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'The Journal of Controversial Ideas' will launch in 2019. Is it dangerous?

Should all ideas see daylight?

Ahmed zayan on Unsplash
  • A trio of respected philosophers have decided to launch a peer reviewed journal that would allow for anonymous submissions.
  • If successful, the journal could allow for important ideas that might lead to threats or harm to the author to join the debate and promote discussion.
  • Critics ask if this is needed, and warn of giving dangerous people a safe space to publish horrific ideas.

Three very famous philosophers are teaming up to create an academic journal dedicated to ideas too controversial to put a name on. As you might expect, the concept itself has already gathered controversy.

The names behind a journal without names

Philosophers Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, and Francesca Minerva have announced their intention to create the straightforwardly named The Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will begin printing next year. The organizers are no strangers to controversial ideas themselves; Dr. Minerva received death threats in response to an essay she wrote about abortion and Peter Singer's ideas on the moral permissibility of euthanizing severely handicapped infants still leads to semi-regular protests against his speaking arrangements and academic postings.

How will it work?

The idea is for this annual journal to be just like any other interdisciplinary peer-reviewed academic journal, with the same standards and rigorous review process. The only real point of interest is that anonymous submissions will be allowed in cases where academics fear that attaching their name to a submission could lead to personal or professional harm.

At the moment, the journal's potential review board is limited, and Dr. Minerva explained to Vox that the journal wouldn't be able to properly review an article on a subject like astrophysics at this time. However, this could be seen as a mere start-up problem. If it takes off, there is little doubt that experts in other fields could be brought in.

Why do they think this is needed?

In an essay written jointly by the three founders published in The Guardian, they explain exactly why set out to do this:

"Our aim in establishing the journal is only to enable academics — particularly younger, untenured, or otherwise vulnerable academics — to have the option of publishing under a pseudonym when they might otherwise be deterred from publishing by fear of death threats (which two of us have received in response to our writings), threats to their families, or threats to their careers. Pseudonymity is optional, not required. Our intention is to publish only articles that give carefully developed reasons, arguments and evidence in support of conclusions that some may find offensive or pernicious. We will not publish work that is polemical, intentionally inflammatory or ad hominem."

Is this necessary? 

Perhaps naturally, many people object to the idea that this journal is needed.

Annabelle Timsit of Quartz explained that our perception of censorship in academia might be overblown, and pointed to a project by Sanford J. Ungar of Georgetown University that shows that incidents of students, facility, or department heads censoring speech is actually quite rare and tend to be limited to cases where the speakers are people who have given Nazi salutes and cheers in public or advocate for the death of people they don't like. Another study shows the political leanings of professors doesn't lead to censorship or have much effect on how students learn anyway. If these findings are accurate, the need for this journal would be in doubt.

Others have objected to the idea that ideas which would prompt backlash are entitled to this level of promotion and the authors to the protection of anonymity.

Professor Laleh Khalili scorned the idea on Twitter as "a journal in which to anonymously ponder racist, sexist, transphobic, pro-colonialist, pro-exploitation ideas without fear of backlash." The Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik agreed and said that the journal would be "a safe space, one where authors do not have to deal with feedback or criticism from those at the sharp end of their 'controversial" ideas.'

Of course, the fact that two of the people behind the journal have had death threats sent to them suggests that maybe a little protection for writers peddling bold ideas might be useful.

Is it a good idea?

Even if the journal is addressing an important issue, there are debates over if such a journal is the right way to deal with the problems it seeks to solve. Professors Bradley Campbell and Clay Routledge write in an article published in Quillette that they agree that people with controversial ideas are currently at risk of personal and professional harm, but do not support the tactic of producing this journal. They explain that:

"Even while we recognize these and other threats to scholars who do work viewed as controversial, we believe the creation of The Journal of Controversial Ideas is ultimately a capitulation to the academic culture that motivated scholars to feel the need to establish such a journal."

They instead suggest that we "Let every journal be a place where controversy is welcome and there will be no reason for this one."

Others have been more supportive of the idea, pointing out cases where people have been fired or treated poorly as a result of taking a controversial stance. The journal already has a board with 40 members with a variety of intellectual and ideological backgrounds, suggesting a fair amount of support. One member of the board is the conservative intellectual Robert P. George, who has disagreed with Peter Singer for years.

What do the journal's founders say?

They have responded to several critiques of their idea already.

Dr. Minerva reminds us that intellectuals have been anonymously publishing important work that could get them into trouble for centuries. Some more famous examples include Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Malthus. We still manage to have discussions about their ideas anyway, and the authors didn't get lynched; a win-win for all involved.

Singer and company fully explain why they feel the need for the journal in an essay published in The Guardian as a response to Ms. Malik's article. They restate that their goal is the promotion of debate and the prevention of self-censorship by academics that fear what would happen if they wrote something that offended somebody.

We live in a world were concerns over offending people are increasingly prevalent, and the risks of being personally and professionally ruined as a result of making a controversial statement are great. While the question of if this mandates the creation of a journal for anonymously published controversial essays remains debatable, but a debate is exactly what the philosophers behind it want.

Where should the line of censorship be drawn?


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