The Desire for Uniformity Against the Mission of the University

The debates and issues surrounding “cancel culture” in our universities are often presented as related to freedom of expression. The real basic problem lies rather in the dangers of the homogenization of the academy which endangers the plurality of opinions and the centrality of the conflicts essential to the scientific method and to the work of the researcher.

For many authors, notably the German Wilhelm von Humboldt in the 19th century and the Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset in the early 20th century, the strength of Europe was born from the intrinsic plurality and diversity of the cultures that made it up.

It was these perpetual conflicts that were the basis of its ardor and that explained the incredible extent of scientific, moral and artistic developments which took place there from the Renaissance to modern times. Because the exit from the Middle Ages, there, was achieved through the growing pluralization of a society that for a long time was only homogeneous.

However, the value of the conflict does not apply, for these authors, only to Europe, but also to the individual who must, in order to develop his capacities, multiply occupations, concerns and ideas. From diversity is born the vigor of the intellect: it keeps us from the complacency in which any mind that surrenders to it necroses itself.

We can apply this idea to the university conceived as a space for the production of knowledge and which wishes, above all, to produce knowledge of a quality that has been tested and proven by its constant questioning, by its perpetual conflict with other knowledge. The fundamental work of academics in all disciplines often boils down to this: opposing positions, models and hypotheses in order to confirm, invalidate or modify them. This happens as much in the natural sciences as in the humanities, for there lies the deep essence of this scientific method which has given us so much, from increased longevity to a better understanding of the structure of our prejudices.

However, it is precisely against this method, against this mindset, that all these students, of whom a recent column by Isabelle Hachey testified, who find it legitimate that works are not put on the program because of the presence of words which can shock, or which consider reasonable to lynch on the web a professor (the case Lieutenant-Duval) who pronounces this famous word in n, even though she was working to emancipate, by her other actions, those who have been designated by the word in question for too long.

The problem is often presented as falling under “freedom of expression” and obviously it touches on it, but as the majority of authors who have seriously considered it have recognized, freedom of expression admits of limits (even JS Mill, who nevertheless wrote the catechism of modern freedom, On Liberty, recognized its limits). Freedom of speech is not absolute, and its limits differ depending on the spheres in which it is examined (for example, in the army, in a Church or in the newspapers). In short, freedom of expression is not a “moral wild card” that can be invoked as soon as our speech is constrained.

The basic problem is rather the “type” of student and researcher whose production is encouraged when university administrations, like professors, bow down to these demands. It is by no means certain that the ideal of knowledge will be served, if it is produced by individuals who are increasingly unwilling to recognize the value of the scientific method, that is, willing to recognize a plurality of points of view.

On the contrary, “cancel culture” encourages homogeneity of knowledge and complacency: it is, quite literally, medieval. And there is a very serious risk that the theories and explanations of phenomena which do not pass the test of rigorous and open discussion are accepted as valid. Note, maybe these theories would pass this test, but can we really be sure without it?

On the other hand, a researcher cannot knowingly, as a researcher, turn a blind eye to works which might be repugnant to his opinions, for he might very well find in them a reasonable invalidation of his ideas. We are too modern to accept as legitimate these thought mechanisms which have long legitimized the geocentric model.

However, we are also too honest with ourselves, as intellectuals, to believe that censorship and “cancellation” are the preserve of the identity left alone. This frame of mind is also found among a certain right (one can think in particular of the writings of Mathieu Bock-Côté) who systematically refuses to consider in a charitable manner the writings and the theses of the academic left which they reject, preferring to substitute for an honest recreation of the scary adjectives argument. Perhaps they do not call for censorship, but the systematic discrediting, even their reduction to the absurd, of certain theses and ideas does not have far from having the same effect. (Who wants to read Michel Foucault when presented as the hero of a hateful left “woke”)? Thus, on both sides of our intellectual scene, both on the left and on the right, some are guilty of this great intellectual vice of refusal to engage. This, which testifies to a flawed disposition of mind of the researcher, necroses the quality of the research and the opinion of the left as well as the right.

Criticism, discussion, and research admit no necessary results: they do not have to produce predetermined results or those consistent with a certain conception of the good life. But criticism, discussion and research admit of certain rules of the art: a charitable, open and honest disposition of mind. In short, they involve recognizing, when one indulges in them, that the other might be right.

Fortunately, this tendency towards closed-mindedness and homogeneity of positrons in the student body is not inevitable. On the one hand, we are talking here, on the left and on the right, of a minority, on the other hand, it has never been given to me to meet a professor currently in office who shared this way of thinking. But there is something to be apprehensive about, as this minority is incredibly vocal and powerful, intimidating colleague and faculty alike, which could lead some highly qualified and research-passionate students to opt for another career, if not to pay. in populism out of resentment. We would find ourselves, as a society, all impoverished.

Because finally, to return to Ortega y Gasset, Europe became impoverished at the beginning of the 20th century when it became homogeneous, when the “masses” invaded it. In fact, it was the authoritarianisms of the century that succeeded this homogenization in many nations.

But for now, without sinking into fatalism, the real problem, if things continue like this, perhaps ultimately and simply is the emergence of a generation of researchers who will not be able to search.

GM