The controversy over Harvard President Summers' remarks got me to thinking. The left is castigating him for his remarks, and he may lose his job in a no-confidence vote of the faculty. Even if he keeps his job Harvard will lose some funding from people who will refuse to donate in protest. Summers has been called a chauvinist, and worse, for suggesting in an academic workshop that all possible reasons why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences be explored, even including whether men have more natural aptitude.
And it is crap. The left-wing crusaders out to get him are simply wrong.
In exploring why women are underrepresented nothing should be left on the table, even topics that some find offensive. When the Army was fighting to stay segregated some suggested that "colored" soldiers simply couldn't perform like white soldiers due to whites' superior aptitude. So the Army did a study. Racists didn't like the results because of course they showed that wasn't true. But if the study had not been done it would have been harder to integrate the force. And it is a fact that boys show mathmatical aptitude earlier than girls, while girls show greater verbal aptitude. Whether this is due to nature or nurture is surely deserving of exploration. Men are many times more likely to suffer autism than women, something that may be related to mathematical aptitude. Or not. And reading the remarks Mr. Summers actually made shows that he was not saying he felt women don't have as much aptitude for hard science as men, but that the issue should be discussed in order to understand why so few women are on the hard science faculties of major universities. Result: he is condemned.
The right-wing has come to his defense, claiming (rightly, no pun intended) that punishing Summers threatens academic freedom and intellectual inquiry in general. I say "right on" (pun intended.) The purpose of intellectual inquiry is to discover truth and sometimes that makes people uncomfortable. Tough. Free speech is vital in academia, and if it doesn't exist there it surely exists nowhere at all. Regardless of how offensive a comment is, the way to address it is to show it is true or false in a logical, civil debate. Those who want Summers removed are threatening all of us. Self-censorship from fear of being "Larry Summered" will do all of us harm.
But then there is the case of Ward Churchill, an ethnic studies professor who made idiotic comments comparing 9/11 victims to nazi criminals. He actually was stupid enough to blame the 9/11 victims for their own murders because they were serving the "capitalist system." Ok, he is a nutbag and maybe a commie. And calling 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns" as he did turns my stomach. But guess what? Those who want Churchill punished are threatening all of us. Self-censorship from fear of being "Ward Churchill'ed" will do all of us harm. Free speech is vital in academia, and if it doesn't exist there it surely exists nowhere at all. Regardless of how offensive a comment is, the way to address it is to show it is true or false in a logical, civil debate.
Hmmm... many of the same people defending Larry Summers' academic freedom are the ones calling for Ward Churchill's removal. And many of the same people attacking Larry Summers are the ones defending Ward Churchill's academic freedom (although, to be honest, there are actually few defending Churchill since he is clearly a nut, and his "scholarship" is mush-headed dribble).
But I want to go on record as defending Ward Churchill's academic freedom. I do not agree with what he said, but I think he should be free to say it. I don't think his saying it will force anybody to believe what he says or do any harm except to his own credibility. Punishing him for his ideas does great harm to all of us.
To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, the "free marketplace of ideas" is vital. The way to defeat communism wasn't to ban the Communist Manifesto or punish Marxist university professors but to show that the ideas were wrong. It is ok to debate those who disagree with you - it helps you understand your own position even better. While you may never convince the Marxists themselves you will be able to convince others. And even Marxist ideas contributed to our nation, believe it or not. While we were defending "freedom" our communist enemies delighted in pointing out how segregation and Jim Crow laws showed that the US was not truly free. On that point they were right. Instead of shutting out the criticism we changed the system, communism fell, and we were better off for having listened to what our enemies were saying. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
So I think Churchill is a flaming idiot, and I think Summers deserves a little credit for trying to explore why there aren't more women at the top of hard science academia, surely not a chauvinistic thing to do. And I think those who would defend Summers and not Churchill are as wrong as those attacking Summers. They are hypocrites. Defending "free speech" when you agree with it is easy. It is defending speech when you disagree with it that is the true measure of how much you like freedom.
Voltaire famously said "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
So to Mr. Summers and to Mr. Churchill, I say I think you should be allowed to speak without being fired. Continue to speak up and speak out. The free and open marketplace of ideas will decide how much weight should be given to what you say.