Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ethics in the Academic World

In his first paragraph to the preface of Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia, Steven M. Cahn writes, “Some years ago I was asked to deliver a lecture on the subject of ‘Ethics in the Academic World.’ When I mentioned the topic to a faculty colleague, he remarked, ‘It’ll be a short talk.’”

Steven M. Cahn is, and has been for many years, professor of philosophy at City University of New York Graduate Center.

History News Network, a Web page by historians for historians, has banned me for expressing “doubts” about the Holocaust, for questioning the “existence” of the Holocaust, for expressing “doubts” about Auschwitz. My informant, the Founder of HNN Rick Shenkman, refuses to tell me what “doubts” about the Holocaust I expressed, where I questioned the “existence” of the Holocaust, and what “doubts” I expressed about Auschwitz.

At the same time, HNN has removed everything I have posted on HNN over a period of two-plus years so that no academic or anyone else can read what I actually wrote and judge for herself what I wrote there. Ethics in the academic world.

On 05 June when I notified some of the Bloggers on HNN of (what I see as) the ethical problem with how HNN is being administered I received two responses.

Charles W. Nuckolls, Professor at Brigham Young University, wrote: “I do not know the issues involved, and would like to see the evidence presented on both sides -- but especially on the side of those doing the censorship. It is they who bear the burden of proof. It can certainly do no harm to state the policy explicitly and to cite the proof accumulated against a contributor that he has violated the policy. I am simply not in a position to judge without knowing more.”

This is a brief, ethical and sensible response to the issues I raised. Professor Nuckolls will not be able to see the evidence presented on both sides of the question however because HNN has “disappeared” every word that I posted there.

Timothy Burke responded from Swarthmore: “I think Bradley Smith's websites (, are pretty instructive, if the question is, ‘Is Bradley Smith a Holocaust denier?’ If the question is, ‘Did he make specific comments denying or debating the Holocaust in specific HNN threads?’, that's a slightly different issue, I suppose. But all good blogs, it seems to me, make use of bans, warnings and remarks from the host to cultivate the kinds of discussions, conversations and contributions that they'd like to see. Any individual blog is not a mirror of the widest public sphere--they're all more analogous to a party or salon. I have no problem with the hosts at a given party deciding they don't want a particular sort of guest on principle as long as their taste in guests doesn't start to exclude people I'd like to hang out with myself, or becomes so narrow that the party either dies out or becomes nothing more than an echo chamber.”

Here we have a mixed bag. I agree that any Blog has the right to decide who will and will not be allowed to participate on that Blog. I am arguing that the rules should be stated clearly so that it can be understood what language is to be prohibited, what information is to be prohibited, and what opinions are to be prohibited. And that these rules should be stated clearly for everyone to see.

HNN has no statement on its site defining Holocaust “denial.” Burke does not provide one. Burke, as does HNN, takes it for granted that “everyone knows” what it means to be a Holocaust “denier,” what it means to express “doubt” about the Holocaust, to question the “existence” of the Holocaust, to express “doubts” about Auschwitz. Because “everyone knows, ' HNN does not have to define how it uses any of these words in any context. This is how it works in a despotic environment, an enviornment committed to a specific cultural and political worldview, and is one of the reasons that a lecture on “ethics in the academic world” can so often be addressed by a very short talk.

In the end, we don't have to use a sophisticated language here, it’s a matter of being fair. Being fair is not easy, sometimes it is not simple, and can seldom even be when politics drive academic decisions about language, fact, or opinion. Without receiving a single complaint about my language from any HNN administrator in close to three years, without notice, my posts were “disappeared” and I am accused of using language and having opinions that I did not use and do not have and that in any case are not clearly prohibited by HNN itself.

I have asked Rick Shenkman to retrieve those threads that contain my censored posts and send them to me so that I can post them on my own Web site so that those HNN readers who are interested in the ethical and academic standards held to by HNN (a Web page by historians for historians) can decide for themselves. Professor Shenkman has refused to do this. It’s as if the ethical and academic standards employed by HNN are based on those used by a clone of a Burmese Government.

NOTE: This post will be forwarded to Professor Cahn and others.


Anonymous said...

This just goes to show why people should keep local copies of things they post on websites.

Bradley R. Smith said...

Agreed. Turns out that I did download a thread here and there, and parts of threads. I'll be posting them as we move along.