Censorship Debate: Saint Mary's University Letter To The Editor

January 2007

October 18, 2006

In Response to Mark Mercer’s Letters to the Editor (Sept. 20 and Oct. 11) re: Peter March Controversy.

In reading Mark Mercer’s comments in his letters to the editor on September 20 and on October 11, it’s clear that he does not have a genuine understanding of the scope of the issues surrounding the publications of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Dr. Mercer holds that Dr. March has the right as an academic to say whatever he wants to whomever he wants, no matter who he insults, because that is what the so called “life of the mind” is about, open discussion and dialogue. But, the issue at hand runs far deeper than a simple insult to the Muslim community. If this is a simple matter of offence then all who actually value real academia, scholarly criticism, true insight, and “the life of the mind” should have been offended by March’s continual display of ignorance, misunderstanding, and thoughtlessness, not just Muslims. No this issue runs much deeper.

Although the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) are indeed offensive to the Muslim community, their repercussions to society are much more grave. These images are part of a system of images that perpetuate a stereotype of Muslims and Arabs that has permeated Western academia, politics, and culture since the middle of the seventeenth century. These sorts of depictions, whether they are in editorial cartoons or in history books, are birthed from and have helped cultivate a sense of superiority in the west, and have allowed for the justification of centuries of colonization, occupation, and oppression. The issues at hand are not about simply insulting, they are about dehumanization or other human beings, racism, segregation, and power. Mercer asserts that by silencing March’s madness, we are indeed suppressing his expression of ideas, but what Dr. Mercer doesn’t seem to realize is that March’s actions and the images of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) that have been published across the world are part of a system that is suppressing others socially and politically on a global scale.

And this has nothing to do with free speech in Canada. Freedom of speech in this country is not granted so that our citizens and raving lunatics can go around saying whatever they want. Freedom of speech in Canada is a means to criticize those in power without suffering from political consequences; it is not a means to further disenfranchise an already segregated and suppressed group. If academic freedom, however, does entail the ability to do this, then it is part of the problem and must be re-defined. For it should never be the role of an academic to uphold social constructions, misrepresentations, misconceptions, and stereotypes, but to help their students and society see beyond these things; to employ a higher level of critical thought and a higher level of analysis so we can move beyond these sort of intellectual constraints, so our thoughts are framed by our collective cultural understanding, and so we can actually live the “life of the mind” where we are actually free to think for ourselves.

Zach Churchill


Saint Mary’s University Students Association

Letter To The Editor (The Journal)

October 20, 2006

Zach Churchill makes a mistake opponents of freedom often make (Letter to the Editor, 18 October). Mr. Churchill supposes that freedom of expression is for something. (According to Mr. Churchill, freedom of expression is “a means to criticize those in power….”) Should freedom of expression not pay its way in securing some social goal he favours, Mr. Churchill would straightaway kick it off the bus.

But those of us passionate about freedom of expression want it for its own sake, not (only) for the sake of something else. We simply like that we and others will say what we want to say without fear of being silenced or punished by an authority. We love freedom of expression for itself as we love many other things for themselves: our friends, political equality, knowledge and understanding, that our students become competent and committed intellectuals, the happiness and well being of our fellow citizens or of people generally, the music of Serge Gainsbourg, beauty, our children, our pets, tennis, whatever. Sometimes, of course, we have to make compromises among those things that matter to us for their own sakes. One deep commitment can conflict with another in a particular case, and then we have to choose against one of them. We will not find it easy to forsake something that matters to us and we will regret having to do so.

So I can imagine agreeing with Mr. Churchill that this or that restriction on expression is justified in the context of either threats to equality or the plight of members of a beleaguered and vulnerable minority. Unlike Mr. Churchill, though, I would be terribly sad to have to advocate restrictions on expression—but, were the situation dire and the means crucial, advocate restrictions I would. One practical question for Mr. Churchill and me, then, in cases like that of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, is whether official suppression of expressions involving racist or other offensive materials is a necessary, or even effective, way of promoting the social goals we share.

