by Robert Gressis
Recently, a new journal, the Journal of Controversial Ideas (JCI), has emerged. Edited by Jeff McMahan, Francesca Minerva, and Peter Singer, its aim is not only to publish controversial ideas, but to allow them to be published pseudonymously. One reaction to JCI’s emergence that came almost immediately from a number of quarters is that “philosophy journals already publish controversial ideas. Consequently, there is no need for JCI.”
Call this the “Superfluity Objection,” and the person who advances it the “Superfluity Objector.” the basic idea behind the Superfluity Objection is that JCI is superfluous, so there’s no reason to start such a journal.
I have two responses to this, one quick, and one slow.
The quick response is this: If you accept the reasoning, “Does a journal exist that already does X? If so, then there is no need to have a journal that does X,” then lots of journals are unneeded. Imagine, for example that one wanted to start the Journal of the Philosophy of Pedagogy, the point of which is to examine the philosophical presuppositions of educational psychology. Couldn’t one rejoin, “There are already a few philosophy of education journals, and they do this. So, such a journal is not needed”?
And yet, I have never seen widespread condemnation about the introduction of a new philosophy journal on the grounds that it’s not needed. This leads me to suspect that the charge, “JCI is not needed” is not the real charge. Rather, the real charge is, “JCI should not exist, because controversial ideas of the type it’s going to publish should not be given a legitimate venue.” So, to the extent that the Superfluity Objectors are offering the Superfluity Objection, they’re objecting in bad faith.
That’s the quick response. Against it, the Superfluity Objector could reply:
Hold on! You’re accusing me of bad faith, but I’m really being sincere that the JCI is not needed! To see why, imagine someone started something called the Journal of Good Philosophy, the point of which is to publish only good philosophy. Surely, it would be fair to say, “Every journal is trying to publish good philosophy already. So, there is no need for such a journal.”
In other words, whereas the Journal of the Philosophy of Pedagogy actually fills a need, because it has a substantive remit, JCI fills no such need because it has only a formal remit. It’s willing to publish papers that have a formal feature that philosophy journals are already willing to publish. Indeed, I could go further: To say, “We’re creating the JCI because we need to have a journal that publishes controversial ideas” is not only false [because every journal already fills the need] but also insulting. Journals already publish controversial ideas, so producing JCI is implicitly claiming that other journals aren’t doing their job.
However, this doesn’t save the Superfluity Objection. First, it’s probably not true that every journal is even willing to publish controversial ideas. Even though Philosophical Psychology and Hypatia published controversial ideas, the fallout from their doing so has probably discouraged them from publishing similarly controversial ideas in the future and may have deterred other journals from doing the same. Second, there’s a difference between being willing to publish controversial ideas and focusing on publishing controversial ideas. JCI claims it’s trying to publish only controversial ideas, and it’s not obvious that any other journal are trying to do this.
The Superfluity Objector might say:
Not so fast! Every journal does try to publish controversial ideas. After all, in order for a paper to get published, it’s supposed to make a substantive contribution to the literature. And in order to do that, it has to disagree with existing scholarship. And disagreeing with existing scholarship is, in fact, controversial. So, every journal is not only willing to publish controversial ideas, but every journal does, in fact, publish controversial work with every paper it publishes.
This is simply false. There are more ways to make a substantive contribution to the literature than by disagreeing. To take just two: An article can deepen an existing analysis (in Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments, R. Jay Wallace does this for Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”); and an article can use one move made in one field and apply it to another (in Is a Good God Logically Possible? James Sterba uses standard deontological ethical theories to try to rehabilitate the logical problem of evil). And there are many more. See this article at the Daily Nous for numerous examples.
So, even if every journal was willing to publish controversial ideas, a journal that focused on controversial ideas would be substantively different from most, if not all, journals out there, even if we take ‘controversial’ in the deflated sense of “disagrees with some existing scholarship.”
Of course, there is another sense of ‘controversial’ that has a much thicker meaning than merely, “disagrees with some existing scholarship.” Recall what I wrote above about the objection that the Superfluity Objection is a cover for: “JCI should not exist, because controversial ideas of the type it’s going to publish should not be given a legitimate venue.” Call this objection the “Legitimacy Objection,” according to which the problem with JCI is that it legitimates ideas that should not be legitimated.
Responding to the Legitimacy Objection will take some contextualization, though the one I’m about to offer is well-worn. Right now, in philosophy, there are a number of issues where a significant number of philosophers think that certain views are simply beyond the pale, whereas others think those views are not beyond the pale, and possibly might even be true. The idea that women are adult, human females is one such idea, despite the possibility that it might be the most popular view on this subject throughout the world (and even if it’s not the most popular view on this subject, it’s still a view that’s held by lots of people).  The idea that it’s likely — or perhaps even possible, given our epistemic situation — that racial disparities in IQ scores might be partly genetic is another such idea, despite the fact that in his survey of intelligence research, intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne writes, “the hereditarian hypothesis is almost certainly true [for groups that have similar environments or large mean IQ gaps], though how strong heritability is between groups is unknown” (In the Know, 262-63). 
