Cancel culture at the academy
Cancel culture has arguably existed for a long time, but over the past few years, it has impacted public life significantly. The academy has been one of the most impacted public institutions.
This article was written in preparation for our round table on Cancel Culture.
Cancel culture is conventionally traced as far back as the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and ’60s, when activists used it to reject figures or works that spread harmful ideas. The basic act of rejection itself can be traced even further back into what research in the academy essentially is: academics use reject ideas in order to increase knowledge. But it can be argued that the existing cancel culture at the academy has little to do with advancing either social justice or knowledge. The fate of many ‘cancelled’ academic figures or their works across Europe and North America reveals that the academy has been a stage for censoring or suppressing certain ideas to protect certain established interests.
Not allowed to teach
In 2007, author and political scientist Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University. Finkelstein was not denied tenure because of any shortcomings in scholarship or teaching. DePaul University described him as a “prolific scholar and outstanding teacher.” Finkelstein was arguably removed for calling out Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s ‘The Case for Israel’ as a fraudulent work. Finkelstein convincingly showed the book plagiarised Joan Peters’ discredited 1984 ‘From Time Immemorial’ claim that “Palestine was virtually empty on the eve of Zionist colonization, and that Palestinians are in fact foreigners who surreptitiously entered Palestine after the Zionists.” Despite being voted overwhelmingly by his peers for tenure, Finkelstein was denied it at the last minute by the DePaul administration out of pressure from a campaign led by Dershowitz against Finkelstein’s tenure.
Many were shocked by this late reversal. Raul Hilberg, widely recognised as the founder of Holocaust studies, himself exclaimed at the time: “I have a sinking feeling about the damage this will do to academic freedom.” Finkelstein’s widely cancelled career has led him to finally confront cancel culture directly in a forthcoming book, ‘Cancel Culture, Academic Freedom, and Me’. Ironically, when he recently tried to publish an excerpt from his manuscript, multiple ‘progressive’ publications rejected it. Finkelstein called these publishers out for their “suppression of rational discussion.” His lament uncannily recalls Conrad Russell’s Millian statement on academic freedom: “The silencing of an opponent sounds alarmingly like an admission that we cannot answer him.”
Stop ideas from reaching us
Finkelstein’s 2007 ‘cancellation’ dates well before the mainstream appearance of cancel culture in 2015 as a tool of social justice movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. In other words, cancel culture at the academy – taken here to be the rejection of academic figures or works to protect established interests – existed long before ‘cancel culture’ became a notable tactic of contemporary discourse. Academics of the left, such as Ilan Pappe at the University of Haifa for his pro-Palestine stance, and Germaine Greer at Cardiff University for her feminist critique of gender identity, faced cancellation. So did academics of the right, such as Nigel Biggar at the University of Oxford for his support of colonialism and imperialism, and Alan Sked at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for his Brexit politics.
Across these examples, the issue of silencing academics and their ideas emerges as a key problem for the academy. While cancel culture is not an essential characteristic of the academy, these examples indicate that academics are very likely to get cancelled. It is perhaps because they, and the principle of academic freedom, are most vulnerable to acts of censorship or exclusion, or what John Stuart Mill called the “despotism of custom.” Birkbeck professor Eric Kaufman, and author of ‘Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities Problems’ explains that the “combination of political discrimination and intimidation restricts academic freedom and contributes to a steady narrowing of academic horizons.” The challenge, then, is how academics and academic freedom can both be safeguarded.
Another challenge is that if cancel culture in the academy persists, it will harm the ability of academics to reject or accept ideas on the basis of knowledge itself. Cancel culture, it can be argued, represents an attack on the academic’s freedom to create or teach knowledge itself. This has led Canadian author, former politician, and current rector and president of Central European University Michael Ignatieff to emphasise free-speech liberalism against cancel culture. In a recent talk at the University of Oxford, he argued that the moral value of freedom of speech should be protected from the competing moral concerns (or criteria) of cancel culture, whatever these may be. Only then, he claimed, will we be able to have the basic academic freedom to create knowledge. In other words, how can we freely assess ideas to increase our knowledge if ideas are stopped from even reaching us in the first place?
Beating cancel culture in the academy
So how can we continue to freely assess ideas? Dr. Michael Spence, the president and provost of University College London (UCL), recently announced that we must learn how to disagree in order to ‘beat’ cancel culture. He warned that society has forgotten how to debate. If universities, he argued much like Ignatieff, want to promote free speech on campus, they need to discuss controversial topics. “Part of what we have a responsibility at universities to do is to model and to teach students how to disagree well across really sometimes quite profound barriers of disagreement,” he said. In other words, the solution would be for society to relearn how to debate. Earlier in 2021, the UK government announced a raft of new laws, including the introduction of fines and ‘Free Speech Champions’, to defend free speech at universities and stop the rise of silencing and censoring of both academics and students on campus.
But the question is: how far can freedom of speech go? Should we introduce moral criteria at some point, as was attempted in the 1950s and ’60s, to stop the spread of harmful ideas? Finkelstein’s controversial case that Holocaust denial should be taught in university, and preferably by a Holocaust denier, puts free-speech principles to test. When teaching John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, Finkelstein used to test Mill’s strictures against three hypothetical scenarios, one of which was:
“A professor in our history department wants to devote one class of his introductory course on Modern Europe to the proposition that the Nazi holocaust never happened. It is a required lecture course, in which the professor doesn’t field student questions. Should he be permitted to teach this class?”
In his forthcoming book, ‘Cancel Culture, Academic Freedom, and Me’, Finkelstein is set to revive this case. Finkelstein defends the scenario as follows:
“It can hardly be deemed a breach of balance if a single professor devotes a single class of a single course to disputing the incessantly articulated consensus wisdom. Once having squared away these predictable objections, the real work began. What’s the point of such a class if I know for certain that the Nazi holocaust happened? But you can’t be certain of your conviction until and unless you’ve heard out and answered any and all objections to it.”
Speech, boundaries, and the academy
Finkelstein’s Millian appeal for freedom of speech in the academy arguably obscures the fact that what’s being debated is not anyone’s general right to speech, but rather their right to air that speech in specific platforms like the academy in order to avoid harm. In other words, the debate about the place of cancel culture in the academy is not about the principle of free speech, but, as journalist Zack Beauchamp argues, about “the much grayer question of how we draw its boundaries.” What kinds of speech or speakers should be morally out of bounds at the academy? And are sanctions, like public shaming or collective sanctioning (e.g. firing), morally justified responses to violations of these boundaries? The answers to these questions perhaps lie as much outside the academy, within the larger public, as much as inside the academy. If there is a cancel culture in the academy, it has been, as was speculated earlier, based on established interests that set the boundaries that can or cannot be violated.
While Mill may well agree with Finkelstein, virtually everyone else will disagree with him. No Holocaust denier would be given a class in a single course to help us better arrive at the truth. Finkelstein, however, believes this is a misleading interpretation of what is at stake: “It would make a mockery of truth and academic freedom (it is said) if a university granted Holocaust deniers a platform. But, to begin with, it’s not obvious what exactly is being denied.” The main problem, it can therefore be argued, is not simply determining what is right or wrong, but creating a common ground that would allow society to accept what is right and wrong. For that to happen, we would need to recognise and navigate our fragmented moral universe as a start.
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 Conrad Russell (1993) ‘Academic Freedom’, p.44
 Ignatieff, Michael (19 May 2021) ’Academic freedom: internal and external threats’. St Antony’s Looks at the World