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So to Speak podcast transcript: ‘Journal of Controversial Ideas’ with Prof. Peter Singer
Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast, where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations.
As always, I am your host, Nico Perrino. And today I am joined by a man who was once dubbed “the world’s most influential living philosopher” by The New Yorker. Someone named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2005. He is credited with being the father of the animal rights movement, and as a result, surely adored by my dog, Kilroy. He’s the author of numerous books and articles, including Animal Liberation and The Life You Can Save.ˆ
I’m joined, of course, by Princeton University professor Peter Singer.
In addition to everything else, he is a founding editor—along with Jeff McMahan and Francesca Minerva—of a new academic publication called the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Fitting, perhaps, for a man who is known for having some controversial ideas himself, which I’m sure we’ll get into during the course of our conversation.
Coming to us all the way from Australia: Professor Peter Singer. Welcome to So to Speak.
Peter Singer: Thank you, Nico. It’s good to be with you.
Nico: So, let’s get right into it. I believe you first mentioned the idea for a “journal of controversial ideas” in 2017. In 2018, I believe, a plan of action was kind of put into place to create it. And this year, it became a reality, and issued its first call for papers. Can you tell me a little bit about the journal and what it hopes to accomplish?
Peter: Certainly. The journal was really not my idea specifically. It was originally suggested by Francesca Minerva, who is a philosopher—currently in England, with an Italian background—who coauthored an article about what you call – what they call “post-birth abortion”—effectively, infanticide—for which she got not just criticism, but personal threats. Kind of, you know, “I know where you live; watch your back when you go home at night” kind of threats. And she was very rattled by that, and contacted me about it, because she knew that I’d also had threats because of my ideas.
And had she had – then, I guess we didn’t do anything for a while. She also contacted Jeff McMahan, who is now a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University. And he was sympathetic to the general idea as well. But it was really later events that prompted us to this idea of the “journal of controversial ideas.” A lot of harassment of particularly young, untenured academics who were harassed and abused, and more than that, whose – you know, where there were petitions for the recalling of papers that had been through peer review and had been published.
Nico: Yeah, there was the Hypatia incident with Rebecca Tuvel over at Rhodes College in 2017, I believe, in which she published an article about how being transracial – or comparing transracialism to being transgender. And that resulted, I believe, in a letter from the editors of Hypatia. And I don’t recall the specific facts of it, but I believe calls for the retraction of the article, of course, and maybe even a retraction of the article before they reversed course. I don’t remember the specifics. But that was a big controversy at the time.
Peter: It certainly was, yes. The essential claim was—or really, was a question, I suppose, was asked in the paper, was—if people can choose their gender, and we think that that’s fine and they should be protected in being able to choose whatever gender they want, why are we so critical of people who choose their race? And that was the case of somebody who had been working for the NACP – NAACP, and had said that they were of African American descent when in a normal, biological sense they were not. And she got a lot of abuse for that, and was – lost her position. So it was really raising that question: What is it that is supposed to make it fine to choose your gender, but not your race?
And there was a – the petition came from a quite substantial number of philosophers—several hundred—for the retraction of the paper. The editor actually stood firm, and did not retract the paper.
Nico: Oh, that’s good.
Peter: So, that was encouraging. But all the same, it was – again, a young, untenured academic. And we could see that this could be intimidating for people to put forward controversial ideas. And so, for that reason, we developed the idea of a journal that would enable people to publish anonymously, or under a pseudonym, even though it was an academic journal; even though it was a journal that would be peer-reviewed in the normal way of academic journals and would require high academic standards.
And the thought was that this would enable people to publish controversial ideas that they might not otherwise dare to publish. If they later wanted to come forward as the author, we would have a mechanism whereby they could be identified, and we, as the editors, could verify that that was the author, if they wanted to add it to their CV, if they were applying for jobs or something like that.
But it was seen as a way of preventing the restriction of freedom of speech which otherwise could occur by this kind of attack on people—again, particularly younger, non-tenured academics—who might have controversial ideas that would be well worth hearing; that might be really sound – well argued, and the kinds of things that ought to be out there in a free arena of discussion.
