Academic freedom should not bind us to our beliefs, but should free us to explore potential new futures, new cultural realities, and to join in a production of tomorrow.
It is not intellectual, it is not scholarly, nor is it academic, to silence again any population who has been silenced before. It is not intellectual, it is not scholarly, nor is it academic, to not budge when new voices arrive on the scene. By making an argument that those new voices should sit comfortably within the white, cisgender, ivied halls of our institutions, that they should not shift or change the very nature of our debates, that they should not challenge us to learn something new, to reinvent in order to include… If we make that argument, we underestimate and doom education. We underestimate and doom ourselves. And worst of all, we underestimate and doom the objects of those debates.
Academic discourse is not about silence. But let’s get something straight. If you are white, if you are heterosexual, if you are cisgender, your voice has been heard. By which I am not saying you should stop speaking. But by which I am saying that there are voices rich with experience and knowledge and capacity and insight that have not yet been heard. And if you say, “Well, let’s debate then,” and if you say “Well, join the fray of academic discourse then,” but you do not acknowledge that your megaphone is more resonant and your platform wider and higher than the voices of trans folk, or Islamic folk, or Black and brown folk, or indigenous folk, or disabled folk, or neurodivergent folk, or queer folk of any stripe, you are willfully blinding yourself to the truth.
We do not debate the rights of others to name themselves, to embody the gender of their identity. We do not. We do not debate the rights of others to to protest the reading of another dead white, cis, straight male author, researcher, poet. We do not debate that. We do not debate that we cannot know another’s experience until we sit with them and listen and try to understand. We do not debate that. Because we cannot debate personhood.
And to all who signed the recent open letter in the Times: shame. For at some point in history—unless you are a white, cis, straight male—your personhood was once debated by someone who did not experience life as you do. History is full of academics and scholars and intellectuals who, at one point or another, wondered from the privileged vantage of their podiums and lecture halls about the personhood of women, the personhood of Black and brown people, the personhood of Asian folk, the personhood of Jewish folk, the personhood of Muslims, the personhood of indigenous folk, the personhood of the disabled, the personhood of the mentally ill, the personhood of LGBTQ+ folk. Academics, scholars, intellectuals subjected those groups to an expectation to prove themselves, to measure up to the rigor invented by white, cis, straight men, to show themselves worthy of that company.
Shall you enter those halls of history and reenact the biased, privileged debate about the right of others to be themselves? And if you will, shame on you. This is not what your educations were for.
According to the Cambridge Union, debate “allows us to consider the world around us by thinking about different arguments, engaging with opposing views and speaking strategically.” This, the signers of the transphobic open letter say, is what the Stonewall Diversity Champions program threatens: the ability of academics to disagree with rules mandating the fair treatment of LGBTQ+ students. Diversity training, they claim, threatens their livelihoods.
Put bluntly, calling trans people by their names and pronouns is suicide prevention. This is what diversity training provides for. We should be glad for the opportunity. And if teachers are unwilling to prevent the suicide of their students by joining them as allies in their work to be fully human, perhaps those teachers should consider whether they are built for classroom practice.
Three points I’d like to make:
- Diversity training is grounded in non-hypothetical research done with, for, and/or by LGBTQ+ people. It has grounding in sociological, psychological, and anthropological research. It is evidence-based, informed by LGBTQ+ narratives, and founded on ideals of freedom and integrity to which most universities ascribe or aspire.
- Learning to speak appropriately about, to work appropriately with, and to acknowledge through your actions, speech, and your own silence that there is a value underrepresented and too often unseen in your LGBTQ+ colleagues is a gift granted by your academic freedom. These do not limit you, they liberate you.
- We must likewise acknowledge that our institutions and their practices—such as debate—are grounded in the imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy which has established such practices in order to defend itself. My quoting the Cambridge Union is as ironic as it is intentional, for when we truly include those we are most afraid to include, doing so could (and should) change what “debate” means and how it is enacted.
Academic freedom should not bind us to our beliefs, but should free us to explore potential new futures, new cultural realities, and to join in a production of tomorrow. What does a feminist debate look like? How do we queer a debate? What options to imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy do we have? Only by deciding to allow to be changed our most hallowed, hierarchical traditions will we ever find out.
We do a disservice to ourselves by writing open letters like that one in the Sunday Times. We blunt our intellects, we stifle our questions, we remove ourselves from the production of tomorrow. We deny our own rights when we deny the rights of others.
Shall we instead decide that what is intellectual, what is scholarly, what is academic is brilliant with the voices of many, rather than the staid reluctance of a few who are afraid to change, who are unwilling to bet their careers on equity, who turn aside from the aggressions of history in order to let those aggressions thrive? Let us be educators who intervene, and who perpetuate the arc of history toward justice.