Victoria Times Colonist, 10 July 1995, p. A5 Repr. as “Academic Black Eye”, Kitchener Record, 12 July 1995, p. A9

by Andrew Irvine

 By identifying harassment and discrimination with that which simply causes offense we inevitably reduce what were once serious allegations to trivial matters of subjective preference.”

Two weeks ago, student admissions to the graduate programs in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia were temporarily frozen. The basis of this action was a report written by Joan McEwen charging the Department with widespread, systemic sexism and racism.
There are many disquieting aspects to this affair. Not the least of these is that allegations of discrimination and harassment are always serious, and that professional reputations and aspirations, of professors and students alike, hang in the balance.
But equally disturbing is the abandonment of due process on the part of the UBC administration, and the now common practice of identifying harassment and discrimination with virtually any comment or action which causes people to be offended. By abandoning due process we begin the dangerous slide towards the view that all it takes to prove an offense is to make an allegation. And by confusing allegation with evidence we abandon a cornerstone of natural justice.
By identifying harassment and discrimination with that which simply causes offense we inevitably reduce what were once serious allegations to trivial matters of subjective preference. And by giving these preferences such prominence, advocates of reform inevitably do their cause a significant disservice.
Thus, in response to the student who was offended by the professor who asked her what she was going do with her degree when she completed it, or to the incoming student who was offended by the professor who commented upon her age, the typical person is inclined to reply, “If that’s all there is to harassment, who cares?” Devaluing one’s political coinage in this way is never good strategy.
Also disturbing is that the UBC administration has taken unjustified punitive action against an entire Department—consisting of faculty and students alike—rather than against only those individuals whose alleged actions might require genuine discipline. Rather than attempting to determine individual culpability, the administration has been content to take the easy way out. In doing so it has significantly and unjustifiably harmed the reputation of, what was until recently, a highly respected Department.
But perhaps the most discouraging aspect of this entire episode is the chilling effect that it is bound to have on academic freedom all across Canada. By identifying discrimination and harassment with comments or actions which merely cause subjective offense—rather than with comments and actions which cause significant differences in treatment, disadvantage or harm—the McEwen report opens the door to the worst kinds of disciplinary abuses.
Does the mere fact that someone is offended because only 20% of a Department’s faculty consists of women constitute a good reason for implementing a program of reverse discrimination? Does the mere fact that someone is offended because a professor and a student, two consenting adults, might be having an affair, constitute a good reason for disciplinary action?
The 19th century philosopher and famous defender of liberty, John Stuart Mill, advocated sufficient tolerance in society for individuals to be able to practice what he called “experiments in living”, or what we today might call “alternative life-styles”. What this means in practice is that we often have to tolerate comments and actions which may offend, but that fail to cause harm.
In contrast, if all it takes for an individual professor or for an entire Department to be found guilty of harassment or discrimination is that some person or persons be offended, then freedom of speech is inevitably threatened. After all, as the McEwen report shows, almost any comment in any context might be viewed by someone to be offensive. And because offense is necessarily a subjective matter, there will be no end to the number of unjustified allegations concerning harassment and discrimination under such circumstances. Like issues of taste generally, the much discussed “ideally positive teaching environment” is not a matter appropriate for legislation.
Despite this, it has been this type of reasoning that infects the mind-set of many university harassment offices across the country. At a number of universities the situation has degenerated to such an extent that professors often feel that they have much less academic freedom today than they once enjoyed. They certainly are able to exercise much less freedom of speech than the newspaper columnists and editorialists who now comment upon their plight, or than the writers of a typical episode of the television show Roseanne.
Thus the issue of which comments may or may not cause offense takes on major proportions in the minds of many university instructors.
For someone such as myself who stands up nine times a week to lecture to between 100 and 300 undergraduates, this issue becomes crucial. Of those several hundred students, how many might take offense at the fact that some article or book is (or is not) included on a required reading list? Of the many students whose papers and exams I grade, how many may become offended by the fact that I haven’t taken their views about abortion (either pro or con), or about Naziism (either pro or con), or about why the earth is flat (either pro or con) as seriously as they might have hoped?

This is not some idle concern. In a philosophy course that discusses the merits of abortion on demand or euthanasia or religious fundamentalism, some people will inevitably take offense at the material under discussion, no matter how carefully or sensitively it is presented. The same will be true in an English course where the reading list includes authors ranging from Margaret Atwood to Kurt Vonnegut. It will also be true in a psychology course that discusses differences between the sexes. In such courses, contrary opinions are not occasional occurrences, they are the norm and the fact that some people will find some remarks or writings on such topics offensive is inevitable. Trying to decide whether such offense is well-founded soon becomes a fool’s game.

The effects of identifying discrimination and harassment with actions or comments that cause subjective offense are thus perfectly predictable. Some university instructors will modify their course curricula to avoid possibly offensive topics. Others will simply stop teaching certain courses, opting instead for less controversial subjects.
In the end, it will not simply be the professors and students who suffer from such self-censoring, but society as a whole.
Andrew Irvine teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

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