Pfau and Griffiths Contra Mundum
Tucker Fleming, Social Policy Contributor
There’s an interesting story of Athanasius, the great fourth-century defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy. After finding himself on the wrong side of the debate politically, he was banished from his post several times. Yet, he never capitulated. Athanasius’ lonely fight for orthodoxy produced a phrase: Athanasius Contra Mundum, or Athanasius against the world. Obviously, fighting for the cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith is different than fighting for free speech on campus. However, there is a certain loss of popularity which comes with advocating for the free exchange of ideas today on college campuses.
Much ink has been spilled over the past several weeks over the discipline and subsequent retirement announcement of Dr. Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School (hereafter DDS). So much, in fact, that nothing I could say here would serve to advance the discussion all that much. Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative has published the email exchange between Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues, and Peter Berkowitz at the Wall Street Journal has some really wonderful comments on the development. Both are without a doubt worth reading.
Long story short, Dr. Anathea Portier-Young, another faculty member at DDS, organized a diversity training for the faculty of DDS to attend, and Dr. Griffiths not only expressed his discontent with the training, but also encouraged his colleagues not to attend the training. The Dean of the Divinity School, Dr. Elaine Heath, responded by implying Dr. Griffiths' email was inappropriate and that it expressed “racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry.” Dr. Thomas Pfau, Chair of Germanic Languages and Literatures and a faculty member at DDS, responded in defense of Dr. Griffiths’ argument, and Dr. Griffiths shot off the final salvo by recounting the discipline he had received in the wake of several of these conversations.
There are a number of actors in this drama, and each of them deserve some attention in order to understand these exchanges. There is, though, a neglected protagonist in the mix here. Dr. Pfau, to my eye, is the shining example of free speech defense. Certainly, Dr. Griffiths’s bombast and sharp British wit bring the conversation to the fore, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s often much easier to sit by on the sidelines, silently cheer for the Dr. Griffiths character, and hope things work out for the best. What’s more impressive is Dr. Pfau’s refusal to do so, and his resolve to enter the conversation winsomely but sternly.
Dr. Pfau is a helpful model for engaging those who would roll back the rights of free speech on campus today. Rather than simply decrying Dr. Heath, Dr. Portier-Young, and their compatriots as fascists or haters of free speech, Dr. Pfau engages them directly, stating, “So if faculty members choose to say in public…what so many are saying private, one might at the very least want to listen to and engage their concerns, especially if one holds sharply opposed views.” Ah, here is the sober-minded engagement we didn’t see from Dr. Heath and Dr. Portier-Young. Dr. Pfau’s helpful engagement looks even better in light of the lack of correspondence from the other side.
Dr. Pfau goes on to suggest a new course of action for the DDS leadership: “[I]f a faculty member raises serious doubts about the efficacy and methods of an initiative aimed at combating racial and other kinds of bias — and about the ways in which such training manifestly encroaches on the time faculty need to pursue their primary mission of teaching and research — then this view ought as a matter of course be respected as a legitimate exercise of judgment and expression.” This seems fair enough.
Looking at this exchange from the outside, it seems like Dr. Pfau, alongside Dr. Griffiths, are in the right, at least as long as we value the free exchange of ideas (to say nothing of our Constitution) as a society. But perhaps this is the issue at hand. Perhaps some of us only value free speech when it’s in agreement with our own speech. But obviously, this is not free speech at all. This might sound alarmist, but the freedoms of thought and expression are always only a few moves away from extinction. Dr. Griffiths’s commentary on these freedoms is worth quoting at length: “My university superiors, the deans and the provost, have been at best lukewarm in their support of these freedoms, preferring to them conciliation and accommodation of their opponents…Harsh and direct disagreement places thought under pressure. That’s its point. Pressure can be intellectually productive: being forced to look closely at arguments against a beloved position helps those who hold it to burnish and buttress it as often as it moves them to abandon it. But pressure also causes pain and fear; and when those under pressure find these things difficult to bear, they’ll sometimes use any means possible to make the pressure and the pain go away. They feel unsafe, threatened, put upon, and so they react by deploying the soft violence of the law or the harder violence of the aggressive and speech-denying protest. Both moves are common enough in our elite universities now, as is their support by the powers that be. Tolerance for intellectual pain is less than it was. So is tolerance for argument.”
Don’t read me wrong now: the argument is not that folks should be allowed to say anything whatsoever without facing the professional repercussions thereof. Rather, the argument is simply that if one is to face these repercussions, they must be given some kind of due process which puts their ideas to the test in the academic square. Unfortunately, we find ourselves at a cultural moment in which liberalism is increasingly illiberal, and the university as a space built for exchange of ideas has become increasingly monopolized.
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