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“Would you say it the same way if the person was actually there?”

What is the best way for students or academics to act on social media? How do we actually talk to one another? And what role does academia play in heated societal debates? A conversation about manners with Dr Romy Jaster and Prof. Dr Geert Keil from the Department of Philosophy at the Humboldt-Universität.
Dr. Romy Jaster

Dr. Romy Jaster, Photo: Matthias Heyde

Ms Jaster, Mr Keil, you have voiced criticism in DIE ZEIT of the new network for the defence of academic freedom, which 70 academics have joined forces to form. What irritates you about this project?

Romy Jaster: In their manifesto, those in the network complain about a pressure to conform that is allegedly stifling academic debates and nipping them in the bud with increasing regularity. We think this diagnosis is overblown. It is true that events on certain topics are monitored very keenly. And it is also true that moral self-righteousness is detrimental to good debate. However, we should not overlook the fact that these are in part distorted effects of the discourse having become more pluralistic. Today, we are increasingly seeing discussion of the concerns of groups that are still marginalised in society as a whole. This special situation the discourse finds itself in regularly gets ignored when analysing the level of threat.

Geert Keil: I have been appointed a civil servant for life and think that I have no right to be thin-skinned, not even in heated debates. It is the task of academia to steer even debates such as these back into channels that are focussed on knowledge and education. When I am faced with students who draw the boundaries of what is debatable differently from how I do myself, I then remember how strongly moral and political judgements can change over the course of a lifetime. And nowhere can we read where the line is between positions that can and cannot be discussed. That has to continuously be negotiated anew.

You say that, as a dispute about the limits of academic freedom or freedom of speech, this controversy is being framed in the wrong way. Why is this framing wrong?

Keil: Our perspective is that of academics. We are faced with the question, for example, of which speakers to invite to events at the university. The network’s manifesto complains that political activists turn the invitation of unpopular guest speakers into scandals in order to put pressure on those colleagues who have invited them. Unfortunately, these cases do exist, but it is not correct to describe them as a restriction of academic freedom. From a legal point of view, the matter is clear: those vested with the right of academic freedom are those who are engaged in academia. They may invite whomever they consider suitable to give talks. They don’t need any permission or social consensus to do so. The protests against certain invitations are best viewed as unsolicited words of advice, which, in turn, are protected by freedom of expression. Things turn critical when external parties contact university managers directly and demand that such events be cancelled. Any president’s executive council has to turn a totally deaf ear to this.

What would be a better way of framing the controversy?

Jaster: The crucial question is whether everything important has already been said by the legal information. There could also be non-legal reasons not to invite certain people. We argue that there are absolutely reasons why someone can be disqualified from being invited to the university. However, they are different from those that are usually cited. Opponents to particular invitations usually assert the substantive positions of the persons who have been invited, or point out the potential of these positions to do harm. On closer inspection, however, these arguments are hardly tenable, because the university protects neither orthodoxy nor feelings. The university protects something else – namely, those intellectual virtues that are part of its DNA.

Could you please explain that?


         Geert Keil
         Prof. Dr. Geert Keil, Photo: Matthias Heyde

Keil: Science seeks knowledge in a systematic, methodologically controlled, open and unbiased way. This results in virtues of discourse that, bundled together, we can term intellectual honesty: being guided by evidence and arguments, not changing the subject when faced with objections, not twisting the words of the other person, considering counter-arguments, and so on. These virtues of discourse need to be protected. Anyone who actively torpedoes them should not be invited into the lecture hall.

Jaster: This means demagogues are barred, but not diversity of opinion. Of course, you can’t always know in advance whether someone will play by the rules. It is therefore the task of the universities to design spaces for discourse in such a way that the virtues of intellectual honesty are demanded, and also implemented.

How can that be done successfully? We are seeing that the culture of indignation, defamation and slander is finding its way into everyday discourse at universities on social media.

Jaster: Once it is clear which virtues of discourse are required, a number of approaches come to mind: speakers and participants in discussions must be made aware of the requirements for the discourse in advance, moderators need to be trained in ensuring compliance with these requirements, the virtues of discourse need to be explicitly formulated and communicated as part of the event, one should emphasise at the beginning that the enterprise is about common endeavour, about debating a difficult question constructively with one another, and attacks must be clearly named and sanctioned, etc. We still see a lot of potential here for shaping this.

In politics, in social media, in traditional media, though, it’s ultimately – to put it somewhat simply – always about the authority to control the narrative and less about knowledge and truth. What does scholarship have to lose if it allows itself to be dragged into the maelstrom of being right?

Keil: The philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine once wrote the following about being right: “Unscientific man is beset by a deplorable desire to have been right. The scientist is distinguished by a desire to be right”

That is well put, no? Everyone wants to be right, but it is precisely insistence on being right that stands in the way of being right. If you want to be right, you have to correct yourself now and then. Through its long experience with scientific errors, scholarship has also cultivated an insight into its own fallibility. Politics and social media can really learn quite a thing or two from this ethos, to put it in an old-fashioned way.

The Humboldt-Universität and other universities are again and again coming up against situations in which individual members, as private persons and as bearers of public and functional roles, go off the rails publicly on social media – sometimes in a completely unacceptable way – and the university management is called upon to issue calls to order or initiate disciplinary measures. An interested public looks on, sometimes shaking their heads, sometimes indignant. How can the academic community counteract this development?

Keil: I do wonder at how some people risk their necks with careless tweeting. And I don’t see any essential difference here between professors and students. We are talking about grown adults. Each of us is able to look up the definitions of libel, slander and defamation in the Criminal Code.

Jaster: There is a simple rule though. Whenever you want to type in anything about a person, always ask yourself: Would you say it the same way if the person was actually there?

Keil: Those who adopt completely the wrong tone will have this reflected back at them immediately on social media. Our colleague Joseph Vogl has spoken aptly of ballistic communication. Those who know they have a short fuse would certainly be well advised to stay away from this, or at least introduce a filter.

The question, though, was what the university and what the academic community can do to counteract derailments.

Keil: I don’t think much of calls for disciplinary action. The university management would have to be out of their minds to sanction individuals for offensive statements. It must also not allow itself to be instrumentalised politically. It is therefore just left with the thankless role of condemning slander and defamation – in view of specific incidents, but without naming any names. And it does, indeed, do that.

Jaster: And the academic community shouldn’t leave the field of public life to its most radical representatives. One problem in social media is that a few particularly loud voices are heard disproportionately prominently. It would be desirable for more academics to join in the public discourse by picking up on heated issues in a level-headed manner and using a moderate tone.

About the people

Dr. Romy Jaster ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Lehrstuhl für Theoretische Philosophie an der Humboldt-Universität.

Prof. Dr. Geert Keil ist Professor für Philosophische Anthropologie an der Humboldt-Universität und Präsident der Gesellschaft für analytische Philosophie.

They have recently published the joint anthology: „Nachdenken über Corona Philosophische Essays über die Pandemie und ihre Folgen“ (“Reflecting on Corona: Philosophical Essays on the Pandemic and its Consequences”)

This interview was conducted by Hans-Christoph Keller, Head of the Communications and Media Department at the Humboldt-Universität.

Further information

If you want to find out more about Romy Jaster, Geert Keil und philosophy an der HU, please have a look into Humboldt-Universität's promotional brochure, “Wir sind Humboldt” (“We Are Humboldt”) (only in German)