I am a Conservative … but that’s because I am, in reality a classic, 19th century, Victorian liberal. My liberalism, and, therefore, my adherence to Conservative values, is grounded in John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and in the politics of classic Whigs and Tories like the Duke of Wellington, Edmund Burke, and Disraeli and Gladstone and, and, and …
… through to Winston Churchill, Louise St Laurent, Dwight Eisenhower, and Stephen Harper in my lifetime.
My liberalism is based on the simple notion that all men and women have rights and that those rights accrue to individuals, generally, across the board, and equally, without regard to sex, race or creed, and that the greatest threats to an individual’s rights come from the collectives, including especially the state which is the greatest collective of all, and that it is the fundamental duty of the state to protect the rights of every single individual. All rights are not equal and all, even the most important ones like life, liberty, property and privacy, can be constrained and must “compete,” sometimes with other rights; generally, however any individual right must trump any collective right ~ no matter how big and powerful the collective might be. But I’m also a Conservative because I believe in institutions, including democracy and democratic government, the rule of law and, therefore the state itself.
One of the institutions in which I believe is education. I believe that a general, compulsory, free, public education, for all, again without any regard at all to sex or race or creed or income is a vital element of our liberal, secular, free, democratic society ~ and that is all education: from kindergarten to the greatest university graduate schools. I have become more and more worried as the 20th century came to an end and the 21st century dawned about what I fear might be happening to our education system as phoney programme like “gender studies” and movements like “safe spaces” took hold, almost always at the expense of rigorous intellectual inquiry and debate.
That brings me to an opinion piece, in the Globe and Mail, by Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia ~ someone with whom I generally disagree about many issues … but not this time. This time Professor Byers says, and I agree fully, that “Freedom of academic expression is essential to scientific and social innovation. It is also a core element of democracy, since the development and testing of knowledge is the first step in speaking truth to power … [and] … Societies that limit freedom of academic expression cannot aspire to be world leaders in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences.“
The issue, of course, is the apparently forced resignation of Andrew Potter from McGill University over a recent article ~ not really a very good article, to be sure ~ that Dr Potter penned for Maclean’s Magazine and that, subsequently provoked outrage in some parts of Quebec’s society. The fact that it wasn’t one of Potter’s better pieces of work is neither here nor there: academics have a right and a duty to debate, to posit, to ask, to suggest, to be wrong, to be corrected and to argue: thesis, antithesis, synthesis and so on. But Michael Friscolanti, writing in Maclean’s, says that “Sources say McGill endured such intense backlash over Potter’s Maclean’s piece that the university left him only two choices: resign or be fired. Sources also say that numerous high-profile figures have contacted McGill since Monday to express their personal displeasure with the column, which lamented the social malaise “eating away at the foundations of Quebec society.”” Well, la di da, and who gives a sh!t what “numerous high-profile figures” including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly think? Their opinion are worth exactly the same as Andrew Potter’s: zilch, zero, nada. McGill’s principal, Suzanne Fortier had a duty, as an academic, as a person of principle, to ignore the mob, however influential, and stand behind Andrew Potter’s right to be wrong. She failed, miserably, and in failing she has disgraced herself and her university, which was, until this last week, always seen as one of Canada’s best … not anymore: it now stands beside e.g. Oral Roberts University as an institution where some prevailing dogma triumphs over the freedom to inquire and the freedom to, now and again, be wrong, the freedom, which we all enjoy, to open our mouths only to change feet.
No matter what Andrew Potter said, however weak his reasoning might have been, he had a perfect right to say it, out loud, even in Quebec. As an institution of real value McGill had a duty to stand behind him. As Conservatives, as liberals and as people of principle, we must all hang our heads a bit lower in shame as we allow our universities, which have already become havens for the weak and timid ~ who need “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” because they are, presumably, not mentally prepared to real ideas and informed debate ~ to deteriorate even further into shells in which the Laurentian Elites can impose their political views on free speech.