The problem with The Truth

Moral certainty justifies appalling actions

25th November 2022
Joanna Williams

Those convinced they know The Truth see no reason to engage in debate, writes Joanna Williams.

What motivates a young Just Stop Oil activist to chain herself to a gantry on the M25? Why do these protesters think that their desire to glue themselves to motorways trumps the needs of people to get to work, attend hospital appointments or visit sick relatives? How can anyone justify vandalising beautiful works of art?

Listen, if you can bear it, to the wailing of the Just Stop Oil activists and the answer becomes clear. These protesters may proudly declare their youth (who can forget, ‘I’m Indigo and I’m 24!’) but they are utterly convinced they know more than everyone else. They know for certain that the apocalypse is upon us and that we are all going to die. All that remains to be determined is whether we will die in fires or floods. That no scientific papers support this doomsday narrative is irrelevant. They alone know The Truth.

Elsewhere, the painstakingly slow questioning of transgenderism continues. This week, The Guardian is finally, and somewhat half-heartedly, asking why so many young girls want to become boys. Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament seems determined to press ahead with legislation making it easier for people to self-identify as their preferred gender, gender-neutral toilets are being installed in the House of Commons and the leader of the Women’s Equality Party wants her members to back self-identification – presumably making her the leader of the ‘girl mode’ fetish party.

Why are so many women seemingly happy to give up their own sex-based rights and to put women in prisons or hospitals, or girls in public toilets and shop changing rooms, at risk? Why have some women’s sporting achievements been sacrificed to appease the egos of male-bodied athletes? And why are young girls still allowed to socially transition at school without their parents’ knowledge or consent?

Transgender activists are convinced that they have access to The Truth. Forget centuries of scientific research in biology and anatomy. It is Gender Studies professors, black-masked thugs and Stonewall preachers who know for certain that sex is merely a label randomly assigned at birth. They alone know that it is how you feel at any point in time that makes you a man, a woman or a mixture of the two. Only they have access to The Truth about gender identity and anyone who questions their authority must be a transphobic bigot.

No need to debate

So certain are transgender activists and Just Stop Oil protesters that they have unique insight into The Truth, they see threatening violence and delaying ambulances getting to sick people as morally justified. In fact, so convinced are they that they alone know The Truth, they do not see any reason to engage in debate. What’s the point of discussion when The Truth is already known?

Political and intellectual humility leads people to question their beliefs. It prompts looking for evidence, challenging assertions, refusing to accept dogma and being prepared to engage in debate with those who think differently – not from a lack of commitment or conviction – but out of a desire to learn more, better hone arguments and test assumptions. These qualities used to be the hallmark of maturity. Once, they were developed within universities.

Too often nowadays, universities are places where students gather to imbibe an already-decreed Truth. They are places where intellectual conflict and debate are discouraged in favour of validating the lived experiences of those who bear witness to The Truth. They are places where academic freedom has been dropped in favour of academic justice. When The Truth is known, there is nothing to discuss other than how to put the insights it offers into practice.

How has it come to this?

Radical scholars like Judith Butler, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado have long since pushed for a move away from what they see as outdated notions of academic freedom towards a focus on academic justice. Arguments for academic justice emerged most explicitly in demands to boycott Israeli universities and no-platform Israeli scholars. There were calls for universities to be ‘reimagined’ as sites of solidarity with those engaged in struggles against neoliberal capitalism.

In 2014, the term ‘academic justice’ was employed by Harvard University student Sandra Y. L. Korn in a column in her campus newspaper. In an article carrying the subheading ‘Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice’, she explained, ‘When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue’. The column provoked outrage, although arguably Korn’s only crime was to put in writing what many far more senior people within the academy
had been suggesting for several years.

Korn had imbibed a view that dominates higher education today: that academic freedom is not always compatible with other political principles such as fairness, equality, respect or sensitivity and has no superior claim on scholarship. Butler expresses this view when she suggests, ‘academic freedom is sometimes in conflict with basic human rights’ and concludes, ‘when such conflicts occur it must be that basic human rights are the more important good to defend’ (2006). Stanley Fish caricatured this argument as meaning, ‘while academic freedom is usually a good thing, when basic questions of justice are in play, it must give way’ (2013).

