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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Blast from the past: On disinviting speakers

The following was first posted on the Skeptic Ink site on 16 March 2013 - under the heading "Disinviting Speakers - the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate debacle". It expresses some general views about the rare circumstances in which it is socially legitimate to disinvite speakers. Clearly, none of those rare circumstances applied to the especially egregious case of Professor Albert's disinvitation, and they would seldom apply even to less obviously egregious cases. One of my most popular posts on this site related to the disinvitation of Elizabeth Moon by WisCon in 2010, and disinvitations are an ongoing problem.

It's worth thinking about this again at a time when many high-profile people (Germaine Greer, Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, etc.) have recently received, or have been threatened with, disinvitations.


Jerry Coyne has a post about a recent debacle relating to the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, a large public event hosted by the American Museum of Natural History. Speakers and topics are currently chosen by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem that’s come up is that Dr Tyson invited Professor David Albert as one of the panelists to take part in the debate, to be held on 20 March this year. That invitation was extended (and apparently accepted) in October 2012, but it was rescinded in early January 2013. If you look at the comment thread, scrolling down to near the end, you’ll see that Dr Tyson gives an explanation – that about two months after issuing the invitation he realised that he’d set up the debate in a way that was contrary to the event’s traditions. It was turning into a philosophical debate about broad and abstract questions, such as the nature or concept of nothingness, rather than a debate between working scientists on a strictly scientific issue. Indeed, the event has never previously included a philosopher on the stage.

Or something like that. I may have missed certain nuances, and I don’t wish to be unfair… so check for yourself to see how Dr Tyson explains his decision. The background is that Professor Albert had given an unfavorable review to Lawrence Krauss’s book A Universe From Nothing, and the two of them would have been part of a panel discussing issues related to the book’s thesis. Taking the explanation at face value, it appears that Professor Krauss was not involved in the decision and should not be blamed for it.

You’ll also see, immediately afterwards on the thread, a response to by Massimo Pigliucci. I think Professor Pigliucci is correct in this instance: the reasons given for the disinvitation were relatively weak, and it is too late to rely on such reasons after a speaker is already locked in. If such considerations are going to be relied on, it should be before speakers are approached, not after a speaker has accepted in good faith (and spent two to three months of living and planning on the expectation of taking part in the event).

Do I think that speakers should never be disinvited? No, that would be going too far. I can think of cases where it would be clearly defensible and other cases that are at least rather murky and grey. What if, between the invitation/acceptance and the event, the speaker says or does something sufficiently outrageous and dramatic to bring the event into disrepute? I think there could be cases where such conduct might be so serious that a disinvitation would be clearly defensible… while less serious cases might fall in a grey area with reasonable arguments on both sides. However, it should not be enough that the speaker has merely stated (even robustly) a position that the organisers object to and find offensive. If someone is disinvited on these sorts of grounds, I’d at least want to see an argument that the conduct was beyond the pale of what is accepted in a pluralist society where many opposing views are publicly advocated. Accepting an invitation certainly does not mean that you must, until the event takes place, avoid putting expressing opinions that offend the organisers.

What if misconduct by the speaker not previously known to the organisers comes to light? In a sufficiently serious case, the organisers might be justified in disinviting.

What if the organisers and speaker have agreed on a topic but later the speaker makes it clear that he or she insists on speaking on another topic? In a very clear-cut case, the speaker might announce unilaterally a determination to speak on something obviously different from what was agreed or understood. A greyer area might be if the speaker indicates a strong inclination to “twist” the meaning of the topic, so that it is very different from what the organisers reasonably thought they were agreeing to (or indeed, were asking the speaker to address in the first place). This can be a matter of judgment, but in some cases I’d think that the disinvitation was at least within the proper discretion of the organisers (even if I wouldn’t have made the same judgment call).

I’m sure there are other circumstances where a disinvitation might be warranted. Doubtless the categories of cases are not closed, but they would usually have something to do with the speaker’s questionable conduct (or revelations about it) after the invitation and acceptance. One exception, I suppose, might simply be some kind of financial exigency requiring the scaling down of an event (perhaps with a reduced number of speakers from what was first planned).

Nothing like any of this seems to have been the case with Professor Albert. What we are seeing is, apparently, just a change of mind about the nature of the event long after he had given his agreement to the invitation. This sort of thing should not happen – once an engagement is locked in, the speaker should be able to plan on the basis that it will stand, barring some unusual occurrence or some disreputable or unreasonable conduct by the speaker. Professor Albert appears to have been treated badly here, and this episode should stand as an example of how not to do things.

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