I have, for what I hope are obvious reasons, been putting off posting this, but, the prime minister’s recent ill-chosen words about the limits on freedom of speech finally settled the issue for me. Of course there are limits ~ the one about shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre is an obvious limit. Offending someone may be bad manners but it is not a reason to limit freedom of expression. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is monumentally bloody stupid.
Anyway, about two weeks ago, Konrad Yakabuski made a vey important contribution to the ongoing debate about the “cancel culture” in a hard-hitting column in the Globe and Mail.
Thus far political leaders, like Erin O’Toole, have stayed on the relatively safe ground of protesting e.g. Queen’s University‘s silly decision to remove Sir John A Macdonald’s name from its law school building. But the debate must extend to more problematic areas because, as Mr Yakabuski says, “The people who run Canada’s institutions of higher learning can no longer be trusted to stand up for the very principle for which those institutions exist in the first place. When faced with a choice between defending or silencing open debate on campus, they invariably pick the latter … [and] … This cowering in the face of controversy sets the entirely wrong example for the young minds universities were invented to develop. Yet, university administrators who know better would rather give in to the dictates of cancel culture than face the wrath of those who do not.“
Academic leadership in Canada (and in America, Australia, Britain and elsewhere) has turned its back on liberalism, which is always more difficult than illiberalism; in fact, it’s very hard to find any liberal leadership in the academy because those in power have decided that their public relations officers (who speak to prospective donors) are in charge of the most important element of learning: free inquiry.
The issue that Konrad Yakabuski chooses to protest is a good one. An art history professor ~ BA in Fine Arts and Classical Studies, MA in Art History and PhD in Fine Arts from three different reputable Canadian universities ~ made the point in a class that the victims of racism can resort to the use of “of subversive resignification, or the process by which an insult is reappropriated by those it is meant to insult.” It’s something many of us, especially young people who are immersed in popular culture hear and see almost daily:
Now, there is a difference between, say Dean Atta, the celebrated British poet, and the uOttawa professor: Mr Atta is a person of colour and so it is deemed appropriate for him to use the N word as “subversive resignification” to make his point, but, society suggests, the professor, being white, must not use that word, not even to explain what the poet is doing.
I will admit to having some sympathy for that generally accepted societal position regarding that word. I think it is a loaded word that needs to be used only rarely and then with the greatest care, but there cannot be, must not be too many limits on civil, especially academic discourse. The professor was using the word to illustrate a concept ~ that’s not racist and to try to construe it as such is, to be charitable, stupid. A well-known CBC journalist used the word when, she said, “I was quoting a journalist we were intending to interview on a panel discussion about coverage of racial inequality,” and it cost her dearly in career terms. I think both the professor and the journalist might have been able to achieve their aims without actually using that word … but surely no one in their right minds suggests that either is a racist or that either needs to be sanctioned for trying to spread information to the uninformed.
Someone was offended when the professor and the journalist used the N word. That’s fine … maybe an apology was in order in each case or, maybe, the “powers that be” could have and should have said “Oh, for heaven’s sake, it was an illustration of how the word is used to shame those who use it with malice. There was no racism, no racial insult, if your skin is so thin that you cannot manage to hear a word then your skin is too thin (and your brain is too weak) to be in a university or an editorial conference.” That is the sort of thing that the Dean of Arts at the University of Ottawa Dean of Law at Queen’s should have said. Instead of defending and explaining academic freedom both did what their respective public relations officers said was expedient. We have a name for people who do the expedient thing rather than the right thing:
“Academic freedom,” Mr Yakabuski says (and I would add intellectual freedom in general, including in editorial conferences) “means having the freedom to offend, even if that was most definitely not [the professor’s] intention.” Jacques Frémont, the university’s President and Vice-Chancellor and a former head of Quebec’s human-rights commission “added insult to injury by saying that [the professor] who was briefly suspended from teaching this month, “could have chosen not to use the full N-word. Yet she did and is now facing the consequences” … The consequences?” he asks, “What is that supposed to mean? That she was only asking for online harassment and threats directed at her by daring to treat her students as adults? If those who attacked [the professor] are unwilling to discuss difficult topics, and risk being offended in the process, perhaps a university classroom is the wrong place for them.” There’s no “perhaps” about it; everyone who attacked the professor should be expelled because they are, clearly, unready for post-secondary education and the uOttawa (and CBC) academic/administrative hierarchy ought (at the risk of being considered crude by those who know who Australian comedian Heath Franklin is) to “harden up” a bit.
It is hard to defend even the most innocent use of the N word, but if we do not then we risk allowing liberalism, itself, to be crushed under the jackboots of a frenzied mob of fools … probably led by the prime minister of Canada.