If Universities are Afraid of the Emperor – Are They Still Universities? The Importance of Freedom of Speech in Academia
Professor Feliks Koneczny, a Polish historian hailing from my hometown of Krakow, defined civilization as the way in which a community is organized. He distinguished numerous types of civilizations, few of them still existent. Out of those, two medieval types are of our special interest in this piece. First, Latin civilization, which Koneczny considered the highest type. Latin civilization emerged in Western Catholic Europe. It holds ethics as the source of law, separates religion from the state and values decentralization and individuality. Second, the Byzantine civilization. This type subjects every aspect of life, including organized religion, to state power. The legal government has absolute authority.
Civilization theory flourished a century ago and may have traits we currently regard as outdated. It may be criticised by individualists as collectively describing all the people living in a certain area as having the same ethical standards. However, I will merely use it here as a slightly simplified description of social phenomena, and strictly speaking of one particular phenomenon.
Autonomy for the Bologna Studium
In the below quoted fragment of Umberto Eco’s novel ‘Baudilino’, one can distinguish certain echoes of professor Koneczny’s theory. Baudolino, a witty peasant boy from Italy adopted by the emperor Frederick I and educated in Paris, talks to Greek Byzantine government official Niketas while Constantinopole is burning with the Fourth Crusade. We see how the Latin West, in which secular and ecclesial power are independent and competing, and where truth and ethics are more important than dogmas and ideologies, meets the Byzantine East, with its strong state power centrally dominating all aspects of life and being the highest instance continuously expanding its laws:
In brief (Baudolino said, so as not to bore Niketas with the masterpieces of imperial, judical, and ecclesiastical oratory), four doctors of Bologna, pupils of the great Irnerius, were invited by the emperor to express an unchallengeable doctrinal opinion on his powers. And three of them, Bulgarus, Jacopus, and Hugo of Porta Ravegnana, expressed themselves as Frederick wished: namely, that the right of the emperor was based on Roman law. Only a certain Martinus was of a different opinion.
¨And Frederick had then to gouge out his eyes¨, Niketas commented.
¨Oh, not at all, Master Niketas¨, Baudolino replied, ¨You Romei gouge out the eyes of this man and that and you have no idea where the law stands anymore, forgetting your great Justinian. Immediately afterwards, Frederick promulgated the Constitutio Habita, with which the autonomy of the Bologna studium was recognized, and if the studium was autonomous, then Martinus could say what he wanted and not even the emperor could touch a hair of his head. For if he had, then the doctors were no longer autonomous, and if they weren’t autonomous then their opinion was worthless, and Frederick risked passing for a usurper¨
Now, the Bologna studium consisted of the XIIth century’s elite. In today’s world, these scholars would pursue an Ivy League law degree. As a modern European scientist, I am unsettled by both the quote and the presented theory and history. Would their eyes and hair still be safe today? Which way of organizing our ethics, priorities and power is optimal for science and for a broadly understood exchange of thought? How should academia really work?
The Primacy of Truth
The progress and advancement of science, be it empirical or deductive, is based upon the quest for truth and open debate. Each sentence is to be discussed and subjected to scrutiny, this approach serving also as argumentation training.
Since the value held at the highest regard shall be truth, science cannot be dependent on any kind of power – one may liken it to the autonomous Bologna studium. This is inseparably linked with uncompromised freedom of speech, treating students and the public as responsible adults capable of assessing what is right.
If universities would fall under anyone’s political agenda, scientists would sacrifice truth for obedience and turn into political agitators instead. The road to actual knowledge would then close down to those members of society that are shaped by such “academia”.
Given the requirement of the primacy of truth, science should be autonomous, independent and separated from the state, similarly to the Catholic church in the Latin civilization. And every, even the slightest turn to dominating state power that controls every aspect of life and holds its own ideology at the highest end, should set off an alarm.
Slipping into the Byzantine ways
Now, using the mildly simplifying language of civilization theory, I pose a question: in which civilization are we living now?
Are universities separate from the state? Is truth in primacy? Is freedom of speech uncompromised – can professors say what they want and not even the emperor can touch a hair of their head? I am deeply afraid not. The modern western world is quickly slipping into the Byzantine ways, where all means are justified to achieve political goals. And my personal experience (I am a geophysicist, so no ideology can possibly shape my results!) makes me concerned about the perspectives of academia.
If we gravitate towards a political structure with a strong religion-like ideology dripping its venom into universities and then young minds – how far advanced are we on that road to serfdom? One of the worrisome traits and indicators of such a process is when public debate shifts its accents from thinking into feelings.
The agenda of an eye-gouging, mind-controlling power would be to make people afraid of saying what they think, to refrain from addressing difficult topics and expressing unpopular opinions, to make them renounce the truth as their highest value. And the terror of possibly hurting someone’s feelings while making those feelings a collective instead of an individual issue, is being used strategically to achieve this agenda. It then becomes easy to steer people into saying only what is in the interest of any current Leviathan.
Words as violence
This is especially easily done in one move: Expanding the notion of violence into words. Creating a cult of sensitivity, making us pay attention not to what is right, but to what is nice, since saying something not nice enough would offend the interlocutor, and that already is violence.
How shall we know when we may be offensive? Certain topics will instantly become taboo. I remember a lecture concerning gender ratios in exact science, where I was the first person to say that professors should hire whoever they want and any top-bottom given requirements considering gender should be called properly – namely, sexist. Only after my comment did people who shared a similar view find the courage to speak up (thanking me afterwards). Without it, they would probably never have raised their hands. If everyone was afraid in that way, the situation would grow nearly perfect for totalitarian power: The opposition could never communicate and never know their number.
We currently live in a world where a Nobel laureate loses his job over something that he said. Where we must witness the recent Berkeley campus madness. And where all the degrading and sexist science meetings just for women make me wonder if I, a woman, am being treated seriously and really hired because of what is between my ears.
Doesn’t this sound Byzantine? Isn’t political correctness the religion-like ideology that is used to expand control and penetrate our lives? Freedom of speech seems to be slowly and subtly euthanized. Should we be scared for our eyes?
This deeply rooted cult of “niceness” can now be legislated, creating privileged groups that will turn into “holy cows” of whom nothing remotely unpleasant can be said. A notion detached from reality, since a group cannot be “offended” – only an individual can.
It’s nothing different than treating adult scientists like children that cannot handle their own emotions. It is manipulating human beings into having no opinions of their own and asking no questions. And that is why we have to speak up.
The exact sciences will hold, but the rest will turn into agitators of another overregulated and mad system – until it goes bankrupt. Unless we seek truth and education outside of the system, for instance by financing our own universities. The truth is supposed to be tough, and if it is offensive, so be it.
Agnieszka Plonka comes from Krakow, Poland. She is currently a PhD student in geophysics at Utrecht University, sharing time between the Netherlands and Switzerland. Since 2014 she does editing and publishing work for Polish libertarian website Libertarianin.org. She is interested in philosophy, history and sharing the ideas of freedom.
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