Anthony Julius on academic free speech (prompted by the Miller case)

This lecture on Wednesday evening was fascinating, full of insights into a topic which is not simply live, it is burning. It will be published. It was quite long (over an hour) and very rich in content so I am summarising it here. In addition the subject matter remains live, not least because Miller has appealed – so Anthony Julius’ lecture needs to be studied as widely as possible – in particular by Hugh Brady, the Bristol Vice Chancellor, and  the (unnamed) three members of the appeal panel. And by Julius’ 11 UCL colleagues who signed the letter of support for Miller (Ruth Dar, Sean Doyle, Judit Druks, Harry Hemingway, Owen Holland,  Jocelyn Hurndall, Saladin Meckled-Garcia, Vanessa Ogunbowale, Stuart Tannock, Nalini Vittal and Sean Wallis).

Anthony Julius began (“somewhat obliquely”) and ended the lecture with Louise Gluck’s poem “A Myth of Innocence.” It is about Persephone, a goddess in Greek mythology, who is abducted and raped by Hades, her uncle. In the poem Persephone tries to convince herself that she was not abducted – rather, that she went of her own free will. But – writes the poet – ‘ignorance cannot will knowledge.  Ignorance wills something imagined, which it believes exists’.  ‘Willed ignorance’ is the leitmotif of the lecture (which Julius was prompted to write by the Miller Affair).

He moved on to the background of what Miller has said and written. After his dismissal Miller doubled down on his antisemitism, stating for example that Jewish students are ‘the products of elite private schools’. Anthony Julius said that the support given to Miller by some 450 academics  was a “special disgrace”.  Miller’s supporters claim that his dismissal is a further demonstration of ‘the power of the Israel Lobby’.  Julius (18:42): “The conspiracy theorist has thus become the object of a new conspiracy theory” … “Miller’s supporters praised him ‘for exposing the wrong that powerful actors and well-resourced coordinated networks play in manipulating and stage managing public debate including on racism’they could just have said “Jews.”” Using the Miller case as an example, Julius asked: “Does liberal free speech doctrine require us to defend the antisemitic conspiracy talk of a sociology professor?” To answer requires responses to two subsidiary questions:

  • What is the ‘liberal free speech doctrine?
  • What is its present condition?

What is the ‘liberal free speech doctrine?’

The enabling of free speech is liberalism (see Spinoza and several Scottish Enlightenment authors).  The ‘liberal doctrine’ sustains the diverse discourses of liberal democracy. It has two critical qualities:

  • One, it’s systematic. It doesn’t for example muddle academic free speech with political free speech. Each discourse has its distinct freedom and distinct method of regulation.
  • Two, it’s emancipatory: It stands against prejudice and superstition. It has a strong combative edge, it combats counter-discourses. Liberalism approaches free speech principles in fighting mode. It derives from active political desires. It is for liberty and against tyranny. Liberalism takes pleasure in contention; it is reconciled to the permanence of conflict.

(32:00) Julius quoted from Kant  ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ Kant wrote: Dare to know! (Sapere aude) “Have the courage to use your own reason,” is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.

But for the Enlightenment, nothing is required but freedom – the freedom to make public use of one’s reason.  Kant writes of ‘the urge for and the vocation of free thought’.  Kant’s essay has been commonly interpreted as a call for freedom of speech in the conventional sense. But two years later Kant drew out three crucial aspects of freedom of thought:  its community aspect (ability to communicate); its uncoerced aspect; and thirdly its autonomous aspect: Freedom of thought signifies the subjection of reason to no laws – other than those which it imposes on itself.  If ‘free speech’ violates reason then freedom in the true sense of the word is thrown away. To think for oneself, Kant writes, is the maxim of a never passive reason. To be given to passivity is prejudice. 

Most people who call for ‘freedom of speech’ do not themselves speak freely in this strong Kantian emancipatory sense. They recycle clichés; they appropriate slogans opportunistically; they are not themselves inward with the demands that free speech imposes on them.

Julius then moved to apply his two ‘principles’ (the system and the emancipation principles) to academic free speech.

The system principle: Academic speech is a distinct mode of existence. It is more exacting. It has standards. It has no concern with diversity. But it is also more permissive: it stands for an ideal of unbounded enquiry. Its regulation is self-regulation.

The emancipation principle: Kant (Conflicts of the Faculties) took a stand against what he described as ‘the invasions into the university of obscurantism’.  In the English translation, these invaders are said to be ‘incompetent in scientific matters’.  ‘Scientific matters’ is the translation of Wissenschaftlichen. But ‘incompetent’ is the translation of the German word ‘Idioten’ – which in truth requires no translation. Kant’s formulation demands of us that we identify today’s ‘idiots’ – the followers of pseudo-sciences (which include Alchemy and Holocaust Revisionism). Distinguishing science from pseudo-science is what academics term the ‘demarcation problem’. Unlike political free speech, academic free speech imposes a positive obligation on academics to work to disempower pseudo-scientists (Kant’s idiots) in the name of academic integrity. Hence the ‘liberal free speech doctrine’ is actively both a pro-speech and an anti-speech doctrine. (46.00)

What is the present condition of free speech?