The slow death of academic freedom

Qualifying academic freedom with caveats of political judgement negates all that is universal and progressive about the demand. As Fish indicates, it brings about a complete reversal in the definition of academic freedom, ‘from a doctrine insulating the academy from politics into a doctrine that demands of academics blatantly political actions’ (2013). Activist academics make judgments about who gets to speak, whose research gets published and what students are taught, not on the basis of what is considered most useful in advancing knowledge and arriving closer to a (still contestable) truth, but on the identity of the speakers and the political views they espouse. Not only is this antithetical to the pursuit of knowledge, it is also inherently undemocratic. Questions as to whose view of justice should prevail and which views are unacceptable are rarely raised when a political consensus is assumed.

The politicisation of scholarship

Arguing for academic justice is a call on scholars to abandon any aspiration towards objectivity in favour of taking a political position. In a number of academic disciplines, research and teaching have become so inherently bound up with the promotion of a particular political outlook that it becomes difficult to determine where scholarship ends and campaigning begins. A 2013 report by Harvard University, Mapping the Future, acknowledges that the humanities, ‘serve only the critical function of unmasking the operations of power in language largely impenetrable to a wider public. Or even where they are intelligible, they fail to communicate their value to a wider public. They serve no constructive public function.’ Nonetheless, its authors remain wedded to the view that, ‘one of the major contributions of the Humanities over the past thirty years has been [… ] revealing the extent to which culture serves power, the way domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production, and the ways the products of culture rehearse and even produce injustice.’

Beginning by abandoning objectivity and establishing a political position not only prevents academics from aspiring towards contestable truth claims, it also enforces a consensus and encourages political conformity in a way that curtails questioning and criticality from the outset. This is entirely detrimental to higher education, the pursuit of knowledge and future generations of students.

Creating vulnerable activists

Fish notes that inclusive higher education is marked by a ‘celebration of the therapeutic where feelings trump facts’. In such a context, ‘Truth is a secondary goal and is usurped by sensitivity, particularly sensitivity for the “other”’ (2015). Academics and administrators, often pitched against each other in polarized debates about ‘managerialism’, ‘marketization’ or tuition fees come together, as Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate indicate in their important book, The Shadow University, under a shared belief ‘that universities not only may but should suspend the rights of some in order to transform students, the culture and the nation according to their ideological vision and desire’ (1998).

University managers, supported by academics and students, have introduced equality and diversity policies, anti-harassment initiatives and speech codes in a bid to eliminate prejudice, regulate behaviour and create an atmosphere of respect and sensitivity. Such policies also restrict free speech on campus and censor words, images and behaviour based on a perception of offence. Rather than such policies being perceived as an infringement upon free speech and students’ individual rights, they are instead often portrayed as necessary to create a climate free from offence and to protect students perceived as vulnerable.

The replacement of a clash of competing views with a focus on sensitivity and respect prevents the exercise of academic freedom as it has traditionally been understood. Worse, it often serves to enforce an intolerance of dissent. The prevention of offence requires the silencing of critics and potential offenders. It requires that dissenting voices be suppressed. The effect of this is to make existing understandings of the world more difficult to challenge. Without criticism it is simply impossible for knowledge to advance; as Kors and Silverglate indicate, ‘no belief is so clearly certain or correct that it justifies suppressing those who question it’ (1998). If students are rarely presented with knowledge that runs counter to the dominant consensus then framing a challenge in suitably intellectual terms is difficult.

The drive to protect students from offence in the classroom occurs alongside the emergence of a broader institutional view of students as ‘not quite adults’. A duty of care to student–customers has replaced the in loco parentis legislation of a previous era. Student support services flourish as the perception of students as autonomous adults in control of their own lives has diminished. Unsurprisingly, the view of students as vulnerable has gone hand in hand with the belief that it is acceptable to teach them what to think: the danger is that students may reach the wrong conclusions if left to their own devices.

The Just Stop Oil protesters and the masked-up transgender activists have been taught not just that they have special knowledge of The Truth but that they have a duty to enforce this Truth in the name of saving the planet or protecting the vulnerable. For all our sakes, they need to learn some intellectual humility.

Joanna Williams is the Director of Cieo and the author of How Woke Won.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER | @LGNWVR on Unsplash
Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash