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Racist research must be named, but often allowed

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In a recent open letter, many Princeton faculty members call on the University to acknowledge the inadequacy of our efforts toward anti-racism up to now, and to do much more going forward. I agree with the overall message of this historic and important letter. I am grateful to see so many of my colleagues make this demand. But the letter also calls for the formation of a committee of faculty members who would investigate and punish racist research. I cannot support this call.   

What would justify the formation of such a committee? Let’s start with an obvious truth: if research is racist, then it is immoral. Proponents of the committee might make this claim: any research that is immoral constitutes research misconduct, and thus warrants punishment by the University. As a moral philosopher and an academic, I think it is important to see that this claim is false. Research misconduct is one kind of immorality. But there are many kinds of immorality — and there are many ways that research can be immoral, although it should still be protected by academic freedom. Consider the ethics of abortion (one of the topics of my own research). In my view, most opposition to abortion can be correctly described as “sexist.” If I’m right, does that mean that essays that argue that abortion is morally wrong should be subject to investigation and punishment? It does not. Similarly, research might be immoral in other ways — indeed, it might be racist — without constituting the kind of research misconduct that warrants investigation or punishment. For example, philosophical arguments against affirmative action might be correctly described as “racist” without it being appropriate to investigate or punish those who make those arguments. For another example, arguments against the legalization of same-sex marriage might be correctly called “homophobic”; they might correctly be said to constitute “bigotry.” But as appalled as I am by such arguments, I would never support any investigation or punishment of a colleague for making these arguments.  

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Why should academic freedom protect immoral research? I will offer two reasons.

We need academics to investigate the serious, pressing moral questions of the human condition and of our particular moment. For many of these questions, we have not figured out the right answers. We need people to argue on different sides of important questions so that we can make progress. Even when some of us have figured out the right answers, we need those who disagree to put forward their best arguments so that we can try to communicate and make progress together. For these two reasons — to pursue the right answers for ourselves, and to communicate with those caught in the grip of wrong answers — we need some people to articulate and argue for false moral views. But research that argues for false moral views may ultimately be correctly seen as itself immoral.

More specifically, we need academics to investigate and pursue the moral questions: “What is racism?” “What kinds of things can be racist?” “What makes something racist?” Huge strides have been made on these questions — consider the articulation of the notion of structural racism, and the still-controversial (correct) idea that a person can be racist without understanding that about herself. As these questions are investigated, we need people to be free to work out their theories of racism. Some of these theories will be false. In arguing for false views of racism, this research may ultimately be correctly seen as itself racist.  

Thus, in order to figure things out for ourselves, and in order to engage with those who are wrong, we need academic research to include some immoral research, and even some racist research. My argument focuses on moral inquiry, including inquiry into racism. If we do not have robust academic freedom, we will prevent and destroy inquiry into moral questions. This is not by any means the whole story of why we need academic freedom. What I am arguing is that some immoral research must be permitted and protected — this is enough to show that we must not conflate research misconduct with immorality in research more generally.       

We should not have a committee that investigates and punishes racist research. A premise of this endeavor is that if research is racist, then it constitutes research misconduct; so argues Professor Andrew Cole in a recent op-ed. But this premise is false.  

I do want to make an important concession. Should we subject our norms of what counts as research misconduct to ongoing scrutiny? Absolutely. Should that ongoing scrutiny take our society’s pervasive racism into account? Yes. But academic freedom must continue to protect much research that is immoral in one or another way. This immorality needs to be recognized and discussed, but not punished.  

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In a recent op-ed, President Eisgruber affirms the basic principle of academic freedom that I support. His essay also seems to me to say that calling someone “racist” is a kind of name-calling that should be avoided in respectful discourse. On this point, I disagree.

It is an important and serious question whether a comment, a view, a policy, or an action is in fact racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, or ableist. Arguing that a view or comment is racist may be a valuable contribution to a conversation. Pointing out that a policy is sexist may be illuminating. It must be okay to make these claims and arguments. It must not be seen as a problematic failure of respectful discourse to claim or argue that what someone has said, or done, or is doing is racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, or ableist. Describing the courageous Black Justice League as a “terrorist organization” is racist; it’s important to say so.

At a recent University faculty meeting, I said that norms against “name-calling or personal vilification” in the classroom must not prevent us from calling views that we discuss racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, or ableist — even if some in the room have endorsed or offered those views, and thus even if they will feel attacked. President Eisgruber chimed in to agree that such discussion is appropriate in the classroom. We must recognize that naming racism is not just appropriate within — but also vital to — the serious conversations we need to have. 

Elizabeth Harman is Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy and Human Values at the University. She can be reached at eharman@princeton.edu.

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