The “Journal of Controversial Ideas”

  • We want to incentivise courage in the holding and expressing of views. You’ve all seen what happens to keyboard warriors when they can write pseudonymously or anonymously — all standards of fair argumentation, and even civility, quickly fall by the wayside. This will likely not be the case in an academic journal, but the point is that being accountable for one’s words provides a handbrake for debate and argument, where we take care to not say things that might impair our reputations and other long-term interests, including our interests in making certain conclusions seem attractive to others.
  • Related to the above: a journal like this is likely to instantly become a magnet for repulsive views, by which I mean views that aren’t simply repulsive because they offend our sensibilities, but because they are unfounded and also harmful to society. I’m wary of giving examples, because you, dear reader, might think we still need to be having “frank discussions” about slavery, but, for example, if you happen to be a person who still thinks that one group of people is innately superior to another, you’d currently be restricted to publishing that opinion on Reddit, rather than in an academic journal. I don’t doubt that the editors and reviewers of this journal intend to avoid becoming an academic Breitbart, but that conclusion might be difficult to avoid.
  • Following on from that, the right-wing scare stories about the “intolerance of the left”, spurred on by the likes of Milo, Shapiro, Peterson and so forth, are validated by the creation of this journal, while in actual fact this intolerance might not be anywhere near as widespread as might be required to create this new platform. One could say, for example, that Minerva was mistreated (as I think she was), while also saying that in most instances, there already exist platforms to express controversial views, and that pushback against those views — if non-threatening and within the bounds of acceptable debate — is par for the course. This response confirms the scare-stories that academia is no longer a safe space for debate, while for most of us, it still is.
  • There are practical problems regarding things like promotion and tenure (because you need to be registered as an author for things like subsidies, if your academic structures have those, and you need to be registered as an author for citations of your work to be counted, which is still a key metric for measuring your “value”). It will be difficult to track this with pseudonymous or anonymous submissions.
  • Lastly, and related to the point about confirming the right-wing scare-stories above, this could be accused of capitulating to the idea that truth is demotic, in that it sends the signal that academic activity should, or needs to be, responsive to what an outraged mob says on Twitter. In philosophy, in particular, a lot of the work involves testing ideas, or toying with arguments to check for consistency, without necessarily subscribing to certain conclusions that could be derived from those ideas. You can’t do this work as effectively if you know that you’ll be held responsible for the worst possible interpretation of those ideas and arguments.

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Synapses

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Jacques Rousseau lectures critical thinking & ethics (University of Cape Town), and co-authored “Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience” (Springer 2016).