Roy Harris, who died in 2015, was the professor of general linguistics at the University of Oxford. He was the founder of the school of integrational linguistics, and the inspirational co-founder of AFAF. With the permission of the current editor, John Gill, we reprint here two articles, a speech, and a report of that speech, published in what was then the Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES). They are powerful, uncompromising pieces that deserve wider attention.
Speaking out for the right to speak evil, 9 December, 2005
However poisonous the views of some citizens may be, freedom of speech is the ultimate test of a free society, insists Roy Harris
The need to restrict certain freedoms in order to protect other freedoms has long been recognised by political theorists as the paradox of the free society. What is in danger of being forgotten in the current rush of anti-terrorist measures, however, is that not all freedoms are on a par.
Freedom of speech takes priority over all others because without it the very concept of freedom itself is lost.
In a free society, universities have a primary duty to champion freedom of speech against all encroachments by legislators, pressure groups and trends in public opinion. Their academic responsibility is to ensure that the conditions for debate and discussion on campus of even the most unpopular or repugnant doctrines remain open. Banning certain speakers, teachers or organisations because of their views is a derogation of that responsibility.
Universities, in particular, have this duty because freedom of speech is required by freedom of inquiry, and such institutions would not exist in their modern form unless freedom of inquiry had been valued as the foundation of knowledge.
Why does freedom of speech have this unique priority? Our opinions are formed on the basis of experience, and that experience includes exposure to the opinions of others. But if others are not free to voice their opinions, we cannot reliably learn what they believe or why.
It follows that a society in which some are not free to express their opinions affords an impoverished basis for forming one’s own. Where there is restricted freedom of speech, all judgment of social and moral issues is distorted by the enforced silence on banned topics.
In such a society, not only freedom of speech but freedom of thought would be an illusion. A collective mental warping of this kind is precisely what results when the advocacy of certain views is repressed for long periods by totalitarian regimes.
The major objections to recognising this primacy for freedom of speech fall under two headings. One is that the advocacy of certain views may, in certain circumstances, lead to action that involves doing harm to other people. Restricting freedom of speech is therefore allegedly justified to prevent such consequential harm.
The standard case is inciting a mob to violence. But this objection rests on a confusion of responsibilities. If I am persuaded by listening to a demagogue to commit an act of violence, the responsibility for the action lies with me, not with the demagogue.
The other line of objection is that, even in cases where no harm or disadvantage results, the expression of certain views may be deeply offensive to other members of the community. The standard case is the expression of religious or racial bias. Here, restricting freedom of speech is allegedly justified in the interests of eliminating hatred and promoting tolerance.
But these doubtless laudable objectives are not likely to be achieved by criminalising the speech of the intolerant. A free society is not one that can or should offer guarantees against prejudice, propaganda, criticism, antagonism or conflict. If you want such immunity, you do not want to live in a free society.
Is this just another ethnocentric argument? Does it have any relevance to societies that do not accept Western perspectives and values? Different societies do indeed differ in respect of the rights and responsibilities they recognise as regards various forms of social behaviour.
But those that place freedom of speech low on their order of social priorities have no convincing claim to be free societies at all. Before we enforce restrictions on freedom of speech as a way of defeating “extremists”, we should ask ourselves whether we wish to join them.
Want to talk? First show me your credentials, 29 September 2006
The belief that academics can speak only in their expert field stifles debate before it begins, argues Roy Harris.
Freedom of speech is often regarded as imposing some responsibilities on those who exercise it. One such responsibility concerns disclosure of the speaker’s identity or, more generally, the speaker’s location. Roland Barthes once remarked that whenever you speak, you always speak “from somewhere”. By that he meant not just a location in space and time but also a social and intellectual location. Where you speak from counts.
This is the basis of the respect the public has for the academy. Unfortunately, it gives rise to intellectual impostures. The physicist who writes a letter to the press with a row of letters after his name and his university departmental address may be regarded as engaging in a form of intellectual imposture if what he says has nothing to do with physics but expresses his opinion of, say, foreign policy. He is, in effect, say, borrowing the prestige of his university to lend weight to his personal view. Everyone except the simple-minded can see that. That it is done all the same is, however, symptomatic of something more complex.
Those who (rightly) deplore such rhetorical tricks often turn a blind eye to the more uncomfortable fact that, on a larger scale, the same imposture is commonly used to extract academic funding from the public purse. In other words, the implicit assumption is that those who have a record in some mainstream line of research approved in their discipline deserve financial support for that very reason. But this assumption does not stand up to serious scrutiny. It implies that society must trust its academics to know what they are talking about.
The history of ideas, alas, is replete with examples of prestigious experts who got it wrong. These mistakes are duly logged in the record of intellectual progress and are naively regarded by the public as the price to be paid for pushing back the frontiers of knowledge rather than a caution against paying too much attention to academics. Western society turns increasingly to the experts because it no longer trusts religious leaders or politicians to tell everyone what to think. Virtually the whole structure of modern academe is based on the self-serving assumption that experts know best.
