Other than the neologism, there’s nothing new about the ‘deplatforming’ of voices one doesn’t want others to hear. Plato reported it in the Death of Socrates. Under Christian theocracy, heretics were burned at the stake. In the Twenties and Thirties, the soviets in Russia and the brown shirts in Germany made short work of any and all dissenters. And in the early and mid-Sixties, it was ‘them commie peacenik fags’ who were being knocked off their soapboxes, with considerably less concern for the niceties we enjoy here today. In short, the demand that our civil liberties be respected is always a partisan one. Fifty years ago it was the left. Today it’s the right. Tomorrow it may be you. And as Martin Niemoller so famously warned, if you “do not speak out” today because you “were not” among those being silenced, tomorrow it will be you!
Ah, you say, but surely you’re awfulizing. No one in Canada in 2020 is being mysteriously disappeared for speaking his mind.
You’re right. And perhaps there’s the pity. I miss the days when a death threat meant something. Today they’re collected like trading cards. If you haven’t got at least a dozen you’re a nobody. I’ve yet to receive even one, and I deeply resent it. I’ve published a paper entitled “A Defense of Terrorism”, and all I get when going through passport control at Heathrow is, “Welcome to Great Britain, sir. Next!”
Still, the Administration’s malfeasance in the Tony Hall case here at the University of Lethbridge has had a profoundly chilling effect. It used to be I only had to answer for what I said. Now I have to answer for what you heard. Or, as in the case of Rachel Notley calling Tony Hall a Holocaust denier, of what someone heard that someone heard that someone heard…. There’s no need for Notley or U of L President Mike Mahon to check their sources, because in politics, as also now in academia, it’s not about engaging in the sturm und drang of ideas. It’s about virtue signaling. We’re all required to be ‘woke’, which clearly one can’t be if she’s caught with her eyes clenched in thought.
Moreover, we’ve entered the 5000-channel universe, where everyone has a right not to be offended, and there’s pretty much nothing that won’t offend someone. Or, as acting Dean Matt Letts has recently deemed actionable, that won’t hurt someone’s feelings. And therein lies the rub. It used to be one could speak his mind – or in my case his lack of one – provided he didn’t dis the Queen. Now she’s pretty much the only one who’s fair game. I can’t say anything about indigenous people, even though arguably there aren’t any, or about men who claim they’re not. I can’t show what an aborted fetus actually looks like. And apparently hanging an Israeli Apartheid Week poster or wearing a t-shirt proclaiming that “Palestinian Lives Matter” is now considered hate speech.
Awfulizing or not, it was against this backdrop that social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that a university can pursue whatever might be the cause-of-the-week, or it can pursue the truth, but not both, because some possible truths – like that indigeneity is a faux concept, or that there’s more to being a woman than saying so – are incompatible with that cause-of-the-week. Haidt thinks that a university that tries to have it both ways will have it neither. Sitting on the fence just gets you a picket up your ass. Which pretty much describes the humanities and social sciences at most universities in North America, including this one.
And so in 2014 the University of Chicago made a decision. It announced to its prospective students, to its faculty, and to the wider community it serves, that it would neither participate in nor countenance the deplatforming of any faculty, of any student, or of any speaker invited onto campus, no matter how unpopular or offensive the view being espoused. And that, almost word for word, are the Chicago Principles, which are being ‘urged’ by the current government of Alberta on all colleges and universities under its financial jurisdiction.
Let me make two concessions from the outset. Freedom of speech does not guarantee truth. And even if it did, truth is not some special value that trumps all others. We don’t pursue truth-for-its-own-sake-and-damn-the-torpedoes in our private lives. Neither, then, should we demand it from our public institutions, including our universities. But, insists Haidt, if the pursuit of truth is to be trumped by some competing value – be it the war effort, or keeping the peace at home, or perhaps some affirmative action initiative – the university owes it to its stakeholders to be explicit about this departure.
Or maybe not. For isn’t there something incoherent about Haidt’s position on this last score? Imagine a university acknowledging that there are no indigenous Canadians but let’s all pretend there are, or that declaring oneself a woman doesn’t make you one but let’s all pretend it does. Announcing the pretense undermines itself. So a university dedicated to social justice has to be silent about its only pretending to be pursuing the truth. And so that’s how university administrators convince themselves that the truth shall set us free rather than take the winds out of the sails of our unassailable self-righteousness.
Well, fair enough, say I. Why, then, do I support the imposition of the Chicago Principles? If this were the Sixties I’d have done so because I would myself have been among the social justice warriors who were then being silenced. But this isn’t the Sixties. So today it can only be because I want to thwart what counts as social justice today. I can pretend, even to myself, that I’m a ‘man for all seasons’. But because, as I’ve already conceded, all advocacy is partisan, I’m clearly in the pay of the alt-right. After all, who but the alt-right could want to blow the whistle on indigenous and trans-activist rhetoric?!
