gun, perhaps by hiring a band of goons to teach those environmentalists a lesson?

But that sort of thing is against the law, you point out. Okay, fair enough. So we'll do the privatization number on a more refined level. Why doesn't Harry Horsfleish hire a lawyer and sue the environmentalists for damages, citing lost income and lost business opportunities? Such a course of action won't open the bridge right away, but if Harry is successful, those environmentalists will think twice before they apply such tactics again. Show 'em that you're nobody to mess with!

That's indeed the mentality in much of our world today. You're on your own. Free trade! The Darwinian jungle is making a comeback in business: companies have to get bigger and bigger, and they do so by devouring other companies.

Magnus Eisenhonk also ponders this possibility, but his brand of conservative thinking is too traditional to rejoice at such prospects. For a while he considers early retirement. But then he hires a lawyer and a private investigator as he contemplates ways to make life miserable for Susan Swanshiver and her pals ..... [END]

Click here to go to the appendix by David Cameron


NOTE definition
See "Academic Freedom," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. I (New York: Macmillan, 1937), p. 384.

NOTE ford
See Chapter 4 of My Life and Work. In settling on "Model T," Ford was getting rid of "Model R" and "Model S," to the dismay of his sales staff: "The salesmen, before I had announced the policy, were spurred by the great sales to think that even greater sales might be had if only we had more models. It is strange how, just as soon as an article becomes successful, somebody starts to think that it would be more successful if only it were different. There is a tendency to keep monkeying with styles and to spoil a good thing by changing it."

NOTE marx
The conflation of freedom and determinism is especially evident in later thinkers in the Marxist tradition who were quite comfortable allowing their ideas to be used in support of what Western critics considered a repressive society. The "young" Marx, by contrast, was sometimes thought to be "humanistic" and therefore appreciative of freedom in a more ordinary sense.

NOTE rebellion
To make freedom concrete one must rebel and overthrow that which stands in the way of what we want to be -- hence the preoccupation with patricide (consider Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov), regicide (the Communists shot the Czar and his family), and deicide (Nietzsche declared that God is dead).

NOTE spinoza
That Spinoza is serious about maintaining a conception of freedom within his seemingly deterministic metaphysical system is apparent from the title of his major work: Ethics.

NOTE underground
Dostoevsky's underground man insisted that a human being will do foolish, perverse things “... simply in order to prove to himself ... that men are still men and not piano keys .... [Even] if man really were nothing but a piano key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse, out of sheer ingratitude, simply to have his own way. ... He will launch a curse upon the world ... [to] really convince himself that he is a man and not a piano key! ... [The] whole work of man seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop. It may be at the cost of his skin! But he has proved it; he may become a cave man, but he will have proved it.” [Part I, Section VII]

David Cameron on harassment
in relation to academic freedom

Even more difficult are the challenges to academic freedom associated with “political correctness”. In dealing with these challenges, it will be important to separate personal harassment from political correctness. Academic freedom has always carried with it norms of acceptable behavior, and while these have certainly been relaxed as compared with earlier times, there is no room to argue that the protection of academic freedom includes or implies license to harass. That having been said, however, there is a problem in the way universities seem wont to address problems arising from alleged harassment, and particularly in the balance struck between the rights of the accuser and the accused. Procedural justice is threatened when a presumption of guilt arises from the mere allegation of harassment.

But this is a problem for universities as places of employment more than for academic freedom per se. Not so political correctness. Political correctness strikes at the very roots of academic freedom, because its targets extend to what is studied and taught. The possibility that the truth might offend cannot justify proscribing lines of inquiry or the expression of their fruits. This is the foundation of the very idea of academic freedom. But that foundation is itself dependent on the condition that the inquiry and expression reflect the highest standards of scholarship. Universities must protect their faculty from attack based on the perception of prejudice on the part of the allegedly aggrieved party. They must also be vigilant in holding their faculty to high standards of scholarly work. But they must not succumb to procedures which, intentionally or otherwise, put the burden of proof on establishing innocence rather than guilt.

Arguably the most threatening situations arise when the tactics employed to attack what is perceived by an aggrieved party to be politically unacceptable constitute harassment against the faculty member. This is so threatening to academic freedom precisely because it is so difficult to counter. It can be intensely personal. It can come from students, it can come from colleagues, and it can even come as the result of statements, presentations, artistic displays, or other scholarly activities undertaken outside of the university. To what extent is the university responsible for protecting its faculty members from this sort of abuse? What procedures are appropriate in establishing grounds for action, and what action is appropriate? Certainly traditional safeguards such as tenure and its procedures for establishing cause for dismissal seem irrelevant to the protection of academic freedom from politically motivated but personally directed harassment.

From: "Academic Freedom and the Canadian University"
by David M. Cameron
Dalhousie University

NOTE: Cameron's paper as posted includes the information that it "... was commissioned by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada to assist its members in discussing the question of academic freedom and its centrality to contemporary universities. The paper has been prepared with this in mind, and seeks to be helpful in outlining the background to our current understanding of academic freedom, and in defining the issues that impinge on the institutional manifestations of this ancient idea. The opinions expressed, however, are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of the Association or any of its members."

© Theodore Plantinga 2007

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