Nuclear Weapons Scholarship as a Case of Self-Censorship in Security Studies

Benoît Pelopidas
Thu, 01/12/2016

Security studies scholarship on nuclear weapons is particularly prone to self-censorship.1 In this essay, I argue that this self-censorship is problematic. The vulnerability, secrecy, and limits to accountability created by nuclear weapons call for responsible scholarship vis-a-vis the general public. This need for renewed and expanded scholarly responsibility is especially pressing given current plans among nuclear-weapon states to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals, committing their citizens and children to live in nuclear-armed countries and, a fortiori, a nuclear armed world. Despite this need, the existing reflexive literature in security studies—calling for greater scholarly responsibility —has neither specifically focused on nuclear weapons nor explored the forms of self-censorship identified here as shaping a modality of responsibility. In making this case, I define self-censorship in nuclear weapons scholarship as unnecessary boundaries on scholarly discourse within security studies.

In this article, I identify three forms of self-censorship: an epistemological self-censorship that denies the normative foundations of nuclear studies; a rhetorically induced form of censorship that leads scholars to stay away from radical reorderings of the world (e.g., world government or the abolition of nuclear weapons) because of the joint rhetorical effects of the tropes of nonproliferation and deterrence; and, finally, a “presentist imaginal” form of self-censorship that leads scholars to obfuscate the implicit bets they make on their considered possible futures and their constitutive effects on the “present” they analyze. I do not claim that these are the only forms of self-censorship. I also leave aside the nondiscursive structures of knowledge production and the institutional and political constraints on nuclear studies. However, as I show in the concluding section, these three forms of self-censorship result in an unduly narrow sense of scholarly responsibility, which does not meet the requirements of democratic politics in the age of global nuclear vulnerability.

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