Forsaking our principles

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Forsaking our principles


There is no denying that in recent years, the space for open debate and civil society in general has been closing around the world. In Russia, new laws have shut down nongovernmental organizations that have any connection to international foundations or human rights groups. In China, a draft NGO law would force all civil society groups to register and subject themselves to monitoring that would constrain if not terminate their activities. Classrooms in Chinese universities increasingly have cameras that allow the Ministry of State Security and internal Communist Party watchdogs to monitor and punish professors or students who stray from the party line. Chinese professors have greater difficulty getting permission to travel abroad for conferences.

In this context, it is more important than ever that liberal democracies uphold their own commitments to freedom of speech and academic freedom. Yet in the United States, Japan and Korea, there are developments that may send the wrong signals about the strength of academic freedom in democratic societies.

In the U.S., the pressure on academic freedom is coming from social movements that seek to penalize scholars or students who express views deemed hurtful to certain groups. There is no place on American campuses for hate speech, racism or anti-Semitism, to be sure. Discourse in a university should be civil - but there must also be room for different perspectives. The interaction of eclectic thinking is the essence of a liberal education. Higher learning should never be about ideological indoctrination or rote memorization. Yet recent protests at Yale University, the University of Missouri and other institutions of higher education have argued for just that. Protestors - mostly students but also some faculty - have demanded mandatory courses in sensitivity as well as accountability for lecturers or students who engage in “microaggressions” that might implicitly defame aggrieved groups on ethnic, gender, religious or other grounds. When a student journalist sought to cover these protests at the University of Missouri, a protesting faculty member called out for “more muscle” to help drive off the student. At Yale, a junior faculty member and his wife were surrounded and shouted down for arguing that efforts to police Halloween costumes had gone too far and were symbolic of a larger stifling of free speech on campus. Initially stunned by the protests - or sympathetic with student criticism of the establishment - faculty members across American universities have only just begun objecting to demands from students and sometimes administrators that they not engage certain sensitive subjects in class.

While the assault on academic freedom in the U.S. is mostly coming from the left, in Japan it is coming from the far right. Former Asahi Shimbun reporter Takashi Uemura has been a repeated target of ultra-rightists since he began teaching at Hokusei Gakuen University. Uemura’s writings are controversial in Japan because members of his family are said to be activists for the comfort women and because other scholars have asserted flaws in his empirical work. The Asahi Shimbun concluded that Uemura had not fabricated facts about the comfort women while he was a reporter with the paper, but Uemura and Hokusei Gakuen University continued facing anonymous threats anyway, including bomb threats. When Uemura tried to move to Kobe Shoin Women’s University, they cancelled his employment after they too were threatened. Uemura is now to become a visiting professor at the Catholic University of Korea.

In Korea, Prof. Park Unha of Sejong University was indicted on Nov. 18 by the Seoul Eastern District Prosecutors’ Office on the charge that her most recent book violated the dignity of the former comfort women through “false facts” and that she went beyond the bounds of academic freedom. Scholars around the world may agree or disagree with the accuracy of Prof. Park’s facts, but she is a historian, and history is a process of constant inquiry, revision and interpretation. Governments in liberal democracies should not “own” historical truth. Ironically, the Asahi Shimbun, the same left-leaning newspaper that employed Uemura as he criticized Japan on the comfort women issue, was the publisher of Park’s book.

These three cases are all different. The American campus protests are themselves expressions of freedom of speech, even if the demand and sometimes the result has been a closing of space for academic freedom. In Japan, a small minority of right-wing activists engaged in egregious threats of violence that scholars or political leaders should have the courage to condemn. In Korea, prosecutors acted on behalf of comfort women - a noble objective - but did so in a way that should raise fundamental questions about academic freedom. What unifies all three cases is that the end result has been a less tolerant environment for scholars to engage in enquiry and civil debate about sensitive subjects.

This is sad and ironic. Governments and political leaders have proven incapable of addressing some of these most sensitive issues, whether it is race relations in the United States or historical tensions between Korea and Japan. It is precisely at times like this that scholars should be leading cross-national debates that might improve mutual understanding. The treatment of Uemura makes it easier for Koreans to tune out Japanese voices, while the treatment of Park makes it easier for Japanese to argue nothing can be done to satisfy Koreans. Meanwhile, authoritarian leaders are watching to see just how serious we as liberal democracies really are about our founding principles.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 4, Page 32

The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

by Michael Green
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