Nico: So, the obvious question here is: Will any idea be off the table? I mean, is there any idea too controversial for the Journal of Controversial Ideas? Eugenics? A pro-slavery or pro-colonialism paper? Is nothing off limits in this journal, if it’s well argued?
Peter: Nothing is off limits if it is sufficiently well argued to pass peer review. Some of those ideas that you just mentioned—depending, of course, on exactly how we understand them – how we understand the terms used—might be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find solid arguments that would pass rigorous scrutiny and peer review. But they’re not off the table because of the particular area of controversy that they’re in, no.
Nico: So, controversy: it’s the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Presumably, every article that makes its way into the journal will be controversial in some way. But controversy is subj –
Peter: In some – in some way. That’s right.
Nico: Yeah. And that’s why I ask. Controversy is subjective. For example, what’s controversial in China might not be controversial in America. Sometimes controversy is engendered by the context, even. For example, who is making the argument, rather than the argument itself. So, Peter Singer arguing for animal rights; probably not a controversial article today. But Peter Singer arguing against animal rights probably will create some controversy. Would that be in the journal?
Peter: I suppose –
Nico: Not that you’re gonna write that, but they idea behind it, you know, the person.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, we had not really thought about ideas that were controversial simply because of the author. But we certainly had thought about ideas that were controversial in the cultural and political context in which the author is writing. So, we think that the fact that you can publish anonymously could be something that is valuable for—exactly as you say—academics in China, perhaps, or for that matter in Iran.
So, yeah, we would welcome those articles, if they – they would obviously have to say something that wasn’t entirely obvious to most readers. So, they wouldn’t just be saying, “Well, it would be good if China were more democratic.” That’s not controversial enough. They would have to be saying something a little more specific about the Chinese situation. Or, similarly, if they said, “Look, theocracies are not a great idea, and so it would be better if Iran were not a theocracy.” It would have to do something more than that.
Pseudonymity, pseudonymity—excuse me, I can’t get that word out—versus anonymity. Are you allowed to publish—or are you guys planning to publish—both types of writers? People who choose anonymity versus pseudonymity?
Peter: Not exactly, no. We will, I think, assign a pseudonym to somebody who doesn’t actually have a pseudonym that they want to use, because we think it will be important to be able to refer to the author in some way. I suppose you could always do as – what we do with Italian paintings or whatever, you know—“the master of the paintings of the chapel of so-and-so.” You could always do, “the author of the article ‘da-da-da-da-da,’” and give the title of the article. But it’s a bit cumbersome. So, our plan is to assign a pseudonym.
Nico: Well, the reason I ask that is because anonymity makes it clear to the reader that the identity is being hidden. You know, the alternative—
Peter: Oh, sorry. The pseudonym will as well. We will cite that this is a pseudonym.
Nico: Oh, okay. I ask that because in 2013, of course, we had the Grievance Studies hoax, which rested upon a pseudonym for these writers. I’m not even gonna try to say pseudonymity, because I can’t get it out. But, you know, and there’s a lot of people who are kind of – you know, that was a big hit against a lot of these journals. Was that – was the Grievance Studies hoax sitting in the back of your mind when you were coming up with this idea?
I mean, presumably, if the arguments were good enough from these people writing the Grievance Studies articles, they should have remained in the publications, right? I mean, they were accepted; some of them were peer reviewed, not all of them. So it shouldn’t have mattered if the person writing them—well, I guess it probably does matter if they’re being truthful about who they are or not. But the argument should stand on its own.
Peter: Yes, that’s an interesting point, really. And that would have been a defense that could have been made of the journals that were– “Oh, well, these people were writing under – they intended to hoax us, but actually, they wrote a brilliant article.” That could have been said.
That was – there was a famous poetry hoax here in Australia called the Ern Malley hoax a long time ago, where somebody wrote nonsense poems, and they got published in a leading poetry journal. And that was the defense that the editor made. “Well, you know, this person writing in just somehow happened to write great poetry—or anyway, acceptably good poetry, even though that wasn’t their intention.”
So, yeah. That could be – that could be the case. But, as I say, we’re not interested in hoaxing our readers. We’re interested in getting ideas out there. And if something is published under a pseudonym, we will let readers know that this is not the author’s real name.
