Against Freedom of Speech in Higher Education: A Response to Germaine Greer

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Universities should not provide platforms for claims that cannot be tested and improved, and denying Germaine Greer a platform to speak conforms with the basic values of education, writes Timothy Laurie.

If universities existed for the sole purpose of collating opinion, then classrooms could be cheaply replaced by Twitter accounts, and education budgets around the world could be fixed.

It’s true that as you read this, tutorials everywhere are buzzing with one-liners and home-spun truths that, in times of controversy, we defend in the name of freedom of speech. But when students submit essays filled with claims that cannot be tested or improved upon, they can still be failed, no matter how charismatic their classroom persona.

Failing a student is not censorship. It is safeguarding basic criteria for producing and circulating knowledge that can be used to build further knowledge.

Universities are not mere clearing houses for any thoughts we happen to have. They accredit, they confer status, and they provide powerful gatekeeping functions, from undergraduate entry scores to PhD examiners’ reports.

Without criteria to guide these functions, universities could freely transform pure opinions into recognised facts, common sense, and even government policy.

The freedom to be grossly misinformed by a higher education institution is no freedom at all. This is why “no-platforming” Germaine Greer matters to many in higher education.

Greer has recently argued, under the rubric of opinion, that people with transgender histories are not “real women”: “I’m not saying people should not be allowed to go through that procedure [sex-change surgery]. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. That happens to be my opinion, not a prohibition.”

She has also followed up this assertion, again in the perfectly respectable language of the ‘I think’: “I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. A perfectly permissable view. I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman. We don’t really know what women are and I think that a lot of women are female impersonators, because our notion of who we are is not authentic, and so I am not surprised men are better at impersonating women than women are.”

Like Greer, many people hold the belief that there are “real women” and “impersonating” women, and only those classified as women at birth (cis-gendered women) are “real women”.

This belief cannot be proven or disproven, because “real women” is a cultural fiction. The notion cannot be tested or improved upon, just as we cannot improve our true knowledge of wizards or unicorns.

As Cordelia Fine has shown, scientific studies constantly try and constantly fail to discover a biological essence of “real woman”, and what they mostly discover are the sexist biases of other scientists.

Since at least the early 1980s, gender and sexuality studies has been perfectly capable of investigating and challenging sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, without recourse to “real women”. The wide variety of really-existing body types and gender identifications is well documented.

There is a fundamental gap between the plurality of real bodily differences, and the binary construction of cultural masculinity and cultural femininity. No number of opinions about bodies will change this.

But haven’t universities taught us that truths are relative, and that open discussion is the key to progress in knowledge?

Yes and no. It’s true that every discipline, once in a while, is shaken to the core by a complete revolution in its core beliefs. Such revolutions only happen, however, because the previous ways of thinking were capable of being tested.

Academic knowledge must contain the conditions for its own improvement. A student who mislabels the 10,000BC to 2000BC period as Palaeolithic can be corrected: the better label is Neolithic. In being corrected, the student improves their understanding of both terms, Palaeolithic and Neolithic.

But a student who refers to this period as Gogolithic has forfeited the benefits of an academic conversation. Nothing can be learnt from this mistake except the removal of one word and its replacement by another.

An archaeologist who confuses Palaeolithic and Neolithic would be a poor academic. One who uses Gogolithic would not be an academic at all.

Truths are constantly changing, but they only change in the right directions because we can distinguish between established truths, plausible truths, and mere Gogoliths.

From the viewpoint of contemporary feminist scholarship, Germaine Greer lives on a Gogolithic island.

The language of free speech confuses this issue. Journalists at the Guardian, the ABC, the Economist and Spiked have championed freedom of speech in relation to Germain Greer’s right to have a platform at high profile universities.

No doubt, higher education in general would suffer if students were not exposed to healthy news media cultures with the free circulation of opinion.

The journalistic conception of free speech cannot be applied to universities. Students are free to submit terrible essays, and academics are free to fail them. This isn’t censorship: it’s the mandate of any educational institution.

Germaine Greer is also free to write books, and academics are free to deny her a speaking platform. This isn’t censorship, either. It’s just one way of failing someone who refuses to learn the basic features of academic inquiry.

Germaine Greer’s attacks on transgender women are deplorable because of the high incidents of hate crime already directed at the transgender community. But universities have other good reasons for denying her a platform.

In pursuing the cultural fiction of “real women”, Greer also attacks the discipline of feminism, and she attacks the university itself.

If Germaine Greer wants to speak about “real women” in an academic context, she needs to revise and resubmit her recent work on a pass/fail basis.

This isn’t censorship – it’s simply education.

Timothy Laurie

Dr Timothy Laurie is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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