Oh No, That’s Controversial!

Russell Blackford welcomes and defends The Journal of Controversial Ideas.

 In 2012, two young scholars working in the field of philosophical bioethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, published a controversial paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics. They argued that newborn babies could not yet be considered “persons” in a particular sense, and so did not have a moral right to life. Their analysis undermined one line of argument against infanticide, though, as they later made clear, it was not intended to suggest that, all things considered, infanticide should be permitted by law.

For their trouble, Giubilini and Minerva were subjected to a torrent of vilification, abuse, and death threats. In an effort to stop the madness, they issued an “open letter” that not only clarified their position on the ethical and legal issues, but also offered an apology to those whom they’d offended.

In fact, they’d done nothing that required an apology. They’d supported an arguable position within a longstanding philosophical debate over the moral status of embryos, fetuses, and newborns. Think of it this way: as far as we know, newborns do not possess sufficient capacity for thought to have any conception of their own futures. In that case, they can’t conceptualize or fear death. This prompts the uncomfortable question of how they could assert, or coherently be accorded, a right to life, even if there might still be various consequentialist and other reasons to prohibit killing them.

Giubilini and Minerva were placed in a position where they had little choice but to apologize for what they’d written, yet any such apology sets a bad precedent. Academic researchers should not be expected to grovel when they’ve done nothing that transgresses their legitimate role in intellectual inquiry and public discussion.

Nearly a decade after this frightening, and socially worrisome, experience, Francesca Minerva is now a leading figure associated with the Journal of Controversial Ideas. She is in good company with her co-editors of the journal, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer—both of them very high-profile philosophers.

Abuse such as Minerva (and Giubilini) received in 2012 does not come from only one political direction. Indeed, Peter Singer is a frequent target of campaigns from the political Left as well as the Right for his controversial views on medical decisions at the beginning and end of life. A prominent example of abuse from a faction of left-wing ideologues was the mobilization in 2017 against Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher from Rhodes College in Memphis. This followed a paper that she’d published in the feminist journal Hypatia, where she’d sympathetically discussed the possibility of “transracialism” by analogy with the phenomena included within “transgender.” Hundreds of academics, including many philosophers, campaigned against Tuvel and Hypatia, attempting to get the paper retracted for what amounted to ideological heresy.

These are not isolated examples. There have been many other campaigns against particular papers or books, and their authors, for articulating scholarly viewpoints that were seen by one faction or another as ideologically unacceptable. In some high-profile cases, papers have been withdrawn for flimsy reasons. Daily acquaintance with life in contemporary academia suggests that many journals—not to mention many individual academics—have internalized the message that certain topics and opinions are now too hot to handle. Increasingly, universities in the Anglophone West have become sites of conformity, self-censorship, and ideological performance.

This is, of course, a pessimistic portrayal of academic life, and I acknowledge that it’s a difficult one to prove to skeptics. Self-censorship and ideological performance are, by their very nature, not things that people will usually own up to. Furthermore, what might look to outsiders like bizarre moral preening often turns out—at least as far as I can tell —to be sincere. In making such judgments, I am sometimes unsure of my ground, and I’m frequently obliged to rely on confidences that I’m not at liberty to reveal. This is by no means a scientific process. Nonetheless, the picture that I’ve offered here will be familiar to many of my readers, based on their own experiences and conversations.

Assuming that the last few paragraphs contain more than a grain of truth, the situation is especially dispiriting in a discipline such as philosophy. Philosophers have historically prided themselves on their openness to ideas and their willingness to challenge religious, ideological, and other orthodoxies. Whether or not that was once true, however, it seems that many of us now place the ascendancy of our preferred ideologies—or those we want to be seen as supporting—ahead of the disciplinary values of free inquiry and open discussion.

That being so, how can philosophers and other scholars push back against unwanted pressures to conform, whether they originate from outside or inside the academy? A good start would be for the editors of journals—not only in philosophy, I’d hope—to be more brave and principled about publishing intellectually meritorious papers, even when they might outrage some readers’ sensibilities. Going further, journal editors could announce, and stick to, a policy of not retracting or disavowing papers except in clear-cut and extreme circumstances, such as plagiarism, significant and unrevealed conflicts of interest, or demonstrated research fraud. A more radical step would involve giving authors the option of publishing anonymously.