Nico: Now, one criticism I’ve read is that the journal will “reinforce expertise-undermining misconceptions about academia.” The idea being, I think, that that the mere existence of this journal—the context in which its created, and the arguments for its need—kind of represent a critique of the academy, and could, therefore, compromise support for it at a precarious time when expertise is perceived to be undermined. I wanna get your sense of what you make of that argument. I think—I forget the exact article I read that critique in; it might have been Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Peter: Well, it’s an academic journal. So, yes, it’s a response to some tendencies that we’ve noticed in academia, but it’s a way of saying the standards—the academic standards of rigorous peer review and the publication of controversial ideas, or of ideas based on their merit—is something that academia can continue to do. That it’s not being repressed by the climate of hostility to certain ideas.
And if you’re saying, “Well, the existence of the journal shows that there is this climate of hostility to certain ideas,” that seems to me to be just undeniable. It’s the people who—let’s say—signed that letter to Hypatia about Rebecca Tuvel’s article who should have been concerned about what is – is this going to provide a stick for people to beat academics with, and to say, “Look, there’s this intolerance in academia.” It’s critics who take that kind of action, I think, are providing that stick.
But the Journal is a response to that. And since that exists, I think having the Journal responding in this way shows the resilience of academia, and the fact that the values and standards can be protected from what I hope will just be a temporary phenomenon in which there’s a climate of hostility that makes it difficult to present certain ideas.
Nico: So, speaking of values and standards, I wanna get to another critique from – one person said that – questioned how you will find willing and qualified reviewers and referees, if you’re publishing from myriad disciplines. You know, how do you ensure a robust review when you’re really casting a wide net for submissions, here?
Peter: That is a problem for us, there’s no question. We have quite a large editorial board, over 40 people, from a wide variety of disciplines. People wanna look at who they are, they can go to the website of the journalofcontroversialideas.org. But we will need to call on some reviewers for particular articles outside that editorial board, and we have already started doing that.
We’re not completely non-disciplinary; if somebody sends us something in physics and says, “This is a controversial idea among physicists,” but it’s only intelligible to physicists and would require expert physicists to review it; no, that’s not what we’re looking for. We are looking for controversial ideas with social significance, I suppose you could say. With potential to lead to changes in the way we do things.
Nico: So, you said—or you at least suggested, in your answer—that you’ve started to get papers? Have you gotten –
Peter: Yes, we have. We issued –
Nico: – a significant number?
Peter: – Um, I think might be around 30 submissions that we’ve had so far. I’m not sure if that’s [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:15:28]
Nico: Which is pretty good when you’re the one that has to wade through them, right? Find the time to wade through them?
Peter: Yes. That’s right. Yeah. Well, the three of us are starting, but we have started doing that.
I should say, not all of them are of a quality that goes out to peer review, as any journal receives. There are some – some that you just look at and clearly they’re not of academic standard; they’re not gonna make it. So they’re rejected prior to peer review. I think maybe roughly a third of the papers we received might be like that. But we’ve already got plenty of papers out for peer review, and some of those reviews are starting to come in.
Nico: And one notable thing about your journal is that it’s gonna be open access, which means that anyone will be able to access the publication. You don’t need to belong to a college or university, for example, that gives you library permissions to access these articles. Correct?
Peter: Yes, that is correct. You don’t need to have a subscription; you don’t need to pay for individual articles. It is all open access. That does, of course, provide another question, and that is how is this funded? Because you have to pay for open access. We have found a publisher who’s charging, we think, reasonable sorts of fees for putting the article up online. But we are calling for donations from the general public to support this enterprise.
And any of your listeners who think that what we’re doing is a valuable thing to promote free speech, I’d encourage them to go to our website, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, and have a look at what we’re doing. And if you still like it, then there’s a place there where you can go to make a donation to support us.
Nico: And I should note it’s tax deductible here in the United States. I don’t know the tax laws in other countries. But it is tax deductible, at least as far as I saw, here in the United States.
Peter: It is. That’s correct, yes. What we’ve done is we’ve set up a foundation. It’s called The Foundation for Freedom of Thought and Discussion. And any fans of John Stewart Mills’ essay on liberty will recognize where that phrase comes from. And that is a charitable foundation recognized by the Internal Revenue Service of the United States as a 501(c)(3) charity. So, donations are tax deductible for US taxpayers.