Mr. Churchill thinks suppressing displays of the cartoons is an effective way to promote peace among nations and equality of opportunity for Muslims in Canada. The cartoons, Mr. Churchill charges, embody racist stereotypes. Displays of the cartoons, then, will or very well might work to reinforce or even to engender prejudice against Muslims. Individuals prejudiced against Muslims will act badly toward those whom they think are Muslim, and Muslims will suffer.

Let us suppose that one or another of the cartoons does indeed embody racist stereotypes. What reason do we have to think that displaying that cartoon actually promotes racist attitudes? What reason do we have to think that Dr. March’s displaying the cartoons might well have brought someone to the side of racism? I’d like to see studies. Perhaps Dr March’s displaying the cartoons had the salutary effect of causing people prejudiced against Muslims to notice and criticise their bias. We don’t know either way. Before we can judge the effectiveness of censorship in realizing some social goal, we need to evaluate whatever relevant research we can get. Mr. Churchill cites no relevant research. We ought not just assume that censorship will be an effective tool in our work.

Let us suppose that people prejudiced against Muslims will try to act badly toward those they think are Muslim. How will they try to act badly toward Muslims? By denying them equality of opportunity, jobs, education, health care, a spot at the lunch counter, a seat on the airplane, freedom of dress, effective policing? Let them try!—and then fine the bastards heavily or cart them off to jail.

While we are supposing these things, do keep in mind that even if suppressing expressions of racism has some good effect, our energies in the fight against racism and for social justice could well be better spent in ways that don’t include suppressing any ideas or images. Our energies would be well used criticizing bad ideas and images and making our own good ones. Our energies would be well used in at least twenty-seven other ways, including, of course, doing what we can politically to ensure that Muslims in Canada enjoy equality of opportunity and all the rest. I wonder: Are there adequate channels through which Muslims in Canada can speak to other Canadians to make their concerns and aspirations known? Are there adequate channels for Muslims here at Saint Mary’s? If not, let’s get to work.

Mr. Churchill contends that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons embody false and pernicious stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. He might be right. Let’s find out. But wait—finding out would require that we examine the cartoons. But we are not to view the cartoons. After all, they embody false and pernicious stereotypes. Viewing them might confirm us in our prejudices or, worse, instill prejudice in us. We will just have to trust the censors who have viewed the cartoons that indeed they embody false and pernicious stereotypes and that it is right that we not see them.

That’s the final point I wish to make. Employing censorship and suppression in our endeavour to create a peaceful, egalitarian, just, and decent society means handing to our politicians, bureaucrats, police, and courts an awful lot of power and then turning our backs and trusting them to use it wisely. Even those who, with Zach Churchill, have no particular liking for freedom of expression might fear going this route.

Let me list the points I have made. 1) Zach Churchill thinks of freedom of expression as a tool that has been granted to us by our nation for a purpose or a set of purposes. I, on the other hand, love freedom of expression and love it for its own sake. I would no more that you and I be without it than that you or I be without music or our friends or our children or whatever it is we love for its own sake (no matter how bad your music, how no-account your friends, how rotten your children). 2) Despite this fundamental difference, Mr. Churchill and I are concerned that Saint Mary’s, and Halifax, and Canada, and perhaps the world itself be peaceful, egalitarian, just, and decent. We agree that we would have a strong, though for me perhaps not compelling, reason to advocate and accept restrictions on expression were those restrictions effective in promoting peace, equality, justice, or decency. 3) Mr. Churchill gave us in his letter no reason to think restrictions on expression do or could promote peace, equality, justice, or decency. (I would note on the other side that at least one great contemporary liberation movement, that of lesbians and gays, did extremely well entirely without the aid of laws against homophobic expression.) 4) We have in Canada, or should insist on having, strong protections against discrimination in hiring, housing, education, and the rest. Let the school teacher say whatever he wants to say about Jews (talk back to him, of course); fire him should he fail to teach his Jewish charges (or any of his charges) well. 5) Whether the weight of evidence, once we see the evidence, tips the scales in favour of Mr. Churchill or not, much can be done to bring about peace, equality, justice, and decency without suppressing anyone’s expression. 6) Trust officials to use the power of censorship to suppress only racist expression? Might as well trust the puma roaming your house to eat only the mice.

Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary's University.