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Silence in the Unfair "Marketplace

As free speech advocates, sometimes we forget that silence is also a form of speech that people engage in all the time.  We have a right to express an opinion and we also have the right to refrain from doing so.  What is key here is that a decision to exercise either right should stem from having free will and the opportunity to choose.  True freedom of choice and equal opportunity to exercise that freedom, however, comes from having the essential information about and awareness of the freedoms and limits established by the law of the land and the politics that enforce that law.  Unfortunately, too many individuals in our society do not have such information and awareness.  On the other hand, many individuals do have such knowledge but are effectively “censored” by having too much to lose by speaking out or by lacking access to resources that makes one’s voice heard.  Thus the “marketplace of ideas” in larger society is not always a fair one and the right to free speech, and other freedoms, is often one that is not guaranteed to each member of society equally or at equal levels of audibility (or visibility).  Indeed, for many individuals, silence (at least to the public) is the default form of speech about some of the most important or controversial issues that our society faces today.  The question is: How do you distinguish between effective censorship (silence due to lack of awareness or lack of resources and so on) and silence exercised as a right?

Robert stated in his post about Harvard’s recent “lack of confidence” vote against President Larry Summers:

Let’s face it: academia in general is hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society. The current message from the higher education establishment to the public at large is this: “Saying WTC victims are Nazis is good; saying men and women might be different is bad.” Maybe this is an overgeneralization, but look at the facts: On the one hand, we have Ward Churchill, a man who called some of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” for being part of America’s “mighty engine of profit”—that is, working in financial jobs. Although roundly condemned in the non-academic world, around 200 professors from his own university have publicly declared their support for him, and the president of the University of Colorado has publicly stated that he won’t be fired for his viewpoint. And he shouldn’t be fired for it. But at the same time, we see Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, who suggested in an off-the-record speech that there may be innate cognitive differences between men and women. Many are openly calling for his resignation, and he has formed not one but two committees to investigate why there are not more women in the sciences. Last night, he was slapped with a “lack of confidence” vote by the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty—the first time this has happened in the 400-plus-year history of the school.

While I do not completely disagree that there is an interesting contrast when comparing Ward Churchill’s situation to that of Summers, I have some concerns with the comment that this somehow demonstrates that “academia in general is hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society.”  The academic world does not sit in its own bubble but is an essential part of our society.  It is a field made up of diverse individuals who have chosen to become educators, administrators, researchers, practitioners, and so on, for particular reasons and who are members of other communities beyond the academic.  Socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors impact one’s choice of career and the types of individuals who usually choose a particular career field.  For instance, one could argue that the investment banking industry is hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society because most investment bankers seem to subscribe to certain beliefs or work ethic.  Like career academics, career investment bankers make up a subgroup of our society that is characterized by certain norms, values, privileges, constraints, and politics that are linked to an investment banker’s role in other communities and in society at large.  The same can be said for grade school teachers, engineers, corporate lawyers, housekeepers—for all of the professional and other communities to which we belong.

Thus many individuals who have made careers in the field of academia, such as professors, enjoy privileges that are different from other individuals in society in other lines of work—like the privilege of academic freedom in a “fairer” and more open marketplace of ideas on campus.  Large proportions of individuals in the U.S. do not even attend college, let alone have equal access to information, knowledge, awareness, and resources—to the same liberties to choose to speak and be heard—as professors and administrators at higher education institutions.  In light of this, I think it can be misleading to directly measure reactions within the world of academia up to that of “the rest of society,” as the majority of those who make up the rest of society are not in the same position to freely choose to speak out about what they believe in.  Besides, the “marketplace of ideas” outside of the academy is often much less fair.  Money, politics, power, and privilege all play a more significant role in what information gets to whom and which individuals’ ideas get heard.  Often, while students at a college or university, individuals enjoy a greater freedom to access information, to voice their opinions, and to be heard on campus (and beyond) than they do when they graduate, leave the academic world, and join the work force (i.e. the private sector) and return to being a part of “the rest of society.”  Those who never even go to college might never experience such a level of freedom to hear and be heard throughout their whole lives.

So, perhaps Churchill was “roundly condemned in the non-academic world,” but mainly by those in society whose voices were the loudest, the most amplified and, therefore, the most heard.  What about all those individuals who privately support his views, chose silence, were silent by default and lack of awareness, would risk losing their own jobs, or wanted to speak out but did not have the resources to make themselves heard by mainstream media or to influence “public opinion”?  What about those individuals who do not enjoy the same legal protections or other insurance against punishment as those professors like Churchill and his supporters have when expressing controversial viewpoints? 

For many of these individuals, their presence in the “marketplace of ideas” may be an invisible one and their speech may be one of silence.  But it is much harder and more complex to figure out if they have been effectively censored (and how), or if they have freely exercised a basic right to silence.  On college and university campuses, however, the rules governing the marketplace for ideas is usually (or should be) fairer and more transparent for students and faculty than it would be for many of the same individuals outside of the academic community.  Perhaps that is why sometimes it is in academia where views that are often unheard or unvoiced among “the rest of society” seem to be resoundingly and unusually loud in comparison.

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