Nico: So, I wanna broaden the scope, here. A lot of conversation right now about “cancel culture,” particularly in the United States, but across the world. Wanted to get your, just, general sense. What do you make of it? I mean, clearly you have a concern about it in higher ed, or concern about something like it in higher education, otherwise you wouldn’t be as concerned as you seem about Rebecca Tuvel.
Peter: I’m concerned about cancel culture insofar as it intimidates people from expressing their ideas freely, and I’m also concerned about it for—I just mentioned John Stewart Mill—for basically million ideas about having a robust discourse, which is important not only because our – some of our ideas might be wrong and need to be challenged because they’re wrong, but also, as Mill pointed out, because without allowing criticism, we cease to understand the basis of our ideas. They become dead dogmas rather than living truths.
And I think it’s important to see what the evidence is. Why they can be – why these views can be defended against challengers, rather than simply to prohibit people from even challenging them.
Nico: So, I need to ask—because you are a professor at Princeton—about what happened with classics professor Joshua Katz at Princeton. He critiqued—in a publication based out of Australia, actually, called Quillette—he critiqued a list of demands that was sent to the Princeton administration. And in kind of talking about those demands, used the phrase “terrorist organization” to describe a now-defunct student group called Black Justice League.
He was, as a result, immediately denounced on social media, and, as he writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he was publically denounced by his department—the classics department—and by the university president. And at the same time, a spokesperson for the university said they were looking into the matter.
The note that was published on the classics department website has been taken down, and the president of the university has subsequently come out in support of Professor Katz’s free speech and academic freedom rights. But this was quite the controversy, there, for a couple of weeks. And it was unclear whether the university was investigating the professor. And the suggestion from the spokesperson for the university was quite chilling.
So, I wanted to get your take—if you’re willing to provide it—on kind of what happened there. And if you have any insights into what was happening behind the scenes.
Peter: I don’t have any insights into what was happening behind the scenes, so I just can’t help you there. I was not privy to any of those conversations in any way.
So, but, my take on the overall situation is that it’s consistent with support for freedom of speech and expression. Because, of course, that must extend to people denouncing ideas that they regard as mistaken.
Nico: Of course.
Peter: And I think what’s important is that we do not actually deny people the freedom to say those things. And I think that’s what President Eisgruber, the president of Princeton, has said—that Princeton does support freedom of speech; at the same time, it wants to respect all members of the university community—it supports that. But as I understand it, there was no suggestion of sanctions against Professor Katz for what he said. And I would be much more concerned if there were to be some sanctions for him. I think that would be inconsistent with the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.
And let me say, while we’re talking about freedom of speech at Princeton, that when I came to Princeton in 1999, my appointment was controversial. It was in particular because of my ideas about abortion and euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants. And it was denounced by Steve Forbes, who was both a trustee of Princeton University and who’s – there’s a Forbes College at Princeton that was endowed by his father—but also, at the time, a candidate for the Republication nomination for president; the nomination that was eventually won by George W. Bush.
And I think, to some extent, his – he called for my appointment to be rescinded. This was before I’d taken it up. But President Harold Shapiro, who was then president, stood very firmly for academic freedom, and said that the appointment was made on academic merit and was properly reviewed, and so on, as it was. And the rest of the board of trustees, with the exception of Forbes, stood firmly behind it, and made a statement about freedom of expression.
So, I think Princeton – certainly then, 20 years ago, was strongly in support of freedom of expression. I believe that President Eisgruber is, himself, a personal advocate of freedom of expression. And I very much hope that the university will continue to be like that.
Nico: There’ve been a lot of developments in probably the past decade surrounding student expression; academic freedom in the academy, the rise of the language of microaggressions, trigger warnings; and you’ve also seen—or at least, we’ve seen—increasing heckler’s vetoes, the attempts to shout down speakers on campus who are perceived to be offensive in one way or another.
I wanted to ask, given your history as a controversial figure—or, I should say, controversial thinker; you present controversial ideas—is this something new, in your opinion, or is this – have you been shouted down before, I guess – before the past decade? Have you seen increasing calls for you to not speak on campus? Or have those kind of been present throughout your career?
