By Mark Oppenheimer and Jason Werbeloff, Quillette
Unpopular, unorthodox and extreme opinions no less than any others need their spokesmen, in order that our chances of discovering truths and making wise decisions be increased.
In January of this year, SUNY Fredonia ethicist Stephen Kershnar appeared on an episode of our philosophy podcast, Brain in a Vat. As usual, we invited our guest to begin by setting out a philosophical thought experiment. We then gave him time to defend his own position, before spending the rest of the episode testing his claims and arguments. This is how every episode of the podcast is structured.
But on this occasion, a thread of clips from the episode was posted on Twitter by a popular conservative account, along with scandalized commentary and a demand for Kershnar to be summarily fired from his teaching position. Within 48 hours, these clips had been viewed over a million times. The story was picked up by multiple media outlets, including the Federalist, Inside Higher Education, Jesse Watters Primetime, the New York Post, and Newsweek. Most of these writers and outlets shared the outrage and disgust of social-media commentators. Who knew that philosophy—the domain of dusty libraries and fading leather armchairs—could still be this controversial?
In response to the public outcry, YouTube swiftly removed the episode (then restored it, then removed it again) as abusive comments streamed into our YouTube feed and Kershnar’s email inbox became a volcano of invective, replete with death threats, amazing levels of antisemitism, and flagrant misrepresentations of his views. Fredonia hastily declared Kershnar’s opinions to be “reprehensible,” and he has since been suspended from teaching, removed from campus, and forbidden from contact with students or faculty. A change.org petition was opened and rapidly collected over 50,000 signatures calling for his dismissal. Members of the State Legislature of New York Albany also called for Kershnar to be fired.