I guess I’m now a real blogger: I’ve had my first and second thrashings at the hands of fellow bloggers. My offending entry suggested that Condoleezza Rice be excommunicated from the (admittedly permeable) bounds of political science on the grounds of gross malpractice. So much for satire.
As an ardent free speecher myself, I’m not unsympathetic to their critiques (though, given the blogs in question, I wonder whether they’d have been as quick to oppose the professional excommunication of say, Noam Chomsky). The real irony is that free speech activism was a central part of the Ph.D. in question.
But now, just to be ornery, I’d like to raise a larger question: are we saying that any field in which the work product is intellectual or artistic must be free of all professional sanctions? After all, we (generally) accept the idea that doctors can lose their licenses, or that lawyers can be disbarred for violations of their professions’ core standards. But the idea of “excommunicating” a political scientist for egregious violations of even the loosest pretensions to empirical validation or the pursuit of truth somehow feels (even to me) problematic. Partly because of the practical effects — as my critics point out, it’s far more likely that junior academics will be censured than that senior celebrity academics will be — but partly because we have that well-founded, principled skepticism about anything that smells like censorship.
The difficulty is that in any field that consists of creating and promulgating words and ideas — such as academia — there is no way to hold people accountable without in some way setting parameters on what kinds of speech will be acceptable within the bounds of the field. We seem willing to live with those parameters, in some contexts: when would-be academics present dissertations that are inadequate to the intellectual standards of their field, they are denied the professional recognition of a Ph.D. And when journalists plagiarize text or falsify stories, we don’t argue for the protection of their jobs on free speech grounds.
But wait, you say, wouldn’t even tenured academics be sanctioned if they falsified information? See, now you’re catching on.
I recognize that, as a practical matter, any effort at holding current members of any academic field to the research and intellectual standards imposed on would-be Ph.D.s would inevitably and unacceptably compromise speech rights. But as an issue of principle, do we really believe that it is undesirable for our nations’ intellectuals and educators to be held to some sort of collective standard of intellectual integrity?
UPDATE: COMMENTS AND ACCOUNTABILITY
This thread has certainly brought a lot of free speech advocates out of the woodwork. I’ve had lots of comments on this post, as well as on my original entry, some of which you can read below. But it is interesting to note that many of these would-be free speech defenders have submitted their comments anonymously — which is not exactly in keeping with a committment to free and open debate. The difference between diatribe and dialogue is that in a dialogue, people both talk and listen; if you’re not available to receive responses to your comments, you’re not listening, and you’re certainly not engaging in dialogue or debate.
For that reason, I will only approve comments that have a verifiable e-mail address, and not one created for the sole purpose of commenting on this blog. That doesn’t mean you have to use your real name to post — one of the great things about the Internet is that people can build meaningful reputations and accountability using traceable or untraceable handles. (Another theme of my dissertation, by the way, for those of you who are actually interested in whether my own research meets the standards I am advocating.)
But I do expect people to take on some form of accountability for their comments. After all, I have put my name on my posts — why should my fellow defenders of free speech be shy about standing behind theirs?
UPDATE: FOR THE RECORD
What I think about what other people think about what I think. What do you think?