The very people who cry out for academic freedom—the professoriat—are most likely to suppress it. In the June 17, 2011 issue of The Chronicle Review, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows how that contradictory trend can come to pass. “Academe is supposed to be a place where the free exchange of ideas can occur,” Lennard J. Davis writes. “ But I’ve noticed an inconsistent practice.”
“ It often happens that when someone presents a paper, an audience member may respond that the ideas contained in the paper are ‘dangerous.’ For example, a while back I gave a talk on disability studies that questioned a basic tenet of the field. During the question-and-answer period, a person raised her hand and told me that she ‘completely bought my argument’ but that if others did too, the very foundation of the field—only recently established—might be called into question.”
“She worried about the political consequences and was ‘troubled’ that my ideas were ‘dangerous.’ This ‘dangerous ideas’ argument has been used in a number of contexts. In the areas of feminism and post-colonial studies, for example, scholars debate whether there are universal rights that apply to all bodies. To those who believe that bodily integrity is a universal right, practices like clitoridectomies, performed in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, in which pubescent girls have their genitals cut, seem like the utmost violation and are a legitimate cause for global intervention. “But to a cultural relativist who believes that Western norms should not be imposed on other cultures, that practice needs to be negotiated by sub-Saharans themselves.”
“When the advocate for universality meets the relativist, cries of ‘danger’ fly in both directions.”
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org