I have no problem with Holocaust deniers. They are probably a good thing — a mild irritant keeping the rest of us on our toes (like fermented food). Being forced to look at evidence will do most people good. The people who scare me, who do real damage, are the ones who want to silence Holocaust deniers. They don’t meet enough resistance. That Holocaust actually happened is exactly why we should be so afraid of intolerance in any direction (e.g., pro- or anti-Semitic). But Holocaust deniers are too intellectually feeble to do a good job of defending freedom of thought. So, by and large, it is poorly defended. Sure, most “unthinkable” views (such as Holocaust denial) are nonsense. But not all.
The paragraph you just read (“I have no problem…”) is a terrible defense of academic freedom. It’s vague, argumentative, unemotional, impersonal, and abstract. I think the best defense of a belief is to practice it, which is why, in my lifetime, the best defense of academic freedom has been The Man Who Would Be Queen (about male homosexuals) by Michael Bailey, a professor at Northwestern. The book led to a campaign of vilification against Bailey led by Lynn Conway and Deidre McCloskey. I blogged and corresponded with McCloskey about it.
Bailey has again defended academic freedom by practicing it. Last week Bailey’s Human Sexuality class caused controversy because of an after-class demonstration in which a woman was brought to orgasm on stage using an unusual device. Again we are learning the actual consequences of academic freedom, as opposed to simplistic arguments (like mine) or homilies about how good it is.
The Human Sexuality controversy led to publication of this story (which I have shortened):
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I only saw one professor argue with his students. It happened several times in the same class, Human Sexuality. [The first time was in 2005.] The professor, J. Michael Bailey, had been leading us through some provocative research, which suggested that if you control for a whole variety of factors, adults who were sexually abused as children are not much more likely to have psychological pathologies than adults who were not.
[During the question period] a dark-haired young woman in the back of the class stood up right away. Hundreds of heads turned to look at her.
â€œYouâ€™re talking about sexually abusing children,â€ she said. â€œNo matter what the research says, that is morally wrong.â€
Bailey said that his moral judgment had nothing to do with the matter, that he was presenting research and that was all.
The student said, â€œWhat would you say if one of your daughters was molested?â€
â€œIf one of my daughters was molested, I would be devastated,â€ he said. â€œBut I would take comfort in knowing that the molestation would not necessarily ruin her life.â€
The young woman sat down. Bailey got back to his lecture.
What have I learned from this? At the simplest level, here are two stories — two pieces of evidence, two things to think about. Something more subtle is that a blunt argument (e.g., my first paragraph) is a kind of intolerance all by itself. The opposite of blunt argument is telling a story.