This sort of resignation under pressure has become the standard means of resolving such scenarios. By avoiding outright dismissal, the university may rid itself of an employee who had become a PR liability while maintaining the pretense of a commitment to academic freedom. In most of its details, Walker’s fate resembles that of other academic “cancel culture” victims. But the most influential advocates of Walker’s cancellation were not the “woke mob” we often hear about, but conservative media outlets such as Tucker Carlson’s top-rated Fox News show.
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This sort of resignation under pressure has become a standard means of resolving such scenarios. By avoiding outright dismissal, the university may rid itself of an employee who had become a PR liability while maintaining the pretense of a commitment to academic freedom. In most of its details, Walker’s fate resembles that of other academic “cancel culture” victims. But the most influential advocates of Walker’s cancellation were not the “woke mob” we often hear about, but conservative media outlets such as Tucker Carlson’s top-rated Fox News show.
It’s unsurprising that Walker generated controversy. Their research revolves around one of the ultimate taboos: pedophilia. To be clear, Walker’s work is concerned not with perpetrators of child abuse but with “non-offending minor-attracted persons” — those who experience pedophilic attractions but do not act on them. The latter’s experiences, Walker claims, offer “valuable insights into the prevention of child abuse.” Walker, contrary to what many have alleged, shares the consensus disapproval of sexual abuse of children, and differs only on how best to avoid it.
Needless to say, these nuances were lost on those who demanded Walker’s dismissal.
Academic freedom, to which Old Dominion pays lip service in its faculty handbook, ostensibly means that institutions should protect faculty members from public outrage about controversial work. It was on these grounds that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education offered free legal support to Walker. But it was difficult to find supporters of Walker among those who rail against cancel culture in academe. Some of the most outspoken — like Caitlin Flanagan and James Lindsay — were aligned against them.
This is not surprising. Appeals to academic freedom from across the political spectrum are often selective, if not cynical. An ideological ally’s victimization occasions the invocation of lofty principle, while an enemy’s analogous travails meet with indifference or approval. Walker, a nonbinary queer-theory scholar, looked like an enemy to this “anti-woke” crowd.
The Walker controversy is a test case of the limits of free speech and academic freedom because it revolves around one of the most powerful taboos in American culture. While there are important discussions to be had about the ongoing importance of academic freedom as a fundamental principle, the main issue is not the principle of free speech but deeper divergences of values. The formal and procedural framing of the cancel-culture debate risks obscuring these foundational divides. Because the Walker case relates to one of the most potent persisting taboos, it makes evident the complex, shifting role of taboo as such in defining these fractures.
On the other hand, the sort of approach Walker advocates has also been controversial. It is a variety of harm reduction, a familiar notion in contexts like illegal drug use and sexually transmitted disease. (We might think most obviously here of needle exchanges and condom distribution.) Harm reduction shifts public discussion from moral condemnation of behaviors toward the mitigation of specific negative outcomes (disease, death, and so on). In this sense, it aims to minimize the role of morality in public policy. It’s therefore not surprising that harm reduction has often been criticized from a religious perspective.
There are important discussions to be had about the ongoing importance of academic freedom, but the main issue is not the principle of free speech but deeper divergences of values.
Recent moves to decriminalize and legalize drugs across much of the country are just one indication that the sensibility driving the harm-reduction approach has won out in many areas. As Walker’s situation reveals, pedophilia remains an exception to this broad cultural tendency toward destigmatization. The repugnance it provokes has remained a rare subject of cross-partisan unity, bringing together Epstein-obsessed leftist podcasters and QAnon true believers. The persistent, perhaps increasing salience of pedophilia as a universally agreed-upon taboo reveals by contrast the broader confusion of a cultural panorama in which values have shifted.
Even as older stigmas around sexuality and drugs have all but collapsed, much of the backlash against “political correctness” in an earlier era and “wokeness” in recent years reflects a bewilderment at the emergence of new taboos: Once-normal behaviors and expressions are now deemed offensive or harmful, as with earlier campaigns for gender-neutral language and more recent demands to replace phrasings like “pregnant women” with “birthing persons.” Standard framings of culture war often miss the complex way the left has acted as a moral vanguard, destigmatizing what was stigmatized but also stigmatizing what was previously licit. This, in turn, has opponents of the left simultaneously advocating greater restriction and greater freedom.
In an earlier phase of the culture war — at least, this is how the story is often told — liberal permissivism and moral relativism battled against a conservative defense of the moral judgments embodied in inherited stigmas and taboos. By all accounts, the conservatives lost those battles, as attested by everything from drug legalization to gay marriage. Pedophilia — the destigmatization of which, again, was once advocated by figures like Michel Foucault and Allen Ginsberg as an extension of sexual liberation — was an exception. Indeed, the left flank of the culture war has become more sexually conservative in its recent emphasis on, for instance, “problematic age gaps” in relationships.
The backlash to Walker’s research offered an opportunity for the cultural right to flex its muscle in an arena where many of its causes have been forfeit. More typically, it has retreated into the opposite position: Rather than defending longstanding taboos, conservatives now position themselves as advocates of permissiveness and freedom from censorship. But as more perceptive voices on the right occasionally acknowledge, their objection to the constraint of expression is not a repudiation of censorship as such, but to the fact that it is directed against their own views and values.
Ironically, this approach in some ways resembles that laid out by Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher who implored the 1960s New Left to cease placing value on tolerance for its own sake, and instead to ruthlessly pursue tolerance of its own radical values and intolerance of the forces of reaction. Many regard Marcuse’s argument as the fons et origo of the newly predominant censorious left, but the reality is more complicated.
The right now strategically uses the demand for freedom to reassert its own cultural position — much as Marcuse recommended the left should do. The left has demanded moral neutrality, conservatives complain, but now asks that conservatives accede to its moral values by, for instance, recognizing what it regards as deviant sexualities. In a similar way, the right falls back on the demand for free speech not in order to abandon its moral claims but in order to advance them.
This is also why Walker’s conservative detractors fail to regard them as a victim of the wavering institutional commitment to academic freedom. They regard Walker as something like the opposite: an illustration of the selective freedoms offered by the left-dominated academy, extended toward those who critique traditional morality but denied to those who defend it.
The right is correct to conclude that the insulation against public opinion provided by academic freedom has made the university an incubator of left moral vanguardism. It has provided a space for the questioning of a wide range of older values, and thereby contributed to their demise. Yet with their speech codes and their heavy-handed HR regimes, universities have also contributed to new regimes of prohibition. Although its role is sometimes overstated, academe has been a crucial arena for the moral revolution our culture has undergone in recent decades. It will remain embattled as a result.
Critics of the right are also correct to conclude that conservative free-speech advocacy is often more strategic than principled. The aim of its most influential culture warriors is not to foster open inquiry for its own sake or to protect dissenting views on principle. Rather, it is to appeal to ostensibly neutral values for the purpose of advancing its goals. In this, it differs little from its enemies. Academic freedom, then, has no natural constituency: Its consistent application demands the bracketing of strong moral commitments on the part of those who ensure it remains in force. In our age of intensifying polarization and endless outrage cycles, its future looks bleak.