The fact that the question “Are Jews Lying?” (JH: for example, the accusation beloved of antisemites that Corbyn was called an antisemite because of opposition to his support of the Palestinians) is now being posed suggests that the ‘liberal free speech doctrine’ is in poor shape. (Reference to Luther ‘The Jews and their Lies’ and Mearsheimer ‘The Israel Lobby’).  

Without the ‘liberal free speech doctrine’ no principled defence of free speech is possible.

Does the liberal free speech doctrine require Miller to be defended?

The ‘system principle’ suggests that Miller should be protected but the ‘emancipation principle’ suggests he should be condemned.

Julius answered this question with four propositions:

One: Conspiracism lives in several discourses. It posits that the truth about the world is a problem to be solved.  No: The world can be meaningful only as an indeterminate horizon for further explanation. (51:52) Gustave Flaubert stated that the very definition of stupidity is wanting to conclude.

Two: Conspiracy theories do have serious political consequences. They can generate real catastrophic counter-conspiracies, most notably the antisemitic ones.  They are the ones to which conspiracy theorists graduate. They are all iterations of the one thesis: ‘That the Jews are a malign collective acting in their own interest and to the detriment of the non-Jewish world’.  Antisemitism itself is one giant meta-conspiracy theory.  Antisemitic conspiracy theories are both inventive and repetitious. Though they ingeniously attach themselves to passing scandals, they possess a strong shared identity. They make the magicians move. There is always a Jewish rabbit to be pulled out of the hat. The rabbit of course will have different names.  Reviewing these names across the centuries, we find: An assembly of rabbis and lay leaders in Narbonne; the governing body of the Minsk Jewish Community; various European Jewish philanthropic organisations; world leaders; the Elders of Zion; the members of the First Zionist Congress (1897); the Rothschild banking families; a New York charity; Israel – the Jewish State. To this list (said Julius) David Miller adds: The Bristol J Soc.

(56:52) We spend so much time exposing the viciousness and untruthfulness of all this, we tend to overlook how exceptionally feeble it is and what stupidity on the part of its adherents it reveals. It’s a stupidity which is wilful.

Three: Conspiracy theories in the academy comprise both pseudo- and counter- academic discourse. Miller’s conspiracy theories are both pseudo-academic and anti-academic (reference to Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). (58:23). The embracing of conspiracy theories is the most radical of repudiations of the academic vocation: Of what it is to be a thinking, reflective person: Of what it is to think freely.

And – said Julius – Miller is our example.  His longest work of conspiracy theorising is his booklet on the Israel Lobby and the EU.  It is a weak child of Walt and Mearsheimer’s work.  Its thesis is no more than that Jews support Israel and a few of the wealthier among them contribute to bodies that advocate for Israel’s interests in Europe.   He does not argue the Walt/Mearsheimer thesis that these bodies are especially effective – still less that they are able to influence the EU to act against its own interest in any serious way.

There is a minor character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two: Francis Feeble. Falstaff praises him: ‘Most forcible Feeble!’.

So (said Anthony Julius) let me ask, what is feeble in Miller and what is forcible?

The ‘feeble’: Everything that should matter to an academic – methodology, research, evidence, history.

The ‘forcible’: Everything that an academic should shun. Extravagant claims unmoored from evidence; the antisemitic premises of his work – and the verbal assault on Jewish students

But of course the feebleness of the analysis does not matter to people already convinced of the malign existence of the Jewish Lobby. Miller is not called upon to prove anything, still less anything new. Just to write or speak the word ‘Lobby’ is enough. The sought-after effect is achieved. This is writing as evocation. And that’s why it misses the point to complain that (as seems likely) many of the signatories of the pro-Miller support letter haven’t actually read any of his stuff. All they needed to know was that he wrote about the Israel Lobby.

Four: Academics have a duty to combat professorial conspiracy thinking. They have a duty of scholarship and a duty of teaching.

Finally Anthony Julius explained why he opposed Miller but supported Professor Kathleen Stock.

Those (he said) who argue for free speech for both Miller and Stock are muddling the doctrine of academic free speech with that of political free speech.

Those who argue that both Miller and Stock are hatespeechmongers are also wrong. We must make a case-by-case assessment. The accusation of ‘hate speech’ should be a last resort. Judgments need to be reasoned, without ‘vigilante-ism’. (Julius conceded that self-discipline is not always easy, sometimes one needs a resourceful defence against attack and that the call for self-discipline can be inhumane in its indifference to the complainant’s suffering. But reasoned judgment of the issue should prevail).

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