As a university professor and fervent advocate of academic freedom and free speech, I felt uneasy when I heard that an international group of academics is planning to launch a new journal that will publish anonymously written articles on sensitive topics.
The justification for launching the Journal of Controversial Ideas is that it will help and support academics who fear that if they publish on controversial issues they will face a backlash from members of the university community. As Jeff McMahan, Oxford professor of moral philosophy and one of the academics behind the journal, argues, it would ‘enable people whose ideas might get them into trouble either with the left or with the right or with their own university administration, to publish under a pseudonym’.
McMahan claims that the new journal is a necessary response to the censorious spirit of our times. In the current climate that pervades higher education, many academics and students hesitate before they open their mouths, many self-censor and avoid discussing topics that are deemed sensitive and controversial. Many academics have confided to me that they fear to express views that go against the prevailing consensus in case it ruins their career.
The prevalence of this self-censorship was brought home to me during the weeks following the referendum on Brexit. After I wrote an article for the Times Higher Education, which criticised the informal silencing of academics who supported Brexit, I received emails from many pro-Leave colleagues who had experienced this. But many of them wished to stay anonymous because they felt insecure about expressing their views.
My colleagues’ aspiration for anonymity is understandable. However, hiding behind anonymity is not the answer to the illiberal trends that dominate contemporary academic culture. Ideas that are anonymously communicated lose their force in the battle of ideas. Pseudonyms normalise the idea that academics should be frightened to express unpopular views. Consequently, they indirectly serve to delegitimise the views being expressed.
Ideas do not always speak for themselves. They require an author, who is prepared to stand up and explain and defend a stance on a difficult and controversial issue. If unpopular views need to be expressed anonymously, then the illiberal opponents of freedom have triumphed.
Publishing anonymously is an implicit abandonment of the fight against the policing of language and of ideas. We must confront the assumptions that legitimise censorship today. That can only be done in public, for it requires that academics do not simply argue for freedom, but actually practice it.
Unless academics are prepared to engage in public debate, they will not be able to influence their own students and help them to resist the censorious sentiments to which they are so often subjected. Academics should feel obliged to express their views – no matter how unpopular they might be.
I understand and support academics and writers in totalitarian states who choose to express their dissident views anonymously. In a totalitarian system, dissidence comes with high costs and sacrifices. But, thankfully, the current regime that dominates Anglo-American academic life is illiberal rather than totalitarian. Academics who hold unpopular views are more likely to be socially ostracised. They may face obstacles gaining employment or making progress in their careers. But that is a small price to pay for the privilege of contributing to the struggle against the enemies of academic freedom.