Academic Freedom: Anti-gay Opinions vs. Anti-gay Untruths

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[2/28/10 - This post has been selected as a semifinalist for being one of the Best of the 2009 Just Posts! Please check out the other nominees!]

From an article at Inside Higher Ed:

Should someone who teaches human rights back human rights for all people?

That’s the question being raised by some students at New York University’s law school, who are upset that a visiting professor in the fall semester, slated to teach human rights law, is Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Thio has argued repeatedly and graphically that her country should continue to criminalize gay sexual acts.

In a speech to lawmakers in Singapore, Thio said that gay sex is “contrary to biological design and immoral,” argued that gay people can change their sexual orientation, said that anal sex is “like shoving a straw up your nose to drink,” and rejected arguments based on a diversity of sexual orientations by saying that “diversity is not license for perversity.” (The text of her talk is here, and YouTube video is available in three parts — here and here and here.)

I would always defend the idea of academic freedom. Truly, only by having opposing views do we challenge ourselves to investigate and expand the breadth of human understanding.  I would never expect any kind of censorship in the college classroom.

However, I do see a difference between different points of view and misinformation.  I think that all professors teaching in any field should be held to the same accountability for the claims they make and the lessons they teach.  I would argue that not everything that Thio professes measures up to that intellectual standard, so my claim against her would not be that she shouldn’t be teaching law, but that she should refrain from attempting to teach psychology, sociology, or biology.

For example, Thio would probably struggle to find research that supports her claim that gay sex is contrary to biological design.  If anything, she is dreadfully close to Ray Comfort territory.  I would counter such a claim with an article published last month demonstrating plenty of evidence that homosexual behavior is evolved and furthers the survival of a species.

Her claim that gay sex is immoral is totally an opinion, but not a very reasonable one given how much evidence there is demonstrating the psychological damage incurred when trying to change a person’s orientation.  All of the top psychological and psychiatric organizations (such as the APA, among others) condemn such reparative therapy and hold that sexual orientation cannot be changed (here is the NGLTF’s Challenging the Ex-Gay Movement information packet).  By suggesting otherwise, she is essentially espousing lies to further her agenda.

That is the problem that I see with “Academic Freedom.”  We humor claims and are afraid to challenge them.  We confuse views with facts.  We favor public opinion over scientific opinion.  In many ways, the same folks who use “Academic Freedom” to protect their bias also depend on religious privilege (the undeserved respect of beliefs) to do the same.  When challenge arises, they are quick to call themselves victims of  intolerance (see Victim Meme) with little regard to the intolerance they promote.

Another great example of such abuse of academic freedom is Robert P. George, a law professor at Princeton University who also happens to be Chairman of the Board for the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM).  In a recent “interview,” (I use quotes because it is in a publication whose President is on the board of NOM, so not a whole lot of cutting-edge journalism taking place here), George tells us what the fight for marriage equality is really all about:

It is about sex. The idea that is antithetical to those who are seeking to redefine marriage is that there is something uniquely good and morally upright about the chaste sexual union of husband and wife—something that is absent in sodomitical acts and in other forms sexual behavior that have been traditionally—and in my view correctly—regarded as intrinsically non-marital and, as such, immoral.

Later in the interview, George talks about how he challenges the assumptions his students make.  My question is: who challenges the assumptions George makes?  Who is holding him accountable for claims like “there is something uniquely good and morally upright” about heterosexual marriage?  How does he defend that claim?  And similarly, how does he defend his claim that same goodness is not apparent in same-sex relations (or “sodomitical” acts, as he calls them, without prejudice, I’m sure)?  Truthfully, his words (and support of NOM) are detrimental to the LGBT community, so where are the all the social scientists that could refute these “correct” views of his?

Academic institutions are the places where such controversy are supposed to unfold.  Tradition is not proof of anything, and I think we all have a duty to hold fellow scholars accountable.  Academic freedom, I would argue, is not a freedom from being challenged as Thio and George might like to claim; academic freedom is the freedom to challenge notions.

Thio and George should be free to teach, but when they teach untruths based on their personal agendas, I think we have a responsibility to call them out on it instead of turning the other way.

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