Debates in the public sphere have just received a much-needed boost, or at least that’s what the editors of the Journal of Controversial Ideas would have us believe. Launched one year ago, the publication purports to ‘promote free inquiry on controversial topics’, and to explore topics that are routinely rejected by scholarly publications and shouted down on social media. By publishing articles on said topics, claims the editorial of the recently published first issue, the journal ‘seek[s] to foster appreciation of reasoned discussion and pave the way for more fruitful public and academic debate.’
This sounds like a perfectly reasonable, indeed, laudable aim. However, this article asks: Will JCI help cultivate the conditions in which inclusive debate on ‘controversial ideas’ can take place, or is it merely another salvo in the interminable culture wars?
The first-issue editorial lays down the gauntlet: speaking about certain topics has become risky, even dangerous (professionally and otherwise) business. The editors write that
what is widely shared over the internet is often neither genuine academic work, nor popularized but accurate accounts of academic work, but instead the conclusions of academic articles taken out of context and stripped of the reasons for holding them. These distorted conclusions are then circulated to people who are liable to respond with outrage, and this outraged response then proliferates in the manner typical of social media.
The focus here is largely on academic scholarship, although the topics covered by contributors to the first issue have been debated outside of universities. These include (among others) the question of whether transwomen are women; whether or not blackface is acceptable in certain circumstances; and the problems with deplatforming speakers on university campuses.
The editors are correct to point out that topics such as these are often met with outrage in online spaces. However, outrage is not always a knee-jerk response, nor is it always unwarranted. In Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012), sociologist Manuel Castells wrote about the rise of what he calls ‘mass self-communication’, a mode taken up by members of social groups that have historically faced inequality and whose voices have been (largely or entirely) absent within the public sphere. These subjects are not always responding impulsively to the latest viral tweet; often, they express outrage about the ongoing and systematic discrimination, prejudice and marginalisation that they have faced.
There are many examples of such subjects. Some are well-known, many are not. Some have belonged to movements such as Occupy Wall Street (which Castells examines in his book) or Black Lives Matter. Some are contributors to Overland.
Importantly, through articulating their lived experiences, subjects from marginalised groups make clear why certain topics are more than simply ‘controversial’, and encompass practices, ideas or laws that are harmful. As Alison Evans argued last year in this magazine, for instance, transphobia can ‘rob [trans] young people of their rights and ‘deny them their right to feel safe simply existing.’
The term ‘controversy’ conceals as much as it reveals. There are reasons why a topic is considered controversial and indeed, why it may be more than simply controversial for the persons whose lived experiences it relates to and/or misrepresents.
The very name Journal of Controversial Ideas gives the new publication an unwarranted rebellious edge. It suggests that the journal will dare to speak ideas that have been rendered taboo. This suggestion is made overt within two of the essays published within the debut issue. The authors of each essay mention that their piece had previously been rejected by other journals for suspiciously opaque reasons. This suggestion is also made overt in the following quote to The Australian by one of the journal’s editorial board members, ‘gender critical’ University of Melbourne philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith:
It has been increasingly difficult to get controversial topics past editors and peer reviewers, as anyone working in gender critical philosophy, as I am, will attest … This journal sidesteps the woke gatekeepers and allows philosophy’s culture of free deliberation to once again flourish.
The term ‘woke’ originated in African American culture, where it was used to describe an awareness of political power structures and inequities. Recently, the term has been deployed by the Right to attack anti-racism, trans activism, and so forth. In their usage, it describes an activism more concerned with virtue-signalling and bringing down the enemy than with facts or reasoned debate.
Whether or not anyone involved in the JCI identifies with right-wing politics is moot. The point is that comments like Lawford-Smith’s are straight out of the culture wars playbook, which holds that the Left has become violently intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, whereas everyone else just wants to engage in sensible discussion.
The reality is, of course, that said dissenting viewpoints are usually not getting silenced. The Australian, for example, has published a long-running series of articles exploring the supposed dangers of gender transition, many of which do not feature the voices of trans or gender-diverse people, while the articles on the pitfalls of deplatforming are practically everywhere. In regards to blackface, Bouke de Vries acknowledges in his JCI essay on this topic that the practice can sometimes be racist, but argues that accusations of racism often fit ‘into a broader trend whereby an everexpanding set of views, behaviours, and activities are given this label by predominantly leftleaning individuals, and not rarely without adequate justification.’ In short, he contends that accusations of racism levelled at people who indulge in blackface are frequently baseless displays of victimhood by an oppression-fixated Left. This kind of argument has hardly been banished from public discourse. Indeed, it’s been recycled ad nauseam by Right-leaning media outlets for the past thirty-plus years.
It’s early days still for the JCI. Perhaps it will prove to be a forum for respectful, nuanced and inclusive debate on topics that are known to polarise. The April 2021 editorial alerts readers: ‘We have done our best to be impartial between papers attacking ideas favoured by liberals or progressives and papers attacking ideas favoured by conservatives or libertarians.’ So there’s that, I suppose. At this juncture, however, it’s difficult to evaluate the journal as anything more than a performance of daring by thinkers who want to win the culture wars, and in which the ‘free enquiry on controversial topics’ takes the backseat to political posturing of the most transparent kind.
Image: Theodore Galle, Impressio Librorum (c. 1580–1605)