Ryle Lecture: Freedom of speech or speech of oppression?

The Gilbert Ryle Lecture Series is one of the Trent Philosophy Department’s biggest annual events. Every year an important philosopher comes to Trent to deliver three lectures within a week and take questions from students, faculty and members of the community.

The speaker for this year, however, made some startling claims that raise the issue of where should universities, and Trent in particular, draw the line as to who gets invited to speak and who shouldn’t.

The speaker this year was Oxford scholar Dr. Richard Swinburne. Prof. Swinburne made his career in areas such as Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Mind, Epistemology and Ethics. He came to Trent to deliver a series on ‘God and Christian Morality’ and the relationship between faith and reason.

While the first two lectures went by without too much ado, eyebrows were raised on the third when he argued that homosexuality should be considered a disability and that society has a duty to prevent or cure disabilities.

According to his published works, Dr. Swinburne has asserted that since homosexuals are unable to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is procreative they should therefore be considered disabled.

He has then stated that procreation through surrogates or medical procedure is a “poor substitute for the normal means of procreation’” and that “the resulting pregnancy would not be the result of a loving act of the parents.”

He also claims, without really defending the statement, that “disabilities need to be prevented or cured,” an issue that is hugely controversial in the neuroatypical community. People who have these conditions often don’t want to be cured but rather accommodated, included, and helped with the management of the negative side effects of these conditions.

Swinburne argues that society “should seek to prevent the spread of homosexual desire by seeking to change the general climate of approving the practice and by seeking to deter solicitation, as well as by promoting scientific research into how genetic or other biological intervention can change sexual desire.”

He adds that “one thing which the past century’s medical advances have taught us is surely that no disease (or deficiency) is beyond the possibility of cure; and it would again be quite extraordinary if homosexuality was the unique exception to this.”

Swinburne advises that homosexuals should “help to prevent the spread of homosexuality and help cure others by setting an example of not indulging their inclinations and of seeking a cure.”

The question of whether or not he should have been brought to Trent and paid an honorarium is not a question of his freedom of speech, but rather of our judgement as a university: at what point does the ratio of offensiveness-to-lack-of-substance hit the tipping point and we pass for the sake of bringing someone else instead?

While some might suggest that bringing Dr. Swinburne here creates an opportunity for a robust exchange of ideas for students, I’m not sure that’s the case. According to Philosophy Chair Kathryn Norlock, no less than 25 Philosophy students raised objections to his position and did so with sustained and thorough arguments.

The problem, I think, with this argument is that you  assume that he’s debating in good faith and that his mind could be changed with good arguments. In so many ways, one gets the impression that this is not the case.

Between this and the fact that he gets to walk away with a cheque, it’s hard to imagine that, however good Trent’s students’ arguments were, that Swinburne actually left thinking ‘well I guess I flubbed that, I should probably stop promoting my book now.’

There is, and always should be, the freedom to offend, but if you’re going to say something so discriminatory, there should at least be some degree of substance behind it.

Swinburne proceeds in his arguments with astounding degree of ignorance on the subject matter, both in terms of the prevailing research (from multiple fields) and of the needs, wants and experiences of the communities which he mischaracterizes in his attempt to shoehorn his argument together.

However, as I talked to Prof. Norlock and asked why he was even brought to Trent in the first place, she noted that Swinburne actually didn’t make his career ‘gay-bashing.’
Rather he has established himself as one of the leaders in other areas of philosophy, and in a world in which we often bemoan the dearth of famous living philosophers, Swinburne is a bit of an anathema – he’s regarded as the real deal.

Moreover, the subject matter in question, was only really brought up on the third and final lecture of the series, and while it did take up most of the question period it was not the sum total of his subject matter.

This makes it difficult to say with sledgehammer certainty that under no circumstances should he be brought to Trent, or that the entirety of his body of work be tossed out.

Which is why I’d like to leave the question to you: where should we draw the line? What’s the balance between potentially offensive speech, the quality of argumentation supporting that question and academic freedom, given that we can always just say pass and get someone else?

It’s at once a question of moral/social responsibility and best use of funding. If someone were to come to Trent and argue that Islam has no place in the West or that black culture brought on police brutality, would that disqualify someone? Should it?

What’s the value of engaging this line of reasoning in direct debate, and what’s a greater motivator to hold or disavow such views: the quality of rebuttals or the paycheque that comes with promoting them?

Finally, to what extent can you really invite someone to speak at a university and say, “Yeah, just talk about the stuff from your early books but not your most recent?”