The Electric Agora

Just Stop It

by Daniel A. Kaufman


To my fellow professional academics (and especially philosophers):

Just stop it, ok?  Stop it!

What am I talking about?  Our current penchant for attacking our colleagues personally and professionally, when they disagree with us on moral and political subjects that we care strongly about; our pursuing such attacks so as to silence these colleagues, rather than engage them in rational argument (which, of course, one might lose); and our abuse of the harm principle in doing so.

In other words, some in our profession are trying to turn philosophy – and the university more generally – into a fever swamp.  It’s stupid and short sighted and dangerous, and we all need to stop it, right now.

Currently, you’ll find the worst of this stuff going on in the brawl – you can’t call it a “conversation” – over gender identity.  Just this week, the Times of London reported that a professor had organized a campaign to accuse gender-critical scholars of hate crimes against trans people, in an effort to get them fired from their jobs. (About one such scholar, Kathleen Stock, of the University of Sussex, a participant in this campaign wrote “File a hate crime report against her, and then the chairman and vice-chair… Drag them over the fucking coals.”) (1) But nothing about what’s happening is specific to that topic.  You’ll find the interactions similarly toxic and dysfunctional in discussions of race and other areas that intersect with what used to be called “civil rights,” but is now commonly referred to as “social justice.”

The way this goes is depressingly familiar to anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years.  A professor articulates a view on a controversial social or political subject that is at odds with the prevailing view in the academy or at least, with the view that is most fiercely promoted by academic activists.  It is then claimed that the professor in question has “harmed” the relevant population, i.e. racial minorities, trans people, women, etc., and that consequently, his or her writing/speech is outside the frame of acceptable discourse.  If the professor decides to stand up for him or herself and reaffirm the position in question, even perhaps marshaling additional arguments or evidence on its behalf, what only can be called a “mob” is then unleashed, first on social media, and then later, depending on the circumstances, against the professor’s home institution, with the aim of exacting some penalty, up to and including the termination of his or her employment.

That one even has to explain what’s wrong with this says everything about the current state of academia and social/political discourse more generally.  (This sort of thing is happening with increasing frequency outside of the academy as well.)  What I want to focus on, here, however, is the misuse – nay, the outright abuse – of the harm principle, for it is the linchpin to this entire sorry state of affairs and is something that if not addressed, will destroy the basis on which the very possibility of critical scholarship – not to mention a liberal civil society – rests.

In a post at the American Philosophical Association Blog, Asia Ferren, of American University, says the following about Stock’s inclination to retain the word ‘woman’ for people of the female sex:

The assumption is perhaps malicious because … this assumption hurtsAnd more importantly, this assumption harms; it is often used to discriminate against and justify violence toward trans women. (2)

You see what’s going on here, don’t you?  Stock’s view (which, I should add, reflects ordinary, common usage of the word ‘woman’ in English, as it stands today)  is also one that is held by some other people.  And some of those other people discriminate and engage in violence against trans people, in part, because they hold that view.  And because of this, Stock allegedly is responsible for that discrimination and violence in articulating the view herself, and consequently, her writing and speaking on the subject is beyond the scope of acceptable discourse.

It doesn’t take much heavy thinking to realize what would happen if this sort of logic (as it is) was generalized.  While in graduate school, I assisted Steven Cahn in the editing of his book, The Affirmative Action Debate (Routledge, 1996), in which views both supportive of and opposed to affirmative action were included.  But according to the thinking just described, no such book should ever be published.  After all, there surely is someone, somewhere who has engaged in discriminatory and even, perhaps violent behavior towards racial minorities, who held such views on affirmative action.  Consequently, the scholars who contributed the anti-affirmative action papers were advancing ideas that “harm” racial and ethnic minorities, and in light of that, their views are beyond the scope of acceptable discourse.

