MELBOURNE, Australia – In April, the Journal of Controversial Ideas — of which I am a co-editor — published its first issue. The journal is a response to the shrinking boundary, even in liberal democracies, of acceptable discourse. It is specifically designed to provide a forum in which authors can, if they wish, use a pseudonym to avoid running the risk of receiving personal abuse, including death threats or of irrevocably harming their careers.
There was a time when the threat to academic freedom in democratic countries came primarily from the right. The free speech cause celebre of the early twentieth century United States featured Scott Nearing, a left-leaning economist at the University of Pennsylvania who was dismissed because his activism for social justice did not sit well with the bankers and corporate leaders on the university’s board of trustees.
Fifty years later, in the McCarthy era, many people were blacklisted or dismissed because of their support for leftist ideas. When I came to Princeton in 1999, Steve Forbes (who was then campaigning for the Republican nomination for president) called for my appointment to be rescinded because he objected to my critique of the traditional doctrine of the sanctity of human life.
Today, however, most of the opposition to freedom of thought and discussion comes from the left. One exemplary instance occurred in 2017, when Rebecca Tuvel published “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy. Tuvel’s article asked why people who strongly support the right to choose one’s gender deny a similar right to choose one’s race. Over 800 people, mostly academics, signed a letter demanding that Hypatia retract the article. There were also calls for Tuvel, a young female academic without tenure, to be dismissed.
Shannon Winnubst, a feminist philosopher and member of the collective that wrote the letter, has explained that she did so because of her knowledge “of the damage this kind of scholarship does to marginalized groups, especially black and trans scholars.” Winnubst does not attempt to refute Tuvel’s argument, but only to show that it may be damaging to some — although without specifying the nature and severity of the damage.
It would be difficult to imagine a clearer contrast with John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of freedom of thought and discussion in “On Liberty.” Mill considers the objection that allowing free speech will cause offense. But “there is no parity,” he responds, “between the feeling of a person for his own opinion and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse and the desire of the right owner to keep it.”
Whether we accept or reject the parallel Mill draws, it is at least not obvious that the fact that a view may offend some people is a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Taking that seriously would drastically narrow the scope for freedom of expression on a wide range of ethical, political and religious questions.
The Journal of Controversial Ideas is a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary academic journal. Submissions must pass an initial check that excludes articles that an editor judges have no chance of receiving favorable recommendations from reviewers. Those that are not summarily rejected are sent for review to experts on the article’s topic.
Reviewers then consider whether a submission is discussing a controversial idea, and if it is, the strength of the evidence, or the rigor of the argument, for that idea. Only submissions that make a well-argued case for their conclusions will be accepted. Other criteria for publication are that articles should not be polemical in character and must criticize only ideas and arguments, rather than the people who are the sources of those ideas and arguments.
All of this, apart from the special focus on controversial ideas, is true of most academic journals. What is distinctive about the Journal of Controversial Ideas, however, is authors’ option of using a pseudonym, thus protecting them from the various forms of intimidation that they may otherwise fear if they advocate controversial ideas. If, at a later date, they want to be acknowledged as the authors of their articles, their identities can be confirmed. Three of the ten articles in the first issue are published under a pseudonym.
Another important aspect of the journal is that anyone with an internet connection can read it, free and without paid advertising. The editors have pledged not to bow to public pressure to retract an article, unless it is subsequently shown to contain false data or to involve plagiarism. Because the journal is online only, the editors are not beholden to any institution or publisher. We have received financial support from a wide range of donors who share our concerns about restrictions on free speech, so we are not reliant on the favor of any particular donor or group of donors. (You can join our supporters here.)
In seeking to protect authors from the hindrances to freedom of thought we have described, we should not forget that in much of the world, expressing controversial ideas, especially those critical of governments or a dominant religion, comes at an even higher cost. The Academic Freedom Monitoring Project of the Scholars at Risk Network reports that for the 12 months leading up to May 10, 2021, 259 attacks on scholars, students and universities, including 66 killings, acts of violence, or disappearances, and 92 cases of imprisonment. China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and post-coup Myanmar are responsible for the majority of these cases.
Yet expressing ideas can lead to long jail sentences even in countries that we do not think of as repressive dictatorships. In Thailand earlier this year, a woman known only as Anchan was sentenced to 43 years in prison for posting on social media audio clips from a podcast criticizing the monarchy.
We invite people who face prison, threats, harassment, intimidation, or harm to their careers for publishing their ideas under their own name to send them to us under a pseudonym. Well-argued ideas can stand and be judged on their own, without the author’s real name.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include “Practical Ethics,” “The Most Good You Can Do,” and “Ethics in the Real World.”©Project Syndicate, 2021.
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