On silencing academics

In his book, Practical Ethics, Peter Singer writes in the appendix about his experiences of being silenced in Germany. I’m going to copy and paste some of what he says because although this was 30 years ago academics are still threatened and silenced today and we should all be concerned about that.

I was invited by the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich to give a lecture on ‘Animal Rights’. On the following day, the philosophy department had organized a colloquium for twenty-five invited philosophers, theologians, special educationalists, zoologists, and other academics to discuss the implications for both humans and animals of an ethic that would reject the view that the boundary of our species marks the moral boundary of great intrinsic significance, and holds that non-human animals have no rights.

The lecture on animal rights did not take place. Before it began, a group of disabled people in wheelchairs, who had been admitted to the flat area at the front of the lecture theater, staged a brief protest in which they said that, while it was all the same to them whether or not I lectured on the topic of animal rights, they objected to the fact that the University of Zurich had invited such a notorious advocate of euthanasia to discuss ethical issues that also concerned the disabled. At the end of this protest, when I rose to speak, a section of the audience – perhaps a quarter or a third – began to chant: “Singer ruas! Singer raus!” As I heard this chanted, in German, by people so lacking in respect for the tradition of reasoned debate that they were unwilling even to allow me to make a response to what had just been said about me, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was what it must have been like to attempt to reason against the rising tide of Nazism in the declining days of the Weimar Republic. The difference was that the chant would have been, not ‘Singer raus’, but ‘Juden raus’. An overhead projector was still functioning, and I began to write on it, to point out this parallel that I was feeling so strongly. At that point one of the protestors came up behind me and tore my glasses from my face, throwing them on the floor and breaking them.

On another occasion, he was invited to lecture at the University of Saarbrücken to discuss the ethics of euthanasia.

When I rose to speak in Saarbrücken I was greeted by a chorus of whistles and shouts from a minority of the audience determined to prevent me from speaking. Professor Meggle offered the protesters the opportunity to state why they thought I should not speak. This showed how completely they had misunderstood my position. Many obviously believe that I was politically on the far right. Another suggested that I lacked the experience with Nazism that Germans had had; he and others in the audience were taken aback when I told them that I was the child of Austrian-Jewish refugees, and that three of my grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps.

Another chance comment revealed still a deeper ignorance about my position. One protester quoted from a passage in which I compare the capacities of intellectually disabled humans and nonhuman animals. The way in which he left the quotation hanging, as if it were in itself enough to condemn me, made me realise that he thought that I was urging that we should treat disabled humans in the way we now treat nonhuman animals. He had no idea that my views about how we should treat animals are utterly different from those conventionally accepted in Western society. When I replied that, for me, to compare a human being to a nonhuman animal was not to say that the human being should be treated with less consideration, but that the animal should be treated with more, this person asked why I did not use my talents to write about the morality of our treatment of animals, rather than about euthanasia. Naturally I replied that I had done that, and that it was, indeed, precisely for my views about the suffering of animals raised on commercial farms, and used in medical and psychological research, and the need for animal liberation that I was best known in English-speaking countries; but I could see that a large part of the audience simply did not believe that I could be known anywhere as anything other than an advocate of euthanasia.

Peter Singer also writes of the lack of support by institutions whose academics came under attack.

This highest officers of the university took no action to indicate their concern that threats of protest had forced an academic lecture to be canceled; nor did they come to the defense of one of their professors when he was under attack for inviting a colleague to give a lecture on the campus of the university. That was typical of the reaction of German professors. They were no strong reaction among them on behalf of academic freedom.

14 thoughts on “On silencing academics”

  1. The thing that’s going on near me at the moment, the person involved is my ex-girlfriend. I am glad the University has been supportive and hope that it sets a precedent.

    1. The University should have done more sooner. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. I bought her book so I hope that at least this gives her publicity with a wider audience and the book sells far and wide.

  2. What has happened is appalling, and the University has been appalling spineless. I’ve heard mention that it’s possible the reason the vice-chancellor is now sticking up for Kathleen Stock is because he’s either retiring soon, or moving on elsewhere, so has nothing to lose by (finally) making a stand.

    1. Yes, I read that the vice-chancellor was leaving and wondered whether that made a difference. It shouldn’t matter but I understand that people are afraid to speak about it.

  3. What Peter Singer said about euthanasia and disabled people has been taken vastly out of context, as usual. In no way was he referring to the kind of disabled people who were able to come and protest him, nor did he make a statement of belief about euthanasia, it was more in the line of pondering if euthanasia could actually be a kinder option for those who were born so severely mentally and physically disabled that there was absolutely no possibility of any quality of life for them or their carers. I happen to ponder the same thing, as I’m sure many do, too, but are afraid to say it. Here in NZ a referendum showed a majority were in favour of voluntary euthanasia, and that will now be passed into law. I don’t really see that as hugely different to compassionately euthanising a baby so severely mentally and physically disabled that there is no possibility of any quality of life, or to abortion.

