The Journal of Controversial Ideas will offend progressives. But let's remember that controversy is not valuable in and of itself
The Journal of Controversial Ideas, should it be created, might become the most widely read and debated academic journal in history. Compare its name to, say, the Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics or Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, to say nothing of Calcified Tissue International. Which might the inexpert reader be more enthusiastic about perusing?
The Journal of Controversial Ideas is the brainchild of philosophers Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva, and is seeking a publisher for its launch next year. It will be unusual in that it will accept submissions from pseudonymous authors. This reflects concerns regarding curbs on academic freedom. Some scholars, McMahan says, “face a choice, or perceive a choice, between not publishing something and risking … terrible consequences.” The journal, he adds, will “provide a way to avoid that dilemma”. Princeton professor Robert George, a prominent conservative Catholic, has joined the journal’s editorial board.
Egalitarian values have become so sacred throughout much of the Left as to become unquestionable. Even academic provocation must be suppressed. McMahan, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, cited the case of Rebecca Tuvel, who published an article in Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy, which compared “transracialism” to transgenderism. Hypatia faced outraged demands to retract the article and its associate editors cravenly apologised. Bruce Gilley’s eyebrow-raising “The Case for Colonialism” in the Third World Quarterly, meanwhile, was retracted after its editors received not just complaints but also “credible threats of personal violence”.
Student activism has also encouraged censoriousnesses on campuses. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, was reportedly assaulted when he tried to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. Jenni Murray, the host of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, pulled out of a scheduled talk at Oxford University last month after facing protests for alleged “transphobia”. This climate of hostility towards opinions that flout fashionable mores does nothing to encourage unconventional inquiry.
Concerns regarding leftist groupthink and intimidation in academia led to the rise of the Heterodox Academy, an organisation of scholars who promote “viewpoint diversity” and oppose the “shame [and] ostracism” that scholars face for “questioning or challenging a commonly held idea”. The recent “Sokal Squared” hoax, in which three concerned liberals managed to publish a series of ridiculous papers in humanities journals, has confirmed the widely held suspicion that academic success has more to do with flattering progressive prejudices than with one’s insight, rigour and originality. McMahan, Singer and Minerva presumably hope that injecting unorthodox ideas into mainstream academic discourse will arouse it from its ideological haze.
There is some value to this idea. Pseudonymity might liberate scholars from the fear of controversy harming their social and professional status. An effective system of peer review, meanwhile, might ensure that the journal does not indulge the laziness and attention-seeking that the absence of accountability might inspire. We can hope that interesting and enlightening ideas that might otherwise have withered behind academic inhibitions will see the light.
Still, Catholics and conservatives who anticipate an entertaining display of aggrieved progressives might be in for a rude shock. Debates surrounding academic freedom have concentrated on leftist censoriousness, but the editors will vex social conservatives as much as leftists. Peter Singer has already provoked controversy with his qualified defences of bestiality, necrophilia and infanticide. Francesca Minerva, meanwhile, co-authored a paper that questioned the difference in moral status between a foetus and a newborn child. No problem with that for conservatives, of course, except that the paper allowed for at least the possibility of what it called “After-Birth Abortion”. This inspired, according to her editor, “hostile, abusive, threatening responses … from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.”
Naturally, such editors will publish papers that outrage social conservatives as well as progressives. If one waves the banner of academic freedom, how can one complain? I think some dissenters from progressive orthodoxies have rather enjoyed being dissidents, offending sacred values. It makes a pleasant change from being depicted as scolds and prigs. Still, we should remember that controversy is not valuable in and of itself, or else be surprised when our sacred values are defiled.
While The Journal of Controversial Ideas will offend progressives, then, it will also challenge the newfound devotion that social conservatives have to liberal ideas of free speech and inquiry. Perhaps it could present an opportunity. Whatever the abstract merits and demerits of societal and academic taboos, we are in no position to enforce them. If the progressive left has shown itself to be censorious and often unwilling to respond to disagreement substantively, and if this has reduced its standing in the eyes of the public, its rivals should take the chance to prove ourselves quite able to respond to disagreeable ideas. As the academic credibility of progressives is called into question, it is an excellent chance to assert our own.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He is the author of Kings & Comedians: A Brief History of British-Polish Relations