In my Ethics and Contemporary issues course, one of the units is on homosexuality, and I use papers from another edited anthology, The Liberation Debate: Rights at Issue (Routledge, 1996), which includes an essay by Roger Scruton, “Gay Reservations,” that is critical of much of the contemporary gay rights movement.  (I pair it with a “pro” piece from the anthology, written by Martha Nussbaum.)  But this book also should not exist, given the thinking currently under consideration.  Undoubtedly there are some other people, who are not Roger Scruton, who have engaged in discriminatory and even violent behavior towards gay and lesbian people, in part because they hold some of the views articulated by Scruton.  Thus, Scruton is advancing ideas that “harm” gays and lesbians, and consequently, his writing and speaking on the subject should be considered out of bounds.

You get the point.  One can repeat this sort of thing with respect to every controversial social and political topic currently on the menu, the result being that none of them should be discussed.  Or at least, only one side of them should be discussed, which is not critical inquiry, but rather, the promotion of an orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy is – or should be – anathema to philosophy, whose tradition of critical inquiry stretches back at least as far as Socrates (who, recall, was censured and then put to death for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of his own day), and to the academy more generally.  Our job is not to advocate for causes or pursue political outcomes, but to engage in the pursuit of knowledge, and this becomes impossible if we adopt the sort of attitude I’ve been discussing, here.  No one is better off – minorities and marginalized people, least of all – if we deem the critical, academic discussion of subjects like affirmative action, gay marriage, gender identity, and the like out of bounds, leaving them only to the work of those who adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day.  Indeed, it is precisely the perception that the latter is the case, which is why so many people give so little credence to the so-called “area studies” and why so many of the liberal arts and social sciences have come into the cross-hairs of reactionary legislators and activists, who are more than happy to have a proverbial knife-fight with their progressive counterparts, over whose orthodoxy should prevail in our colleges and universities.

Beyond the academy, in a liberal, civil society, one only rightly interferes with the liberty of another person, when his or her actions harm others and consequently, interfere with their own exercise of freedom.  This is the “harm principle,” articulated most comprehensively (and ably) by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. (1859)  ‘Harm’ is meant to be construed quite narrowly – Mill explicitly argues that offense is insufficient to count as harm in the relevant sense – and in order to be workable, it must indicate demonstrable, verifiable injury.  The claim is simply too powerful and has too great a capacity to stifle both our “experiments in living” and speech to leave it to an entirely subjective interpretation, which, of course, makes it possible for anyone to claim it.

With regard to writing and speech, then, ‘harm’ can only be a result of writing and speech that constitutes direct incitement against another person (or  which libels them, defrauds them, etc).  Of course, no such thing is true of any of the cases we’ve been discussing, which explains the intense effort on the part of activists to expand the meaning of ‘harm’ to include the causing of offense, hurt feelings, and the like.  I hope it is clear, by now, why it would be a terrible idea for us to acquiesce to this demand.  Both the advancement of knowledge and of our civil society requires that we engage in discussion and debate with our opponents, and this means that sometimes we must endure discomfort, disappointment, disillusion and even distress.

So, once again, to my colleagues:  Stop it.  Stop claiming that you or others have been “harmed,” because someone expressed a view you disagree with or which hurt your or someone else’s feelings.  Stop joining social media mobs, in order to hound people out of their jobs or pressure their bosses to fire them.  In fact, stop using social media altogether, when engaged in what should be careful, deliberate discussions and debates.  Facebook and Twitter are great for posting pictures of your cat or telling your friends how much you loved the concert you went to last night or congratulating a couple on their wedding.  They are absolutely the worst sorts of places to engage in our professional duties, which are supposed to consist of thoughtful scholarship.


(1) “Trans Goldsmiths lecturer Natacha Kennedy behind smear campaign against academics,” Lucy Bannerman, The Times, September 8, 2018.

**Full disclosure:  I have known Kathleen Stock for over a decade, as a result of our mutual affiliation with the British Society of Aesthetics, and have interacted with her socially, as well as professionally.