The “Journal of Controversial Ideas”

Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva plan to launch the “Journal of Controversial Ideas” sometime in 2019. The journal will allow for (but not insist on) articles to be published under a pseudonym, ostensibly in response to a prevailing culture of self-censorship and fear of expressing opinions on contentious topics.

McMahan and Singer are both philosophy professors, well-known for engaging with complex topics in an accessible manner, and in Singer’s case, also no stranger to controversy. According to a headline in the Guardian from 2009, he might in fact be “The most dangerous man in the world” (he isn’t).

Minerva (disclosure: we know each other, from an Oxford workshop also involving Singer (who didn’t join us in visiting any of those lovely pubs)) is also, and unfortunately, best known for controversy, after she and Alberto Giubilini published a 2011 article suggesting that if abortion is permissible, infanticide (in certain cases) might also be.

Giubilini and (especially, likely because she’s a woman) Minerva still receive hate-mail and the occasional death threats today. At one point, she even had to seek police protection, and I know of at least one case in which the 2011 article led to her being denied an academic appointment. So, I can certainly see why she would think a “safe space” for discussing controversial views might be necessary.

The threats to open discussion of controversial ideas come from both the political right and from the left. On the right, there’s an intolerance of difference, a trivialisation of questions relating to personal experience and identity, and on the left, tribalism and political conformity can also stifle debate, as Russell Blackford argues in his new book, The Tyranny of Opinion.

Despite these threats to robust and open debate, it’s clearly an unfortunate development for such a journal to be thought a necessary response. Even the editors agree – McMahon is quoted as saying “I think all of us will be very happy if, and when, the need for such a journal disappears, and the sooner the better. But right now in current conditions something like this is needed.”

In short, the reasons why I am wary of this development, and why I hope it’s no more than a short-term experiment rather than a long-term trend that might become the norm, are as follows:

  • We want to incentivise courage in the holding and expressing of views. You’ve all seen what happens to keyboard warriors when they can write pseudonymously or anonymously – all standards of fair argumentation, and even civility, quickly fall by the wayside. This will likely not be the case in an academic journal, but the point is that being accountable for one’s words provides a handbrake for debate and argument, where we take care to not say things that might impair our reputations and other long-term interests, including our interests in making certain conclusions seem attractive to others.
  • Related to the above: a journal like this is likely to instantly become a magnet for repulsive views, by which I mean views that aren’t simply repulsive because they offend our sensibilities, but because they are unfounded and also harmful to society. I’m wary of giving examples, because you, dear reader, might think we still need to be having “frank discussions” about slavery, but, for example, if you happen to be a person who still thinks that one group of people is innately superior to another, you’d currently be restricted to publishing that opinion on Reddit, rather than in an academic journal. I don’t doubt that the editors and reviewers of this journal intend to avoid becoming an academic Breitbart, but that conclusion might be difficult to avoid.
  • Following on from that, the right-wing scare stories about the “intolerance of the left”, spurred on by the likes of Milo, Shapiro, Peterson and so forth, are validated by the creation of this journal, while in actual fact this intolerance might not be anywhere near as widespread as might be required to create this new platform. One could say, for example, that Minerva was mistreated (as I think she was), while also saying that in most instances, there already exist platforms to express controversial views, and that pushback against those views – if non-threatening and within the bounds of acceptable debate – is par for the course. This response confirms the scare-stories that academia is no longer a safe space for debate, while for most of us, it still is.
  • There are practical problems regarding things like promotion and tenure (because you need to be registered as an author for things like subsidies, if your academic structures have those, and you need to be registered as an author for citations of your work to be counted, which is still a key metric for measuring your “value”). It will be difficult to track this with pseudonymous or anonymous submissions. 
  • Lastly, and related to the point about confirming the right-wing scare-stories above, this could be accused of capitulating to the idea that truth is demotic, in that it sends the signal that academic activity should, or needs to be, responsive to what an outraged mob says on Twitter. In philosophy, in particular, a lot of the work involves testing ideas, or toying with arguments to check for consistency, without necessarily subscribing to certain conclusions that could be derived from those ideas. You can’t do this work as effectively if you know that you’ll be held responsible for the worst possible interpretation of those ideas and arguments.

Yes, there’s no doubt that the last point, above, is very often used in the service of “saying not saying” or “just asking questions”, where you express some controversial idea (that you might well believe in) and then when questioned, respond in a wounded fashion that you were just “playing with ideas”. Prof. Noakes and anti-vaccination sentiments come to mind.

But leaving aside those abuses of public respect for academic freedom, it’s still a mistake to think that cases of discussing outrageous or controversial ideas are always simply cover for actually holding reprehensible views, rather than being something pretty standard, and valuable, in philosophy.

The comment thread at Daily Nous gets deep into these and other issues I raise above, so if you’re looking to hear other views on this from an informed community, check it out (Singer also offers a few comments there).

I wish them well, sympathise with their motivations, and have no reason to distrust their intentions. But I do nevertheless hope that this is treated as an experiment, and that they are quick to pull the plug on the experiment if it goes wrong – as I unfortunately expect it will.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.