Peter: Well, things have changed a little. I have been shouted down—or actually, whistled down, I could say – should say by audiences that had a subsection of the audience who didn’t wanna hear me speak and who brought whistles and noisemakers of various kinds so that it was impossible for me to be heard. But until the last decade, these protests had entirely been in German-speaking countries where –
Nico: Why is that? Yeah.
Peter: Yeah. There’s a clear explanation for that. These were started in 1989, and they went into the 1990s. And this was because the term “euthanasia” was used by the Nazis for the murder of what they called “useless mouths” or “a blot on the Aryan folk.” That’s people with disabilities, with genetic-inherited disabilities, who might have been enjoying their lives and whose parents may have loved them and wanted them to go on living, but the Nazis murdered them. No question about that.
And they called that a euthanasia program. It was not euthanasia, because it was not for the benefit either of the people themselves or of their families or anything like that. It was a state-ordered attempt to retain the purity of the Aryan race.
But because I’ve used the term euthanasia—and my view, I should – for listeners who are not familiar with it, is that this should be an option available to parents when they judge that their child has such a serious disability that the child’s life will be miserable for the child or will be such a burden on the family that it will be something that is detrimental for the family as a whole. So, it’s – I’m not at all suggesting that the state should make these decisions. I’m suggesting that parents should make these decisions in consultation with their doctors.
But just the use of the term “euthanasia” led people to think that this had some sort of Nazi ramifications. And I think the guilt of those people about what their parents had done—so we’re talking about, say, 1990, so people there who were born in, perhaps, 1970, whose parents were – been through the Nazi period, and who knows what some of them had done—and I think they felt the need to do something to express that. And one way of doing that was to resist any form of Neo-Nazism. Which, of course, I can understand.
And I should say, I’m of Jewish background, and three of my four grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust. But they didn’t know very much about me, they didn’t know very much about my ideas, and I think a lot of the opposition was misinformed. Maybe not all of it, you know; there can be some people who certainly can have grounds for objecting to my ideas without confusing them with what the Nazis did. But I think that was a significant part of it.
So, that happened to me when I went to Germany, to Austria, and to the German-speaking part of Switzerland on a number of occasions from 1989 and early 1990s. Some events got cancelled; some events that were not cancelled, it was impossible for me to be heard. On one occasion, somebody jumped up out of the audience, took my glasses off my face—I’m quite seriously shortsighted—and smashed them under his shoe. So, you know, it did – it reached that level of assault.
But that died down in Germany, and I’ve been speaking in Germany on many occasions since. They’ve sometimes – there’ve been people protesting, exercising their free speech rights to hand out leaflets or hold placards against my views. But I haven’t been stopped from speaking.
But what has happened, just fairly recently on a couple of occasions—and it’s still very rare in the English-speaking world—is there has been some opposition to my speaking. I spoke recently online at Cambridge University in the Cambridge University Union, and there was a student resolution from a different student organization that I shouldn’t be allowed to speak because of my views about disability.
And I also spoke online—this was before the COVID-19 crisis—at Victoria University in British Columbia, and a group of students came in with a megaphone and basically made a lot of noise and tried to drown me out.
So, there have been a couple of rather minor incidents, I would say, in the last decade in English-speaking countries, which was new, because, as I say, the previous attempts to stop me speaking had not – had been limited to German-speaking countries entirely. And other places, again, there’d been protestors occasionally and so on, but that’s fine.
So, yeah, I have been shouted down, but I haven’t had very much of that outside of the German-speaking countries.
Nico: What about corporate pressure brought to bear from outside the university? Animal liberation, your work discussing factory farming; there are large vested interests in the continuation of factory farming, so I imagine there might be some industry interests that have become involved over the course of your career. Or have you not seen that?
Peter: I’ve not seen that in the sense of trying to get me fired from a university or prevent me from taking up an appointment at a university. I think – there was – when I was appointed to Princeton in 1999, there was some concern from scientists using animals in experiments that I would stir up opposition to what they were doing. And I don’t think it had any impact – well, obviously it didn’t have any impact on the appointment procedure. I don’t know that it ever looked like it was gonna have any impact, but there was some expression of concern.