As might be expected, academic philosophers have not been backward in coming up with philosophical defences of this position, perhaps the best known being the Popperian doctrine of “fallibilism”. Even the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their eagerness to expose the intellectual posturing of postmodernists, fall into this trap. They make the disingenuous claim that “the intellectual value of an intervention is determined by its content, not by the identity of the speaker, much less his or her diplomas”. The only appropriate response is the remark attributed to the Duke of Wellington: “If you can believe that, Sir, you can believe anything.”
Let us be clear about what is in contention here. No one in the academic world supposes that by counting the diplomas of advocates of either side, you can judge which of two conflicting opinions is to be preferred. But that is already a gross oversimplification of the issue. The root of the problem lies in the fact that diplomas, degrees and certificates of academic proficiency are the invention of the academic community itself.
These are the “goods” that the academy sells to the rest of society, and the academy would collapse if society decided that such goods were surplus to requirements. Then, perish the thought, “being an academic” would no longer be a place to speak from.
The engagement of academics in a knowledge-marketing operation means inevitably that they are subject to all the pressures typical of markets.
We see this in the dumbing down of academic “standards” – widely condemned but accelerating at an apparently unstoppable pace, as A-level results clearly show.
We see a more subtle version of it in the duplicitous conception of “academic freedom” that prevails in some quarters. This is restricted to making pronouncements in a field where you are an accredited “expert”. In return for this privilege, in all other areas you are expected to bow respectfully to the views of the experts in those fields. This quid pro quo is itself an intellectual imposture at one remove. But unless, as an academic, you accept it, you are deemed to be “speaking from nowhere”. The real threat to academic freedom of speech today is an increasing reluctance to speak up from nowhere in case you might appear to be challenging the experts, or even claiming expertise where you have none.
Freedom and Hypocrisy, 28 May 2009 (Text of the talk by Roy given at an AFAF seminar -see below)
When I was casting around for a title under which to bring together the few unoriginal remarks on academic freedom that I’d like to make, I could think of nothing as appropriate as ‘Freedom and Hypocrisy’.
The hypocrisy in question strikes me ever more forcibly each week as I read my copy of Times Higher Education. It is the collective hypocrisy of a profession which bleats about the erosion of academic freedom while constantly devising for itself new instruments of intellectual tyranny. In brief, my thesis is that the current threats to academic freedom in this country in the sphere of higher education are threats in which the academic community itself is complicit. Or, put more trenchantly, I think that restrictions on academic freedom are not only what the academic community deserves but what it wants.
I have only time to mention a few of them here. I want to say something about three in particular:
– the academic complicity in specialization
– the academic complicity in the glorification of peer review
– the academic complicity in the funding lottery.
These are not the most controversial examples. We have only recently learnt of the extent of academic complicity in the attempts to justify torture as an instrument of American foreign policy. But the three I have chosen will do for starters. These three feed into one another, and even if there were no others, between them they combine to make the whole prospect for academic freedom in this country very bleak.
1. Specialization. Anyone who reads the history of European and American universities since the 19th century will recognize the following scenario. The royal road to establishing any subject as an autonomous discipline is to start calling it a ‘science’, regardless of whether it is or not, and then provide it with an arcane jargon which no outsiders can understand. Then at least it sounds like science, because for the general public the hallmark of science is that it has an impenetrable language of its own. The classic case in the popular understanding of these things is medicine. You takes yer tablets and you respects what yer doctor says because you can’t understand a word of it.
Specialization serves to erect an academic barrier behind which you and your colleagues can hide from external criticism. Better still, specialization precludes academic criticism because no one on the other side of the barrier has the jargon in which to formulate criticism that might be relevant. This is the raison d’être of that other sacred cow of the academic world: the syllabus. The requirement of a self-respecting disciplinary syllabus is that it shall be formulated in terms which only those studying the subject can possibly be expected to understand.
We are dealing here with a form of academic protectionism, and it trumps freedom of inquiry at every turn. Disciplines lose no time in setting up their own forms of orthodoxy. Why? Because, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out nearly half a century ago, most modern academics are a lot of sheep. That is really what Kuhn was driving at when he introduced the concepts of academic ‘paradigm’ and ‘normal science’. Most academics need an orthodoxy to cling on to, because they don’t have the intellectual originality to think ‘outside the box’.
2. Peer review. The role of peer review is to forestall the objection that research within the discipline is subject to no academic controls whatsoever. The safeguard provided is to ensure in advance that judge and jury are all on the same side. You don’t criticize your peers for fear that they might criticize you. But it’s not just fear of criticism. I once asked a distinguished European scholar working in an American university why he had never published anything critical of a particular theory in his field that I knew he disagreed with, but which was currently the orthodoxy in the department to which he himself belonged. His answer was blunt and to the point. ‘Every year,’ he said, ‘these guys fix my salary’.
That is the financial underbelly of peer review. And the same back-scratching principle operates on a rather different level in so-called ‘Research Assessment’ exercises, and in fact in all those cases where academics willingly allow themselves to be recruited as advisers to serve on government bodies or as members of government committees. So we have reached a situation in which the upper echelons of university staff are in practice imposing government policies on the universities, rather than standing up for academic values against political pressure.
