The Brantford campus of Wilfrid Laurier University is seen in a file photo from Jan. 18, 2019. Brian Thompson/Postmedia News

Barbara Kay: From free society to fear society in the halls of higher learning

Wilfrid Laurier University has become the site of yet another dispute over freedom of speech and critical thinking

My editor, a man in his prime, recently tweeted bemusement that his older readers often preface their emails to him with allusions to their age (“as a 75-year old man …” “I’m an 82-year old woman …”).

I know these readers. Or others like them.

When my oldie readers introduce generation markers in their emails, it’s generally a semaphore signifying bewilderment at a cultural landscape so utterly changed from their youth, they cannot find their bearings. I empathize with these readers because, an oldie myself, I share their anxiety at the continual erosion of classic liberal principles we took for granted as permanent. Especially the freedom to dissent from popular views.

I share their anxiety at the continual erosion of classic liberal principles we took for granted

I don’t claim my generation was the most virtuous in human history, but we were at least eager to become adults, with the responsibilities and comportment adulthood entailed. We took “mature” to be a great compliment, and acting maturely an obligation, even in difficult circumstances.

For example, in 1978, because of its dense population of Jews, thousands of them Holocaust survivors, Nationalist Socialists (Nazis) chose Skokie, Ill., to stage a march. It was an anguishing prospect that sparked a national debate, but the First Amendment prevailed.

Ironically, the march was aborted because of internal dissension amongst the Nazis. But the nettle of principle had been seized. It was a decision taken and deferred to by mature adults. By which I mean the issue was thrashed out in meetings, debate, op-eds, arguments from the ACLU, arguments from the lawyer for the Nazis, and so forth. Rational discourse — not feelings, which were acknowledged but transcended — settled the matter. Those who lost the battle understood that their own pain was being set against an important principle, and even though deeply unhappy at the prospect of the march, would not have taken out their disappointment in acts of vandalism or in abusive behaviour toward their opponents.

Wilfrid Laurier University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd finishes speaking at a rally in support of academic freedom near the university in Waterloo, Ont., on Nov. 24, 2017. Tyler Anderson/National Post

If you had told us in our youth that one day students would be screaming obscenities and blaring horns to prevent presentations by visiting speakers whose opinions they dislike, as happens frequently in American universities and occasionally in Canada, we would have been shocked. If you had told us that someday a graduate student who exposed her class to a range of opinions on a controversial subject — the norm in my university experience — would be officially censured for including the views of a conservative commentator because his views might “harm” students, we would have been gobsmacked.

Lindsay Shepherd’s 2017 recording of her disciplinary session at Wilfrid Laurier University for the crime of exposing her students to Jordan Peterson’s views on compelled speech brought her to national attention. (Peterson was compared to Hitler by one interrogator. A defamation lawsuit by Peterson against WLU is in progress.) The broadcast of the ruthless performance that reduced Shepherd to tears was a pivotal teaching moment in the illiberalism that governs academia in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Shepherd was the only adult in that room. But she was already an exception to the rule in her cohort, and the chances of another such act of dissidence by a WLU graduate student are slim to vanishing. At the time, only a handful of WLU faculty stepped forward to support Shepherd, publicly and consistently: amongst them David Haskell, associate professor in the faculty of arts, and William McNally, professor of finance.

Shepherd was the only adult in that room

Now the courageous Haskell and McNally are stepping up to the plate again in defence of freedom and critical thinking at WLU. The shocking death in May of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, and the subsequent swell of national and international protest it triggered has prompted a wave of university statements filled with vows to double down on eliminating “systemic racism” within their precincts.

Such statements were obligatory, because it has become an article of faith in our universities that our campuses are overrun by white-skinned racists. Even where there is no overt evidence of racism, “implicit” bias — an accusation against which there is no defence — is considered as pernicious and harmful to all non-white members of the community as if it were overt.

WLU President and Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy sent an email to the entire Laurier community, promising an “action plan for equity, diversity and inclusion and Indigeneity.” Haskell and McNally have issued a respectful but critical response to it. Their chief concern is that the action plan does not cite a definition of “systemic racism” or offer empirical evidence for the phenomenon. “One cannot take action to fix a problem until it is defined. And the different definitions imply different solutions,” they write. “For example, solving individual racism differs significantly from solving systemic racism.” They go on to explain, judiciously and collegially, why the action plan will further reduce opportunities for free academic inquiry. Once again, they should not be alone in their expression of concern for speech freedom.

Former Russian dissident Natan Sharansky observed that “if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.” Today it’s social-media mobbing, professional shunning and self-censorship, but the principle holds. We oldies grew up in a free society; we’re ending our days in a fear society.

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