Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Check Your Privilege

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Check Your Privilege

Article excerpt

Lincoln Allison's views on drugs and rapists have offended many. As it becomes harder for scholars to share controversial ideas amid threats to academic freedom, he argues that a campus can be a bastion of inoffensiveness or a proper university, but not both

When I was a visiting academic at Stanford University in the mid-1970s the game of laureate spotting was a common practice. I don't know how many Nobel prizewinners were then on the campus - the claim now is 21 - but there were plenty about. The biggest spot was Linus Pauling and I always seemed to be meeting people who had "nearly" just been run down by him while he rode his bike. Nobody seemed able to believe that a man who had two Nobel prizes could possibly be a competent cyclist.

Perhaps the rarest spot in this game was William Shockley, joint winner of the physics prize for 1956. Shockley was honoured for leading the team that invented the transistor, but he had earlier been involved in the development of radar. He had also been commissioned by the US War Department to calculate the costs of defeating Japan by conventional means and his very high estimates were probably crucial in influencing the decision to drop the atomic bombs on the country. Shockley was an important man, but he was also a eugenicist who believed that it was vital for the future of our species that we institute programmes of incentivised sterilisation to maintain the level of human intelligence. He always denied being a racist because he said that he lacked any a priori hostility to any race, but it was also clear that more black people than white would be affected by the policies he was prescribing.

Shockley was just making the transition from full-time professor to emeritus when I arrived. He cut a lonely figure. Stanford was in some ways at the forefront of what came to be called political correctness and a bitter dispute was breaking out about the university football team's name, the Indians. (It was replaced by the innocuous Cardinals.) He paid a high price for his opinions: a price that was, perhaps, easy to extract because he was a rather austere and charmless person. It is said that his children read of his death (in 1989) with indifference. In my opinion, as in that of many other people, he made unjustified assumptions about the primacy of nature over nurture and was naive in his acceptance of the concept of IQ. But Shockley expressed his opinions in the proper forums for expressing opinions and he did so in a calm manner. He believed that he had a right to such expression and it was accorded to him: there was no attempt by the university to dissociate itself from him; his opinions were not assumed to represent the university as such. That is how it should be. He was protected by the US Constitution, by his status and possibly by the need to appease wealthy members of the alumni who tended to be less progressive than those on campus. But I think we should always accord that right in a full and unconstrained way.

The principal of freedom of speech as espoused by John Stuart Mill brooks no exemptions in terms of the pure content of what can be expressed. If we are to progress and enhance knowledge we must be open to ideas however offensive or preposterous we or anyone else might find them. A good rule of thumb is that any seriously interesting proposition should be offensive to somebody. I'm not sure that I agree with Lord Northcliffe's reputed saying that news is only news if it hurts somebody, but I do accept the corollary that ideas are truly important only if they offend someone. Free speech is incompatible with the existence of any authority that is allowed to define the preposterous or offensive a priori. That is what makes us modern rather than medieval. I am inspired in my commitment to an extreme view here by decades of observation of the human capacity for believing false and absurd propositions. Fifteen years ago, I thought that the introduction of the euro as proposed fell into the preposterous category, meaning that I thought only a moron could believe it would work for the better. …

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