3. Funding. Why do academics behave in this way? The answer is ‘money’. It is not only that some research projects require an investment that individual institutions cannot afford. It is also that the academic institution itself has been re-educated into thinking like a business corporation, and individual academic careers are built on notching up an impressive number of large government grants, regardless of the intellectual quality of the research involved. It’s small wonder that in this race academic freedom comes in as an ‘also ran’.
The dangers of making academic inquiry dependent on the support of the state and big business have of course been pointed out before by distinguished academics. Popper and Feyerabend are two names that spring immediately to mind.
Last year a Nobel laureate, Robert Laughlin, published a book called The Crime of Reason, in which he documented the rate at which areas of research were becoming illegal. Because of patents taken out by international corporations and restrictions imposed by governments, original research in an alarming number of fields is becoming prohibited as a criminal activity for the independent researcher. What Laughlin did not point out was the extent to which these restrictions have come into being with the active or tacit support of the academics involved in those fields. They are complicit in what Laughlin calls ‘the criminalization of knowledge’. Laughlin himself simply draws attention to the remarkable complacency with which most academics regard the criminalization of other academics’ research. The fact is that Homo academicus is an unattractive species whose main goal in life is not advancing freedom of inquiry but the myopic pursuit of self-advancement.
I say nothing of the academics who openly sell out to Mammon and hire their knowledge to the highest commercial bidder. Most of the current evils of the world, from the arms trade to the systematic destruction of natural resources, rely on technologies which would not exist but for the active collaboration of people with the highest academic qualifications.
To sum up, then. If I am right, the problem of academic freedom is a problem caused by the fact that although every individual academic wants freedom for his or her own inquiries, the profession as a whole is structured so as to preclude that. And the majority of academics prefer to keep it that way, because the perceived benefits outweigh the disadvantages. In other words, there is an inherent contradiction between the goal of academic freedom and the professional interests of the supposed freedom-seekers.
So next time you think of complaining about yet another erosion of academic freedom, just pause to ask yourself whether academic freedom is something your colleagues really want; and whether, if they got it, they would know what on earth to do with it.
But I would like to end on a more positive note. As far as I am concerned, freedoms bring with them responsibilities. I believe that academic freedom is an important cause. But if we are to get the general public on our side in this campaign, we need to make it clear what public responsibilities we see academic freedom as entailing. Unless we treat that nexus between freedom and responsibility as a priority, and are prepared to debate it, we must not complain if the non-academic world thinks we have failed to understand academic freedom ourselves.
Freedom fighters when it suits, Rebecca Attwood, 28 May 2009
Scholars switch between protesting against and hiding behind the system, writes Rebecca Attwood
Academics are guilty of collective hypocrisy because they “bleat” about the erosion of academic freedom while devising new “instruments of intellectual tyranny”, a seminar has heard.
Roy Harris, emeritus professor of general linguistics at the University of Oxford, said that although individual academics wanted freedom of inquiry, the profession as a whole was structured in a way that prevented it.
Speaking at a seminar marking International Academic Freedom Day, Professor Harris argued that the current challenges to academic freedom were threats in which the academic community was complicit. Academics protect their work from external criticism, he said, and specialisation is used as a barrier behind which academics and their colleagues can hide.
“Specialisation precludes academic criticism because no one on the other side of the barrier has the jargon in which to formulate criticism that might be relevant,” he said. Meanwhile, peer review was a “back-scratching” system under which “judge and jury are all on the same side”.
“You don’t criticise your peers for fear that they might criticise you,” he said, adding that academics behaved in this way in order to win funding.
“It is not only that some research projects require an investment that individual institutions cannot afford. It is also that the academic institution has been re-educated into thinking like a business corporation and individual academic careers are built on notching up an impressive number of large government grants, regardless of the intellectual quality of the research involved.”
The dangers of making academic inquiry dependent on the support of the state and big business had been pointed out before, Professor Harris noted. He cited Robert Laughlin’s book, The Crime of Reason, which documented the rate at which areas of research were becoming illegal due to patents taken out by corporations and restrictions imposed by governments.
“What Laughlin did not point out was the extent to which these restrictions have come into being with the active or tacit support of the academics involved in those fields,” he said. “The fact is that Homo Academicus is an unattractive species whose main goal in life is not advancing freedom of inquiry but the myopic pursuit of self-advancement.
“I say nothing of the academics who openly sell out to Mammon and hire their knowledge to the highest commercial bidder.
“Most of the current evils of the world, from the arms trade to the systematic destruction of natural resources, rely on technologies that would not exist but for the active collaboration of people with the highest academic qualifications.”
Professor Harris, who was speaking at an event organised by the group Academics for Academic Freedom, chaired by Times Higher Education editor Ann Mroz, argued that there was “an inherent contradiction” between the goal of academic freedom “and the professional interests of the supposed freedom-seekers”.