National Post Barbara Kay: A new Salon des Refusés

National Post - Wednesday May 21st, 2014

Politically incorrect intellectuals can still get out their message — as long as it’s not on campus.

In 1973, U.S. Vice-President Spiro Agnew spoke at Drexel University’s graduation ceremonies. Left-wing students hated what he stood for, but assumed his right to speak. But in 2014, the heirs of that “New Left” movement make no such assumption, as witness the recent rejection of high-achieving but politically incorrect U.S. graduation honorees. Worse, today’s gatekeepers are not ashamed of their incuriosity; they revel in it.

In this month’s issue of Commentary Magazine, Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse recounts in her article, “The closing of the collegiate mind,” that when she accepted to participate in a recent campus debate on feminism, no feminist would appear with her, because “what is there to debate?”

It’s a short step from “what is there to debate” to “you will not speak.” In March, literature professor Janice Fiamengo was invited to give a talk at the University of Ottawa, her academic home. Protesters chanted and blew horns; scofflaws rang the fire bell; and the talk was cancelled.

Having read Fiamengo’s text, “What’s equality got to do with it? Rape Culture on campus and feminism’s double standards,” it struck me as odd that I am free to express parallel views in my columns, while she was silenced in this ugly way. How, I wondered, can Fiamengo’s intellectual opponents justify such behavior?

On May 13, I found out how by watching a segment devoted to the issue on the TVO’s television network. Fiamengo and Justin Trottier, spokesman for the Canadian Association for Equality, the sponsoring group for Janice’s talk, squared off on TVO’s The Agenda against York University feminist academic Alice MacLachlan and Huffington Post blogger/protester Rachel Décoste.

Décoste’s position was that since Fiamengo’s talk was “drivel” and full of “untruths,” she had no right to speak. But Décoste had not heard or read the talk; and Fiamengo’s so-called “drivel” is to many people, including me, fair and reasonable comment. Judging from Décoste’s ebulliently satisfied air at the outcome, Fiamengo’s right to speak counts as nothing beside the putative offence some women might take in hearing her ideas.

A postmodern academic, MacLachlan deployed more playfully ironic and nuanced rhetoric. When asked for her response to Fiamengo’s silencing, she said, “What I saw warmed me,” because “progress doesn’t always look pretty.” Translation: “The power to chill the speech of apostates pleases me. The end justifies the means. Regression is progress.”

Ideas may nettle but, short of incitement, cannot harm others; only behaviours can harm

When Fiamengo pointedly asked MacLachlan how she would feel if students shouted her lectures down, she disingenuously responded, “I’d be pretty pleased,” since it might, as in Janice’s case, lead to an appearance on The Agenda. After this insulting banalization of Fiamengo’s experience, I half wished that from then on Fiamengo had blown a horn every time MacLachlan opened her mouth. I doubt MacLachlan would have remained “pleased” for long.

MacLachlan had the temerity to cite moral philosopher John Stuart Mill, admonishing Fiamengo that Mill’s cherished freedom of speech did not include “freedom from consequences.”

Nonsense. Ideas may nettle but, short of incitement, cannot harm others; only behaviours can harm. And Mill would have been horrified at the protesters’ behaviour. As he wrote in “On Liberty”: “Again there are many acts which … if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and, coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightly be prohibited.”

Some leftists believe that universities are no longer obliged to accommodate controversial speakers, because of the explosion of off-campus outlets for every conceivable idea. Certainly, dissenting thinkers can and do speak to their choirs via sympathetic radio and TV hosts, Twitter, blogs and even, when silenced on campus, on TVO.

An intolerable malaise afflicts our universities

But The Agenda, admirably even-handed, is not a social institution tasked with molding young minds. TVO does not confer degrees or cultural prestige, nor does it train our future teachers, social workers and judges. Illiberalism on campus, endorsing pariah status of intellectual nonconformists, slowly but surely enables illiberal attitudes and policies in all society’s institutions.

In 1863, the myopic Paris Salon jury rejected many modern geniuses such as Manet and Pisarro. So they held their own exhibition — the Salon des Refusés. Thousands flocked to see their works — some to mock, some to find their aesthetic assumptions challenged in a positive way.

An intolerable malaise afflicts our universities. My colleague George Jonas has lived in police states and he expressed fear in a recent column that we are moving in that direction. I agree. Today we need hundreds of Salons des Refusés Intellectuels: a safe place on every campus for ideas, and the freedom to express them.