Anonymity can have personal and professional disadvantages if it means that some worthwhile papers end up not appearing on academic CVs, or not being reported to funding bodies. Against such practical concerns, however, there is a long tradition of anonymous publication by authors who have something to say that’s important—at least by their own lights—but who see the dangers in being identified with certain ideas. For contemporary Western academics, these dangers might be small compared to those from eras when nonconforming thinkers could face imprisonment, exile, or worse. Nonetheless, careers, reputations, and simply the peaceful enjoyment of life can be on the line for people who—once again—have done nothing wrong, and who, as the Journal of Controversial Ideas points out in its first editorial, should not be expected to act like martyrs or heroes.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas launched its inaugural issue in April 2021. The journal responds to what its editors see as a bleak situation in academia—not least in philosophy and adjacent disciplines—by actively calling for papers that might inflame controversy. It undertakes to have its contributors’ backs if opponents organize against them, and it provides contributors with the option of anonymity. At the same time, it employs blind peer review, combined with online open access, and it requires no publication fees. This means, however, that it must ask for and depend on donations in order to be financially viable.

On its website, the journal calls itself, “the first open access, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal specifically created to promote free inquiry on controversial topics.” It calls for papers that model “careful, rigorous, unpolemical discussion of issues that are widely considered controversial, in the sense that certain views about them might be regarded by many people as morally, socially, or ideologically objectionable or offensive.” It aspires to be open to all disciplines “insofar as the topics discussed are relevant to society at large.” Interestingly, it specifically invites not only opinions that might be controversial in the West, but also material that could cause trouble for authors from other parts of the world.

All of this is consistent with high scholarly standards. The journal has an impressive board, and I see no prospect of it letting through shoddy work. Although I am not on the board, I do have some personal experience: so far, I’ve reviewed one article for the Journal of Controversial Ideas, and I gave it the same scrutiny that I’d have applied to a submission referred to me from any other reputable academic journal.

That said, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As I write in July 2021, only one issue has appeared. It has ten articles, plus the editorial that I’ve already mentioned. Three of the articles are published under pseudonyms, and they are not necessarily the ones I would have thought most likely to bring obloquy to their authors. For example, one of them defends —rather than casting doubt upon—the popular slogan, “Trans women are women.” By contrast, the two most “controversial” articles in the issue—as seen from my viewpoint: the two most likely to attract outrage within the circles where I live and work—are published under their authors’ real names.

One of these, by Alex Byrne, argues that the word “woman” refers to an adult female human being (or, as he expresses it with an accompanying explanation, “an adult human female”). For Byrne, this means an adult human being who is female in accordance with the same biological criteria that we apply when sorting non-human mammals into male and female specimens (e.g., we sort some members of the species Panthera leo as lionesses).

The other paper that would be especially controversial in my world is by Bouke de Vries, who argues that some kinds of conduct that fall within a broad conception of “blackface” are morally justifiable. This author was willing to publish under his own name, but he does reveal in a note that he had difficulty placing the paper, for reasons that appear to have been political. It would, in such a case, be useful to hear the other side of the story, but in any event the paper strikes me as better than most that appear in well-regarded philosophy journals: it is nuanced and empirically grounded, while defending an unusual thesis.

It’s worth pausing to remind ourselves that different individuals find themselves in markedly different professional and social environments. Thus, an opinion that it might be risky for me to express, given my particular network of institutional, collegial, and personal relationships, might be a relatively safe one for you, and vice versa.

The papers in this first issue of the Journal of Controversial Ideas are a little uneven in quality. Some are clearer than others, although none are too weak to belong in a “proper” academic journal. There is distinct variation in the level of the copyediting, with the impact of one article in particular being subverted by far too many typographical errors. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this reflects the journal’s relative lack of editorial resources compared to some others. Overall, though, this issue is at a level comparable to most well-regarded journals dealing with ethics or public policy. Although it aims to be interdisciplinary, the Journal of Controversial Ideas is, so far, very much a philosophy journal, which is not surprising given the backgrounds of its editors and the inherent likelihood that relevantly “controversial” ideas will relate to the practical areas of philosophy.

I’m sympathetic to this project; for many reasons, I wish it success. One reason is that it seems to stand for an important point that’s seldom well understood. We can distinguish between abusive conduct toward individuals, on one hand, and, on the other hand, scholarly discussion of ideas that some people might find upsetting. It is one thing to mock, or taunt, or deeply denigrate individuals for their personal characteristics or aspects of their self-presentation, or, indeed, for their ideas. It’s an entirely different thing to communicate opinions on topics of general importance, even if they challenge others’ self-conceptions or dissent radically from a local consensus. Within very broad limits, advancing unpopular or dissenting opinions should not be seen as inviting abuse, censorship, or harmful consequences such as derailed careers and tainted reputations.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas won’t solve all the problems of contemporary academic life, but it might make a valuable contribution. I hope it can assemble resources from generous donations of money and time, and that it will do its job with distinction for as long as there is need.

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Russell Blackford is Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW. His books include The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and At the Dawn of a Great Transition: The Question of Radical Enhancement (Schwabe Verlag, 2021).