These aren’t the only such ideas that many philosophers think beyond the pale. Others include: there’s nothing morally wrong with factory farming; and the combination of (a) the pro-life position is true and (b) if the pro-life position is true, then we’re morally required to commit violent acts to stop abortions. There are, of course, many more.
Call such beyond-the-pale ideas “thickly controversial.” These ideas are thickly controversial because not only are they thinly controversial, in the sense that that asserting them entails disagreeing with a lot of existing scholarship, but also because people who publicly advocate for them can expect to face all manner of social sanction. First, they will be decried on social media; some of their colleagues will shun them or vituperate them in face-to-face interactions; activist groups may seize upon these writings and organize protests against the scholars who authored them; and administrators may discipline the authors or remove them from teaching.
Even if these ideas are as bad as their detractors think, it may nonetheless be important to hear from the most articulate advocates of such positions, for all the usual Millian reasons.  But there is another, non-Millian reason to give an outlet for the people who advocate these positions to be able to express them anonymously. If you subject people who depart from the non-controversial mainstream to powerful social sanction, then the only people who will continue to assert the controversial ideas are people who can accept being publicly shamed. Call such people “happy warriors.” Happy warriors may be attractive to some people, but many will find them off-putting, or even assholes. Moreover, their articulation of their point of view may be blunter and more polemical than others’ articulation of their views would be, because that’s the kind of personality they have.
What this means is that without venues like the JCI, what onlookers will see is a large, vocal group of academics who condemn departures from their outlook in the strongest terms and a small, vocal group of mavericks who delight in pissing off people from the first group. Though this state of affairs benefits both groups — it convinces the happy warriors that they’re a persecuted minority, and it convinces the social justice academics that those who disagree with them have character flaws — it makes both sides appear unattractive to neutral parties. The social justice skeptics seem to consist of insensitive shit-stirrers while the social justice adherents look like zealous heresy-hunters.
One reason to have JCI, then, is precisely to incentivize people of a different character to advocate thickly controversial ideas. Since they’re anonymous, their presence probably won’t move social justice academics into accepting that you can depart from social justice orthodoxy without thereby having a character flaw (though their different writing style may nudge them a bit in that direction). But, their presenting their ideas in a more sensitive way may convince neutral parties that you can refrain from dogmatic social justice leftism while also being irenic. And, there simply being an outlet to present challenges may embolden more academics to take off-beat stands that open up the debate still further.
So I say: bring on the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Ironically enough, its presence may actually cool things down rather than heat them up.
 I am not suggesting that because a view is extremely popular it’s therefore defensible. Throughout human history, most people have held attitudes to women and slavery that most people today would regard as entirely indefensible. What I am saying is that even if a view is beyond the pale, if it’s held by a large number of people, it’s worth repeatedly explaining why the view is beyond the pale. I realize that advocates for trans rights have explained their position repeatedly, but most people, I would bet, are still unfamiliar with their arguments. To me, the situation is similar to that of vegan activists. Ethical vegans have been advocating for ethical veganism for decades, and it may be that ethical veganism is the correct position, but not only do most non-philosophers seem to be unconvinced by ethical veganism, they seem to be unfamiliar with ethical veganism’s main arguments!
 It could be that Warne, despite his credentials, university position, and research focus, is not to be trusted on this subject, and that his book, at least when it comes to this issue, provides misleading evidence, despite the blurbs on its back cover from Douglas Detterman, Richard Haier, James Lee, and Joyce E. Juntune. Similarly, it could be that this survey, the abstract of which claims that “Genes were rated [by seventy-one experts] as the second most relevant factor [after education] [in causing international ability differences in psychometric IQ test results] but also had the highest variability in ratings” was poorly conducted. It could even be that, when it comes to race and IQ, most psychometricians are compromised, and that people well-versed in critical race theory are best positioned to see that.
By the way, I’m not being sarcastic with these “it could be’s.” Many academics think that there are portions of academic fields that should be disregarded. Besides intelligence research, many academics have voiced skepticism about, e.g., evolutionary psychology, educational psychology, critical-race-theory-inflected humanities and social science research, theology, philosophy of religion, neoclassical economics, etc. In the one field I am well-versed in, philosophy of religion, I disagree with the contention, though I think it’s reasonable for someone to assert it.
 The most salient Millian reasons in these cases are: (a) hearing the opposition’s reasons is valuable because it allows you to understand your own position better; and (b) it’s always possible, however unlikely, that you’re wrong, and it’s important to leave open a safety valve in case that happens to be the case. Now, people often respond that Mill assumes unrealistic things about a market of ideas — namely, that ordinary people are more capable of critical thinking than they in fact are — but I think that, even if you find Millianism implausible about a free speech regime for the general public, it’s worth pointing out that even Herbert Marcuse thought that Millianism was acceptable for academics engaging in discourse among themselves (see Brian Leiter’s paper on the subject); and that’s clearly the audience at which JCI aims.