Self-Censorship in the University: A Breach of Academic Freedom

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.

“The modern university should be unconditional. By ‘modern university,’ we mean the one whose European model, after a rich and complex medieval history, has become prevalent, that is to say, ‘classical,’ for two centuries, in states of a democratic type. This truth requires and should be recognized in principle, in addition to what is called academic freedom, an unconditional freedom of questioning and proposals, and even more the right to say publicly all that is required for research, knowledge and truthful thinking. … The university makes a profession of truth.”

—Jacques Derrida, in L’Université sans Condition, éd. Galilée, Paris, 2001.

A Broken Dream
This dream of Derrida’s—great deconstructor of concepts—to see the birth of a university “without condition,” a space of critical resistance aiming at building a new humanity, seems today in difficulty. To build a new humanity, such is the fundamental concern of the dreamed knowledge. The university, following the example of the Enlightenment, would be endowed with an unconditional right to question everything, especially the concept of man in its totality. There is no guide but knowledge, nothing but knowledge; hence this resistance to all powers whatever they are (church, state, institutions …). Nothing escapes questioning and everything must be said publicly.

Derrida’s thesis is simple: It is in the space of the “new humanities” that another concept of man can be elaborated. But this thesis also suggests a whole program, required by this profession of faith in the university and in the humanities of tomorrow. What institutions should be built to establish this unconditionality?

Derrida’s thesis is simple: It is in the space of the “new humanities” that another concept of man can be elaborated.

How can we understand these profound mutations in progress (globalization, virtualization techniques, “cyberdemocracy,” the status of sovereignty, the reaffirmation of human rights and performative advances)? It is up to the university, Derrida maintains, to cultivate this space of resistance and invention. It is within it that everything must be questioned, put at a distance, deconstructed.

This quest suggests the cultivation and protection of democratic freedoms: freedom of conscience, of teaching, of research, of creation, freedom for the professor to exercise his professorial functions far from given dogmas or doctrines. Indeed, nothing is taboo, hence the freedom to criticize society, institutions, doctrines, dogmas, laws, public policies, university policies….

Democracy and Relativism of Values

This ideal of unconditionality is now threatened by a creeping relativism of values carried by claims made in the name of equality, inclusion and respect for the various markers of diversity, within academic institutions. Proponents of this trend claim to be concerned that certain materials and activities at the university are likely to undermine the identity of certain communities. (See a related article, “Self-Censorship in Arab Higher Education: an Untold Problem.”)

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In an investigation of this phenomenon, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted in an article published on July  29, 2020, a number of cases of censorship, threats and violence that have posed obstacles to freedom of expression in French universities. Here is a non-exhaustive list of this difficulty of freedom of expression: a conference on Napoleon, canceled; an ancient Greek play, postponed; a course on the prevention of “radicalization,” also postponed.

Numerous events and demonstrations in French universities and colleges have been canceled, following threats made by some students or activists to school officials. Several conferences were disrupted, such as that of the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, at the  University of Bordeaux–Montaigne, who was reproached for her opposition to medically assisted procreation.

Numerous events and demonstrations in French universities and colleges have been canceled, following threats made by some students or activists to school officials.

Carole Talon-Hugon, a philosopher of aesthetics, who was invited to speak at France’s National School of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson about her last book on censorship in art, was surprised to see posters posted everywhere calling for a boycott of her lecture.

The list is long. What bothers most is that many teachers prefer silence and self-censorship to defending the values that are the foundation of the university.

Meaningless Monologue

It goes without saying that this rise in sectarian activism, claiming for itself the freedom of expression that it denies to others, has been associated with indigenous, decolonial and anti-speciesism movements. This phenomenon should alert us, especially when we are faced with a clear-cut dichotomy between a “camp of good” and a “camp of evil” and especially when the “camp of good” arrogates to itself the “right” to forbid speech for all those who do not think like them. At this rate, many subjects have become sensitive and, as Talon-Hugon rightly remarks, there is a fear that Descartes, the father of rationalism, will no longer be studied because he compared animals to machines. The same is true of Aristotle, for whom “slaves were not men.”

Instead of a constructive dialogue, we prefer a collective monologue that is flat and meaningless.

Hmaid Ben Aziza is secretary general of UniMed, the Mediterranean Universities Union, and a former president of the University of Tunis.


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