A few of my colleagues may remember – though others have clearly forgotten – that we used to call this the argument ad hominem. So yes, you’ve found me out. I’m a homophobic pro-Life twice-convicted pedophile racist. There, I’ve said it and I’m glad! But what about my arguments? Or, in those myriad cases more at hand, what are the arguments, fatuous though they may be, against gay marriage, abortion, or Israeli Apartheid?
No need to hear them out, since they’ve already been refuted. Not unlike anthropogenic global warming, vaccination safety, and gender-self-identification, they’ve all been declared a res judicata. In the philosophy of language such a declaration is called a performative utterance, like “I now pronounce you husband and wife!” And since there’s nothing more to be said, anyone saying more can only be telling lies, and so anyone listening to these lies can only be being unwittingly lied to. The survival of democracy hangs on an informed public, not, as John Stuart Mill allowed, one that might as readily be misinformed. Thus and therefore do some of my colleagues consider On Liberty conclusively refuted.
Do I have an argument against this position? I do not. It can’t be refuted because it’s self-sealing. And so if this is the case against the Chicago Principles, that case can now rest, because any attempt at refutation will be an attempt to obfuscate. Of course that this is where the case against the Principles rests, is, in turn, precisely the case for them. And so there we are, two ships passing in the night, firing feckless salvos at each other for no purpose other than signaling our partisan loyalties.
But I won’t leave it at that. Instead, for what little it may be worth, I will take the trouble to parry the remaining non-question-begging objections to adopting the Chicago Principles, beginning with …
Is the imposition of the Chicago Principles a solution in search of a problem? It is not. The Tony Hall case here at the U of L is a slam-dunk argument against leaving the power to deplatform in the hands of invertebrate university administrators.
Tony conjectured that the Israelis might have had a hand in 9/11. Being in on the conspiracy, I happen to know that Tony got it completely wrong. The truth is it was the work of nineteen (admittedly not terribly bright) young Arab men who’d been watching the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick True Lies, and didn’t realize that a passenger jet, which they’d hijacked for the sole purpose of a joy ride, can’t hover in place the way that Hawker Harrier did in the final scene of the movie. What was mistakenly overheard as “Allah Akbar” was actually Arab for “Whoa Nelly!” But Tony couldn’t have known any of this. So though the 9/11 Truthers are mistaken, they’re understandably mistaken. In fact it turns out that the official version of 9/11 is embraced by less than half the world’s population, because the other half is watching Al Jazeera rather than Fox or CNN.
Anyhow, the Zionist lobby got wind of Tony’s accusations and demanded his removal, after which a complaint was mysteriously unsolicited from Goldie Morgentaler to make it appear as internal. As the first pass the then-Dean of Arts and Science, Craig Cooper, did his job. But then, with a little not-so-gentle ‘urging’ from his superiors, he caved and picked up the pitchfork they assigned him. Even our quisling Faculty Association did what it could to throw Tony under the bus. In short, it was no one’s finest hour.
In the end Tony won, whatever that could mean. But he never returned to the classroom, and two years later the attrition took its intended toll and he retired.
Since procedural justice prevailed, no harm no foul, right? Well, no harm if, like me, you’re trying to get a two-year paid sabbatical. But Tony wasn’t. And neither are those members of faculty who’d rather not squander two years of their careers fighting the good fight alone because Martin Niemoller’s warning has never fallen on other than deaf ears.
Tony’s deplatforming was initiated from outside the university, but in other universities in North America it is the students themselves who’ve assumed the right to silence voices they won’t abide others to hear. The Chicago Principles, if but only if rigorously enforced, would prevent all this. With the Chicago Principles in place, Tony could have just told Mike Mahon to go fuck himself. But he wouldn’t have had to, because Mahon would have been able to tell the Zionist lobby that his hands were tied. And in response to students who think they have the right to prevent other students from being exposed, even voluntarily, to views that are clearly wrong, the Administration can say the same thing. “We agree wholeheartedly, but our hands are tied.”
Which brings me to the second non-question-begging objection, namely that …
The imposition of the Chicago Principles violates the university’s autonomy.
This is nonsense, nonsense on stilts. It’s nonsense not because the imposition of the Chicago Principles does not violate the university’s autonomy, but because the university is not autonomous, and neither should it be.
You knock on my door and ask for a donation. For what? I ask. None of your business, you answer. It seems to me I can put restrictions on how my money is being spent, and so likewise can the government on my behalf. As in fact it does.
The government hires people who are thought to know more than the average front-line teacher as to what grade school and high school students need to learn in order to contribute to themselves and their community, both economically and socially. It does the same at the post-secondary level, only the experts they hire are called professors.
But here’s the caveat. We’ve learned, in some cases the hard way, that institutions of learning that are subject to the public mood-of-the-moment make for an impaired citizenry. And so just as we’ve learned, in some cases the hard way, to place a buffer between the mob and the government – we call it a constitution – we’ve also learned, in some cases the hard way, to place a buffer between the government and the university.
That said, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke argued – and it’s hard to disagree with him on this score – that when that buffer protects malfeasance, it is the right of the people to dissolve it. By parity of reasoning, then, when the autonomy of the university shields its abrogating its mandate, it too forfeits that autonomy.
