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"Intellectual Diversity" vs. Academic Freedom

libertarians should not defend the concept of "intellectual diversity"

Forum: SWOP-USA list
Date: 04/13/2007

[Below is an exchange over Virginia Commonwealth University provost and vice president's decision to prohibit Sex Workers' Art Show to be hosted at the institution, in response to complaints from students' parents and local politicians.]

On Mar 30, 2007, at 11:27 AM, [name removed] wrote:

Gee, I wonder if there's the same level of outrage about college/university money going toward supporting the "anti's" events, such as paying "anti's" to come and speak or the feminist anti-pornography conference that appeared to be presented by Wheelock College. Is there the same level of outrage about colleges/universities paying professors, such as Gail Dines and Katherine MacKinnon, to be on the faculty and promote their anti-sex work agendas? If the anti's have the right to be on college/university campuses, then so do we. It seems like there's a major double standard going on.

Actually, anti-porn/anti-prostitution feminist scholars and speakers aren't necessarily loved by universities either, and their academic positions and credentials are constantly being challenged.

Further, I'm weary of the argument that says "if the anti-porn speakers/scholars have the right to be on campus, so do the other side"--this is precisely the rhetoric of the so-called "intellectual diversity" movement, which is funded and coordinated by far-right think tanks and foundations, and is arguably the worst threat facing academic freedom today. If you don't know what I'm talking about, google "intellectual diversity" and you'll see what I mean. We need to stay as far away as possible from these folks.

Also, while the Sex Workers Art Show is intended to be about breaking down stereotypes and raising awareness, I've heard at more than a few campuses that many students perceived it simply as a strip show that is slightly preachy. Conversations like "did you see the strip show last night?" are common, according to the students I've spoken to. So I can't really say that some parents' responses or the school's position that the content of the show was not something administrators' had expected are completely unreasonable. (I don't mean to defend their banning of SWAS though--I think it should be up to the students, not parents, administrators or politicians, to decide whether or not to invite SWAS again.)

- ek

Date: 04/14/2007

On Apr 14, 2007, at 3:16 AM, Starchild wrote:

The movement for intellectual diversity isn't just supported by the far right. Lots of Libertarians, as well as principled people on the left, support it too. Partly because our views also tend to be shut out at American universities, but also because it's the right thing to do.


Besides, more than a few sex workers think conservatives have some good points, just as leftists do. [snip] But even if you believe in using government aggression to forcibly redistribute wealth, and additionally don't believe in the right to self-defense or any of the other freedoms typically advocated by people on the right, it's pretty hard to argue with the idea that university campuses should generally be places where students can be exposed to a wide range of political and intellectual views, rather than places where a single ideology dominates, whether it be liberal, conservative, libertarian, or whatever.


Obviously, if you define "intellectual diversity" to mean students' individual freedom to express their political views freely, then many people other than the far right would support such thing. But that is precisely how the far right deceives the public: when they say intellectual diversity, they aren't actually promoting more freedom, but less. What they advocate for isn't tolerance for unpopular political views, as they sometimes claim, but the suppression of academic freedom on campuses.

I can see that you are using the term "intellectual diversity" to mean something other than what is being promoted on campuses by the nationally coordinated far-right political machine, but it's disingenuous to not acknowledge that the vast majority of those proclaiming such position want to shut out libertarian views as well as liberal ones. And what are libertarians doing defending a political movement that believes in using government aggression to forcibly redistribute political expression on campuses anyway?

If it is the suppression of conservative or libertarian views (or any political views for that matter) that you are concerned about, then we already have the language for that: freedom of speech, or academic freedom in the case of speech on campuses. The "intellectual diversity" movement is not about freedom, but about promotion of far-right political ideology and the censorship of political views of college professors and student groups alike.

- ek

In April 2009, the person quoted above wrote me to request an opportunity to respond to my comment. Her response is posted below.

Date: 04/14/2009

Hi Emi:

Thank you for offering me the opportunity to respond to your critique of my message concerning the Sex Workers Art Show, which I posted on a SWOP e-mail listserv. Though the comments were posted about 2 years ago, I just noticed the message on your website. I'll begin by saying I didn't write that message as an "intellectual elitist" comment. Rather, I wrote it as a very informal, heartfelt message in which I wished to share my feelings after learning about SWAS being banned from the Virginia Commonwealth University campus in 2007.

I've read various pieces you've written and I almost always agree with you. However, I disagree with your critique of my message. To start with, I agree that not everybody on college/university campuses supports the viewpoints of anti-sex work scholars and feminists, and I realize that they are being challenged. I never denied nor negated this in my message, but this doesn't mean that "we're all in the same boat" or that it's just the same for everybody. For example, politicians aren't directly trying to block anti-sex work scholars and feminists from being on college/university campuses, but some politicians have taken such actions against SWAS. I'm not saying that politicians should try to ban anti-sex work scholars and feminists from college/university campuses, but my point is that politicians don't also react to anti-sex work feminists and scholars in that way.

Furthermore, my heart guided me as I wrote the message you critiqued, not some "intellectual diversity" movement that I've never even heard of before you brought it up when critiquing my comments. I wasn't intellectualizing my comments on that level while writing them, nor did I have any desire to. However, after reading your critique of my message, I educated myself about the "intellectual diversity" movement and came to the conclusion that my comments were much more consistent with academic freedom than "intellectual diversity." "Intellectual diversity" is legislative jargon focused on regulating how academic subjects are taught and hiring as well as promotions for faculty, with an emphasis on giving conservatives more power. That's not what my message was about.

Additionally, I don't agree that comments like "if anti-sex work scholars and feminists can speak on campus, so can we" are conservative statements. Not all rhetoric fits into this "liberal vs. conservative" dichotomy. Groups on various sides of the political spectrum have used this type of rhetorical technique to assert their voices on college campus. Though I recognize that the "intellectual diversity" movement has taken some of the rhetoric from the academic freedom movement and used it to promote a conservative agenda, that doesn't make such rhetorical strategies inherently conservative. This reminds me of how some Christian fundamentalists have taken rhetoric from anti-sex work scholars and feminists, and used this rhetoric to promote their conservative platforms.

Academic freedom has various components, and a major component of academic freedom is integrating the voices of marginalized groups who have been traditionally silenced or excluded from dominant academic discourse. I consider sex workers to be among such groups, yet I'm careful not to collapse all sex workers together or ignore differences among sex workers.

Also, even if stripping occurs during SWAS, that doesn't counter the purposes of breaking down stereotypes or raising awareness. People may interpret SWAS in various ways, but I consider SWAS to be a very sex positive and empowering artistic event. Furthermore, people have also disrobed in plays on college/university campuses outside of SWAS, and figure models have undressed in art classes. You also mentioned hearing students from more than a few campuses refer to SWAS "simply as a strip show that is slightly preachy," but I'm curious about what other types of comments you've heard from students.

I'd like to end my response by thanking you for having this excellent website and for the advocacy you do. I often feel so much positive energy and empowerment when visiting your website and reading your insight. Keep up the great work.

- [name removed]

In September 2012, the same individual contacted me again, this time requesting the removal of her name. I complied.