Many and probably most academics are dismayed by efforts to limit free speech on campus and, to be effective, organizations like SAFS should appeal to as diverse an audience as possible. But supporters may be put off by the use of inapt rhetoric and unnecessarily divisive language. And if our goal is to change attitudes and resulting behaviour, then again language is important if our arguments are to not be dismissed without due consideration.
For these reasons, it behooves SAFS to act in a manner that is unlikely to deter and likely to attract supporters and persuade readers. And in service to those goals our public and even private presentation would benefit, I believe, from some degree of moderation in communications with intended audiences. Two areas that merit consideration are the use of politicized language and of excessive terminology. I offer these only as suggestions; I certainly don’t want to be seen as trying to regulate anyone’s speech in this organization!
Use Politically Neutral Language
Unfortunately, political language has become intimately connected to current debates about freedom of speech, whether it be left-wing versus right-wing, liberal versus conservative, or democrat versus republican. There are good reasons to weaken this connection, if only to adhere to SAFS own assertion that it is “Not aligned with any political party – our membership spans the political spectrum.”
First, our fundamental concern is not left versus right, but rather the authoritarian regulation and limiting of speech. Although there may be some justification at the present time for seeing the predominant problem as coming from the left, I believe SAFS would be equally resistant to efforts to limit speech from any political corner. Certainly there are marked examples from history and globally where restrictions on speech come from the right.
Second, even today there are dangers of external influences on the academy from elsewhere on the political spectrum. Funding from corporations or even nations, for example, may come with inappropriate allowances for regulation of course content, appointments, and allowable discussion. And clearly some countries not particularly leftist in nature seriously restrict speech of academics and harshly punish speech deemed inappropriate. SAFS benefits from aligning with groups more concerned with these influences than restrictions on speakers viewed as hostile to issues around identity or other social causes.
Third, as Gad Saad, Frances Widdowson, and others at the 2018 annual meeting made explicit, at least some and perhaps even a majority of SAFS members see themselves as “left” on many issues. Generally we have diverse views and our “political position” varies depending on the specific issue. The problem with political labels is that they tend to denote a position on a broad collection of issues. Belonging to either the left or right, for example, implies to many a coherent position with respect to a diverse collection of economic and social issues. Further complicating the matter, what it means to belong to a certain party has changed markedly over time. In the USA, for example, surveys that monitor issues (e.g., environment, military) separate from political affiliation have shown a divergence of Republican and Democratic views over recent decades.
Finally, viewing the issue as left versus right has some unwanted negative consequences. At the present time, there are forces on the right that align with anti-science and anti-university interests, and they take succor in any criticism of the academy, especially if it can be tied to political worldviews. Another negative consequence, I think, is that some (e.g., in the Heterodox Academy) seem at times to advocate as a solution the appointment of more Republicans or Conservatives to academic positions, or at least they present that as a proxy for success. But this just invokes yet another identity seeking favour, whereas the real concern is that appropriately diverse ideas be represented in relevant areas of the academy. Returning to SAFS own principles: “We espouse equality of opportunity but oppose preferential treatment.”
Use Temperate Language
First a few examples of language that could be a little more temperate in my view. Sad Gaad’s excellent presentation at the annual meeting was titled “A Tsunami of Maladies Afflicting the Soul of Our Universities.” It would be easy for anyone reading this title to think that universities were suffering a catastrophic assault on its very being. And I think that many of our colleagues might wonder how they managed to miss the cataclysm.
As another example, here is a quote from the Heterodox Academy website: “… the graph shows, in the 15 years between 1995 and 2010, the American academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left.” What the graph actually showed was that the percentage identifying as “far left / liberal” went from about 40% to 60%. Two problems: most people probably don’t think of 60% as “almost entirely” and many would not equate “liberal” with left, although that may be more true in the USA. It would be natural to wonder what other exaggerations characterize the HxA site.
A final example, and most disconcerting for me, is the tendency to use all-encompassing terms about the academy with respect to the problem of restrictions on speech. References to the university, our institution, or even campus give the erroneous impression that current problems are endemic to universities as a whole, whereas they represent a highly visible problem emanating primarily from certain quarters. When administrators act inappropriately, for example, referring to the administration is much more accurate than to the university, and more appropriate as the administration is not equivalent to the university.
One reason to avoid excessive language is that the terms are inaccurate. Consider references to the university as a whole. The reality is that the major source of the problem is certain departments that primarily see their role as activism, and inculcate that in their students. Faculty members may even disavow objective analysis and instead promote a sense of injustice about the current state of the world and in some cases advocate the need for radical actions. But such a perspective on academic responsibilities is not endorsed by the entire academy or even a majority of faculty.
Or consider the egregious Wilfrid Laurier case, presented so well by Lindsay Shepherd and David Haskell at the annual meeting. Dissemination of such strikingly inappropriate behaviour by faculty members and administration will hopefully have some salutary effect on how universities deal with academic freedom and vulnerable graduate students in particular. But we should be careful not to conclude that such incidents are prevalent given there are thousands of interactions every year in Canadian universities between graduate teaching assistants and their classes, including presumably many discussions of controversial topics. And it is now known that no one in Lindsay’s class actually complained, suggesting those students were not disturbed by the video. That comports with my own experience over many years teaching such controversial topics as heritability of IQ, ethnic or gender differences, and religion, without once having students complain.
A final reason to avoid extreme language is that hyperbole is often associated with ideologues and zealots, rather than academics using moderate language to make a rational argument. Being viewed as the former makes it easier for critics to discredit our efforts as alt-right or whatever pejorative term can be used to shut down debate. And extreme language may not appeal to the large majority of faculty colleagues who are silent even though they likely disagree with events on campus. But being silent is different than promulgation of ideas and advocacy for action. Given how busy faculty are and naturally reluctant to get involved in politicized issues, we need to make a rational case that they will find appealing and easy to support, rather than extreme and excessively polarizing language.
In summary, thoughtful use of politically neutral and moderate language may help SAFS appeal to a wider and more inclusive audience, could make it harder for critics to dismiss our message by wrongly aligning us with distinct extreme groups, and is consistent with an academic approach to the issues. And to close with a sentiment expressed by Bill Fisher at the annual meeting, less polarizing language reduces the risk of alienating people and makes it easier for us to demonstrate our respect and sympathy for groups that have suffered historical wrongs or contemporary disadvantage.