And certainly, farming groups have criticized what I’ve said and attacked me in various ways. But no, I can’t remember any occasions where they’ve tried to put pressure on the university in a way that would silence me.
Nico: So, a lot of what we talk about in academia is – are norms. I mean, of course, in the United States we have the First Amendment that at public universities protects a lot of aspects of what we might consider academic freedom.
But you’re a professor at Princeton. Princeton is a private university that can create its own values. And it has articulated strong values in support of freedom of expression and academic freedom over the years. I believe the faculty has adopted what’s been called the Chicago Statement on Free Expression. The university’s President Eisgruber has assigned Keith Whittington’s book as a freshman read or a summer read one year, and his book is about freedom of expression on college campuses. And Keith Whittington is what I would consider and what FIRE would consider a very good advocate for those values.
So, I ask, kind of, in the spirit of thinking about norms, what you consider an appropriate response to controversial, offensive, or wrongheaded ideas within the academic context? I mean, let’s say you think something is abhorrent or offensive. Is there a level at which the response can begin to chill a faculty member’s research, or is any level or any vehemence in the response appropriate, short of calls for punitive action?
Peter: So, I think any – I think the appropriate response is to show why the ideas are wrong. Why they’re mistaken. And that may be producing evidence that they’re mistaken; it may be producing counterarguments, an objection to show why the reasoning is flawed. This is what philosophers and academics do all the time. So, that seems to me the best way to do it.
In terms of vehemence, I think anything that seems likely to incite a aggression rather than a reasoned response is undesirable, and certainly suggestions of punitive action in the sense of trying to get somebody fired is, I think, quite the wrong response. Trying to get ideas prohibited is also the wrong response.
I should say that I’m talking here about ideas and attempts to present ideas and argue for ideas and show that they’re plausible. I’m not talking about what’s sometimes referred to as vilification, say, in laws. Here in Australia we have laws against racial vilification. And I understand the distinction as – vilification is simply an appeal to the emotions, to stir up hatred against a particular group.
And in a sense there’s no responding to vilification, because it doesn’t make factual claims that – which evidence is relevant. It’s not in that business. So, I think it’s appropriate to have laws that stop racial vilification or vilification on grounds of sexual orientation or something of that sort.
But that’s quite distinct from presenting ideas and arguments in a way that appeals to our capacity to think and to reason, and reflect on whether those ideas are true or false.
Nico: In Australia—and I’m just curious about those laws—are those laws ever misused, or do you ever see them misused by the government to go after political or ideological minorities? We’ve seen in other countries, with respect to their hate speech laws, that they’re wielded, for example, to punish pro-Palestinian advocates for their criticism of Israel. Or Black Lives Matter activists or racial justice advocates for their criticism of their opponents as well, because sometimes it’s done on the basis of the color of their skin, their race, etcetera.
So, I’m just curious how that’s played out in Australia, understanding, of course, that Australian culture is probably in some small or significant ways different than American culture.
Peter: Yeah. It is different. So, I wouldn’t say that our laws have been abused by the sort of government or dominant political forces against minorities or their opponents. But there’s certainly – there are borderline cases as to how the law should be applied. And there are – there have been a couple of questionable hearings. So, there was one into a controversial right-wing radio host who made some remarks about Indigenous people, which were regarded as – well, which – there was an attempt to suggest that they were vilification, and that – I think to get damages awarded to members of the community that he’d attacked.
And I thought that that was a little bit borderline, really. Because, in a way, he was making factual claims about the behavior of certain people in the community. And the basis of the hearing was not that these claims were factually false, but that they were offensive to the community, or that they would tend to stir up hatred. And so, I think there are real questions about whether these laws are being used only against vilification, or also to clamp down on people saying things that members of disadvantaged minorities find offensive.
But in fact, that hearing – although the hearing was certainly uncomfortable, I don’t think it led to any substantial silencing of the radio host. And I don’t think it – so I don’t think it really did a great amount of damage to freedom of expression in Australia.
Nico: The diversity of editors for The Journal of Controversial Ideas – I don’t think any of the editors—correct me if I’m wrong—are from the United States. You obviously have an appointment at Princeton. But does that mean that the—and I’m here in the United States, so my focus tends to be here—does that mean some of the phenomena that we’ve been seeing in the United States relating to challenges to academic freedom or free speech or cancel culture writ large, exist elsewhere? Exist in the UK, exist in Australia? And if so, are they at similar degrees to what we see here?
Peter: Well, first let me say that Jeff McMahan is an American, and [inaudible- crosstalk] [00:38:27] –
Nico: Oh, okay.
Peter: – taught for many years in the United States, and he was at Rutgers in New Jersey for many years, and just took up this appointment as professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University – I don’t remember exactly, maybe eight or ten years ago, something like that. So –
Nico: Shame on me for presuming that if he’s teaching over there that he’s from there.
Peter: That’s right. Just as I’m an Australian at Princeton, he’s an American at Oxford.
So, no, I don’t think you can draw particular assumptions. Certainly the phenomenon that we’re talking about exists in many different countries now. I suppose particularly in countries with a western culture. Obviously it’s a very different phenomenon that exists, as we’re talking about, in places like China or Iran or elsewhere. But there are variations between different countries in terms of how we regard freedom of expression.
But I think the basic ideas are still—of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and what its limits are—are ones that are broadly similar in different countries. Perhaps the First Amendment does make a difference in the United States, I suppose. And that has enabled some sort of ideas that maybe would not get by vilification laws in a number of other countries. But that’s really very much on the fringes. That’s not really the kind of closing of academic life to certain ideas that is more of a concern to a number of people. And a [inaudible – crosstalk] [00:40:26]
Nico: You know, I do think – I do think the First Amendment makes a difference. But I also think it hurts us in some ways. Because for many Americans, when we’re defending the ideas behind freedom of expression, we make a circular argument: “Well, it’s good because the First Amendment protects it.” We kind of rest on that right, and not the principles that undergird the right.
We don’t go back to the million arguments for freedom of expression that perhaps—and in my opinion—are more compelling than saying, “Well, the founding fathers said freedom of speech is important; therefore, it’s important.” And that’s not something that you always see in other countries, because they do not have the First Amendment to fall back on.
By way of closing, I wanna ask what’s gonna happen moving forward? So, as you know, you and I were emailing back and forth; every couple of months I’d check in to see the status of The Journal of Controversial Ideas. What is the status now? You’ve issued a call for papers; do you know when you will publish your first issue, or will that only happen once you have a sufficient number of articles that you think are worthy of publication?
Peter: Yes. We’ll need to have a number of articles that have been through the peer review process, and have been accepted. We’re getting – well, we’re getting close, I would say, to accepting our first article. We’ve – certainly, we’ve had one article that has had only positive reviews. There were some suggestions for minor revisions. But that may soon be accepted. And we have some others where the referees are a bit divided, or the referees want more substantial revisions. So, they will go back to the authors and maybe take more time to get accepted, if they do get accepted in the end.
So, we’re certainly not there yet. It’s a little hard to say when we will be. If I had to make an estimate, I’d say, perhaps, three months. So, I would certainly hope that we will be publishing first articles this year, in 2020. That’s as much as I can say at this stage.
Nico: Well, I can say your supporters, like your critics, are probably anxiously awaiting that first issue. And you only get one shot at a first impression. And I think your critics probably recognize that as well. So, you gotta make sure that those articles that you get in that first issue are quite good.
I think I’m gonna leave it there, Professor Singer. I said 45 minutes; we’re at about 44 and a half minutes right now. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Peter: Good. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your audience.
Nico: That was Princeton professor Peter Singer. The project is called The Journal of Controversial Ideas. You can learn more about the project at journalofcontroversialideas.org, where you can also support the project with a tax-deductible donation.
To learn more about Professor Singer’s broader work, you can visit petersinger.info.
This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. To learn more about So To Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at Twitter.com/freespeechtalk, or like us on Facebook at Facebook.com/SoToSpeakpodcast. We also take feedback at SoToSpeak@theFIRE.org, and you can call in a question for a future show at (215) 315-0100. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or Google Play; they do help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, as always, thanks again for listening.
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