How to Stand on Your Head

The Free Speech movement at Berkeley in the 1960s is within the memory of many of us. In Canada as in Europe, the 60s saw lasting improvement in the way universities run themselves, along with important reforms in the whole society. There was a push for access, equality, and fairness, a campaign led as much from below (the growing popular sentiment for egalitarian policies in health care and education, for instance) as from above (Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society).

The ideas of access, equality, and fairness formed a kind of Holy Trinity in discussions about the best way to run higher education. The Trinity was open to fairly precise definition, even if people disagreed on terms. As that discussion proceeded, in Canada especially, academic freedom came to be better understood (and practised) than before.

In 2017, the talk is different. The Trinity no longer has automatic priority in argument. Instead or in addition, we hear parallel debate about a new “civility” in universities, a civil “space” in which everyone can “feel safe.” Access, equality, and fairness haven’t been forgotten, but a new vocabulary has been added. I can see why it came to be, but I doubt the new talk is better than the old walk.

In the new vocabulary, we hear as much about harassment, inclusive policy-and-practice, and degendered administration, as we do about academic work, fair and reasonable governance, and academic freedom.  “Harassment” (sticking with that one term for the moment) is being used to mean anything that causes “discomfort” or “unwanted disturbance” in members of the community.

Universities and colleges ought to provide a way to deal with people who make their colleagues’ or students’ lives difficult or impossible, but extending harassment to anything that causes discomfort makes dealing with genuine harassment more difficult. We, with our administrators and bureaucrats, have work to do if we are to detect and to end sexual and other workplace harassment.

But, at the same time, we have to make sure that open-ended arguments and discussion are not displaced or replaced by speech codes, trigger warnings, and campaigns in support of different kinds of identity framed in the terms of acceptable “talk,” if not in a new language.

Those campaigns—campaigns for or by people of colour, for or by people in the trans community, and so on—have divided the university and the public, even as they have led to some desirable change. The divided camps are far apart, for reasons having partly to do with the language they/we use.

The debates and inter-camp fights of 2017 are intriguing but dangerous. They distract us from crucial ideas: that all of us can sometimes be wrong; that dogma is bad for people; that unimpeded debate and argument (including argument about the rules of argument) will never end; that a kind of humane scepticism is exactly what we want and need—right now.

In the new world, language is too often made to stand on its head. We may have to stand on our own heads in order to see why. I’ll give just two examples, one Canadian and one American, to help make the point.

At the University of Toronto, academic year 2016-7 featured entire months of public dispute about the ideas of Professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist who has a pronounced view on a bill before the House of Commons, C-16. The bill would, if passed, “add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.”

Peterson has been called “transphobic” and “massively authoritarian” because he considers sex identity a matter of “anatomy and chromosomes,” not a social or cultural phenomenon. A recent lecture in Toronto became near-impossible as students and staff noisily (and even violently) interrupted him. Peterson’s academic freedom has been respected; that is, he has been free to say and to write what he will at Toronto.

But the Peterson case is important partly because it led some members of the university community to claim that a lecture about gender identity could/would make them “uncomfortable,” that it would be best if those ideas were left unexpressed, that his talk made at least some listeners “feel unsafe.” Putting aside the question of student and faculty sensibilities, this way of talking is likely to produce a situation where vigorous debate on all sides of a question is unlikely at best.  

One has to stand on one’s head to see why Peterson would pose a serious threat to gender identity. But as some commentators have remarked, this whole controversy was as much about politics and power as about gender or chromosomes.

In the United States, an incident at Middlebury College (Vermont) shows how quickly ideological differences can distract a university community—and undermine the possibility of open debate. In this instance, Charles Murray was to speak on his recent book, a study of the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States. Murray is a man with a past, having published a study (The Bell Curve, 1994) of black-white differences, arguing that these may have a genetic basis. Vociferous students caused the organizers to stop Murray’s lecture and to complete it as a studio-based internet broadcast. Even then, one hears students shouting through the studio windows that “Murray is a racist,” “Send him out and keep him out.”

Middlebury’s academic staff thought one way to avoid the unpleasantness at the College would have been for students to skip the lecture altogether. But Linus Owne, a sociologist, said he was “angry that free speech [was] conflated with civil discourse.” I’m not sure I entirely understand Professor Owne, but he may mean that civility and “niceness” aren’t necessary conditions of free expression, and might even get in its way.

These two cases are in sharp contrast with, for example, the appearance at the University of Exeter of “Swastika and ‘Rights for Whites’ sign[s] found in Exeter halls of residence.” The university is actively investigating the matter, especially as research shows a sharp increase in similar incidents through 2016 in UK post-secondary institutions. There has been little talk at Exeter of “unsafety” or “discomfort,” but rather straightforward talk of “moral error” and the need for vigilance “in the face of racism and bigotry.”  No need in this case to stand on one’s head to see the point.

Should we try to see into the thought-world of students and faculty at Middlebury and Toronto, even if we must do intellectual gymnastics? I say we must try.

In a new essay, William Deresiewicz (“On Political Correctness: Power, class, and the new campus religion,” American Scholar, 2017 March 6) shows how this could be done. Deresiewicz sees the culture of political correctness as a “fig-leaf,” a leaf that barely covers the consistent interests and world view of the upper-middle-class folks who run private liberal education in the United States. His approach to the problem combines a sharp analysis of the language of social control (this is the talk about “feeling unsafe” when arguing with determined opponents), with a plea for more social and cultural diversity in faculty and student bodies. Deresiewicz remarks, “True diversity means true disagreement. Political correctness exists at public institutions, but it doesn’t dominate them.” This two-pronged approach will resonate with Canadians.

Deresiewicz does not make a wholly persuasive case for academic freedom and against “correctness.” His examples are fine, but his logic wanting. Happily, there is David Bromwich’s superb paper of last September 2016, “What Are We Allowed To Say,” in the London Review of Books. Bromwich’s use of J.S. Mill is a clear and (dare I say) correct description of a world where language does not get in the way of argument.

Bromwich reminds us how disagreements and discomfort are our friends. Mind you, it’s still a good idea to know how to stand on one’s head.