The government of Alberta has every right to demand that universities funded by the widow’s mite do what the widow’s mite is paying them to do. And that is to teach the canon, yes, but also to challenge it. Are universities falling short on this second part of their mandate? The spate of deplatformings being reported daily by civil libertarian monitors like the JCCF in Canada would seem to suggest they are. Would adoption of the Chicago Principles put the kibosh on all of this? Probably not. But, as we say in Anglicized Yiddish, it couldn’t hoit.
Or could it?
The alarmists, bless their cotton socks, are worried that the Chicago Principles will leave our classrooms open to invasion. It would not. Freedom of speech is a misnomer. If your freedom to speak were all you’re worried about we could drive you to a field out by the airport and pick you up an hour later. In fact your freedom to speak your mind has nothing to do with your rights. Rather it has everything to do with mine. It’s parasitic on my right to hear what’s on your mind, conditional, of course, on your being willing to share it with me. But I can’t hear you if others are free to talk over you. Then all I’m being treated to is a bout of cross-screeching, not unlike the kind of ‘interviewing’, which it’s not, by Chris Cuomo on CNN, in which no Republican has ever been allowed to complete a single sentence. So not unlike a professor in the classroom, the management of every venue, be it a university, a public library, or a hearing at city council, has a duty to assign any would-be speaker his time and place.
In exercising that duty with respect to its own students, universities have a resource unavailable to others like libraries and parks. Universities have codes of conduct that empower them to expel a student who violates that code. Without that power a university couldn’t function. But there’s nothing in the Chicago Principles that in any way undercuts that power. Administrators have been loath to exercise that power for fear of being accused of silencing protest. But the right to protest is being misinterpreted as the right to silence people. It is not. University administrators just need to grow enough balls to make it clear that it’s not. And as already noted, so do faculty associations.
And now, finally, comes the elephant in the room.
Some philosophers, not unlike most politicians, speak with forked tongue. For example, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty eschewed all paternalism, except, of course, for those in their nonage, by which he included, of course, a people in their nonage, by which he was clearly referring to those who are, well, black, and probably those who are, well, brown. Or freedom without bounds except, of course, that which is clearly obscene, of which, he adds, “nothing more need be said”. In other words, Mill is saying we should allow only what liberty we elect to allow and only to those we elect to allow it.
Elsewhere I’ve described this sleight of hand as the Except-When fallacy. It’s a fallacy because “p except when q” is an “or” statement, and “p or q” is commutable to “q or p”. Thus “All speech is permitted save what is prohibited!”, which is definitive of liberalism, becomes “All speech is prohibited save what is permitted!”, which is definitive of totalitarianism. And it slides from the one to the other by the incremental addition of prohibited speech acts.
And what justifies these additions? Sections 319(1) and 319(2) of the Criminal Code, and similar so-called hate speech provisions in provincial and federal human rights codes. So how does one override the freedoms of speech guaranteed to us in that pesky Charter of Rights and Freedoms? By simply reinterpreting the notion of hate speech to mean anything one hates others to hear.
The most shameless example of this is the insistence that we all adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, according to which
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
But that would be too open to interpretation, and so the IHRA has taken the trouble to enumerate eleven acts that would count as anti-Semitism.
“1. To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations: manifestations might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’ It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
“2. Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, take into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to: calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of radical ideology or an extremist view of religion. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective – such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
“3. Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
“4. Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or the intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
“5. Accusing Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
“6. Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
“7. Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
“8. Applying double standards of a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
“9. Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
“10. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
“11. Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of the State of Israel.”
Now add to this list (what in Canadian jurisprudence is called) the analogous grounds interpretation of enumerated acts, and what we get is precisely what the Except-When fallacy predicts, namely that all talk of Jews and Israel is prohibited save that which is permitted, which is just to say what our mothers taught us, namely, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Now couple all this with (what the new U of L sexual violence policy touts as) ‘the victim’s perspective’, and what we get is that anything that hurts someone’s feelings is actionable. But not just anyone’s feelings. Only those the protection of whose feelings have been successfully lobbied for. So transsexuals count, but pedophiles don’t, notwithstanding that the former have a choice whereas the latter do not. Sexual orientation counts, as does gender self-identification, but trans-racialism does not. Denying that Israel has the right to the Law of the Return counts, but denying that Palestinians have a right to nationhood doesn’t. And so on.
The problem is not that I feel aggrieved by these asymmetries. I do not. Why would I? I’m Jewish. The problem is my not being aggrieved is precisely what Martin Niemoller warned us about. Why should I care that the Palestinians are being deplatformed? Because if I don’t, then next time it’ll be me.
That’s why I support the adoption of the Chicago Principles. I support it because as a Jew I’m particularly sanguine about self-preservation, the greatest threat to which is not anti-Semitism, and certainly not anti-Zionism. It’s the power to silence. I tell my students that free speech is all that stands between us and a return to witch-burning. It won’t guarantee no witches will be burnt. But it couldn’t hoit.