    1. Peter Singer is the most misunderstood philosopher. The questions the protesters asked must have made him want to bang his head against a wall: “Why don’t you write about animal rights instead?” Doh!

  4. If someone calls for some medical research to be eliminated, are they calling for academics to be silenced?

    1. No, people can protest research they disagree with. This is what Henry Spira did when he objected to the American Museum of Natural History’s experimentation on cats where they mutilated them to study how it affected their sexual behaviour. What he didn’t do is call for individuals to be sacked from their jobs, he didn’t threaten any individuals, and nor did he prevent them from giving public lectures and talks to defend their research.

  5. Well that’s an unpleasant example. I was thinking about research that doesn’t harm animals but is aimed at providing hope to people who are struggling with infertility.

    It seems to me that if an academic is performing that type of medical research and others are calling for it to be eliminated, then they are either calling for that academic to be sacked or threatening her to try to silence her research.

    1. There’s quite a big difference, in my view, between (to use the example of animal rights activism again) an animal right’s activist who pickets outside a laboratory calling for an end to experiments on animals and an animal rights activist who pickets requesting a researcher be sacked and sends threatening letters to them – threats that affect not just their livelihoods but their lives – their safety. I support the former but not the latter.

      1. There’s quite a big difference, in my view, between an activist who pickets requesting a researcher be sacked and someone who sends threatening letters to them. I support the former (because people have the right to peaceful protest) but not the latter.

        I just don’t see how someone can be opposed to a peaceful protest calling for an academic to be sacked, but not oppose calls for that academic’s infertility research to be eliminated. It seems like if her research is “eliminated” then she’s either going to be sacked or intimidated into abandoning research that could give hope to people struggling with infertility.

        Since we both agree that threats are unacceptable, that’s not where our disagreement lies.

  6. Here’s a thread listing some of the students who have been threatened, silenced, and libelled by Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE: https://twitter.com/graceelavery/status/1450823390986739714

    The links in that thread contain more information, but here’s a preview of what those links show:

    Amelia Jones is a student at the University of Sussex, who serves as Trans and Non-Binary Officer for the Students’ Union. Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE falsely accused her of lying, and planted false stories about her in the national press. Amelia also received threats as a result of the libel that Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE spread about her.

    Katie Tobin is a PhD student in English at Durham, with an English degree from Sussex. Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE suppressed an essay of Katie’s in a student newspaper, and Sussex administrators under Adam Tickell threatened to reveal personal info about Katie if she ever talked about it. Katie also received violent threats after Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE tweeted about her.

    Nathan Oseroff is a researcher in the philosophy of science, with degrees from King’s College London and Imperial College London. Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE publicly cussed at him, insulted him, and abused her power to get him suspended from his position at the American Philosophical Association’s blog team.

    That thread doesn’t mention that Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE tried to silence another philosophy student named Christa Peterson by trying to get Sussex “management” to intervene to prevent her from giving an academic talk that didn’t positively portray her. Brian Leiter (who was also instrumental in helping Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE to silence Nathan Oseroff) emailed her advisor to try to force her to either close her twitter account or make it private, complained that she had called him a “cis [sic] man”, and falsely accused her of repeated insults and sneering aimed at other philosophers.

    Prof. Kathleen Stock, OBE is a professor and an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. The people she’s silencing are students. This power imbalance should trouble anyone who’s genuinely concerned about academic freedom and “silencing academics”.

    1. Emmy, I’m going to turn the comments off on this post because I don’t want to be harassed by a wall of links and comments. This post is specifically about silencing academics. I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t condone threatening behaviour towards anyone, regardless of their views, be they students, trans people, or gender-critical academics. However, it’s clear to anyone following the news right now that many feminists are facing abusive and threatening behaviour. You only had to see the expletive-laden signs held by trans activists outside the feminist conference last week to see the kind of intimidation these women are facing and regardless of whether you agree with what they’re saying no one should have to deal with that. If you want to write a post somewhere about the silencing of students then be my guest.

      Since my post is specifically about Peter Singer I’ll end with a link to his views on the topic – https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/07/22/philosophers-should-not-be-sanctioned-their-positions-sex-and-gender-opinion

      An excerpt below:

      “Yet none of the arguments recently made by our colleagues can reasonably be regarded as incitement or hate speech. Policy makers and citizens are currently confronting such metaphysical questions about sex and gender as What is a man? What is a lesbian? What makes someone female? Society at large is deliberating over the resolution of conflicting interests in contexts as varied as competitive sport, changing rooms, workplaces and prisons. These discussions are of great importance, and philosophers can make an essential contribution to them, in part through academic debate. Philosophers who engage in this debate should wish for it to be pursued through rational dialogue, and should refuse to accept narrow constraints on the range of views receiving serious consideration.”


      “We reject calls for censuring or deplatforming any of our colleagues on the basis of their philosophical arguments about sex and gender identity, or their social and political advocacy for sex-based rights.”

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