SethBlogs is suspicious of any ideology that attempts to erase criticism and counterargument.
FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM SERIES:
I: FREEDOM FROM SPEECH (you are here)
Recently there has been some resistance on university campuses to academic and mainstream feminist discourse; critics of feminism argue that gender and women’s studies are often anti-intellectual, statistically inaccurate (sometimes statistically abusive), and misandrist, yet possessing of great powers of influence. Whether your current philosophical and sociological positions would have you agreeing with these critics of modern feminism, the vocal feminist response to them should give you reason to wonder.
In the past three years, men’s and equal rights groups at Canadian schools such as The University of Toronto, The University of Ottawa, Ryerson, and Queen’s have attempted to present a variety of radical speakers who question feminist orthodoxy. In response, some vocal feminists on these campuses reacted not just with counter arguments, but also with attempts to silence the skeptics from asserting their “hateful” ideas. The so-called feminist advocates have promoted this censorship by three means.
(1) They call on their institutions to block the formation of dissenting groups and discussions:
For examples, the Canadian Federation of Students, the University of Toronto Student Union, and The Ryerson Student Union have have all tried to stop men’s awareness and equal rights student groups from forming. In particular, in 2013, the RSU refused to ratify the Ryerson Equality Association because:
In other words, the RSU is telling a group that its claims of injustice are wrong by definition of the sex of the alleged victims. Indeed, the RSU argument, in its attempt to prove that a phenomenon does not exist, inadvertently does the opposite by exemplifying the very notion it sought to deny.
Moreover, while criticism of feminism may in fact be baseless today, it is dangerous to assume that those at the helm of women’s studies will always be unassailable. If we don’t allow feminist leaders to be openly criticized, how will we know in the future if such criticism does come to be needed? Indeed, if only feminists are allowed to lead the conversation, they have a self-interested reason (the preservation of the institutions that have made them successful) to always allege that men are running the show.
Why should a club be obligated to deliberately focus on any particular group’s perspective in their conversation? I don’t object to outlawing discrimination in terms of membership, but if students at a university want to discuss a topic, it sounds rather discriminatory and conversation-controlling to demand that a particular subset of the thinkers leads the discussion.
Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what the RSU means by “center[ing] women’s voices.” Given the group they refused to ratify was actually led by two female students and one male student, the RSU may have meant that they wanted women’s voices centered in a metaphorical sense; perhaps, that is, their intention was that any discussion of sex and gender must be directed by a female-voice-centered framework, such as feminism. But that sounds even more dangerous to free thought. Do we really want to require student groups to focus on the orthodox ideology of their time?
(Excuse the cheap shot, but I imagine that, if Galileo had attempted to start an astronomy club at his university: he would similarly have been refused on the basis that he failed to centre the earth in his discussion.)
According to many feminists, the answer to the above question is Yes, we should expect students groups to adhere to feminist philosophy because feminists, after all, are representing the rights of women (i.e. if you are skeptical of any of their claims, you are, by definition, anti-women). Once again, even if women’s studies professors are right that they are right in all cases, how can we be so sure of their infallibility if we don’t allow them to be subject to review? If they are as omniscient as they say, surely their arguments are strong enough that they can defend themselves against criticism. And, if they’re only mostly right, then would they not benefit from some criticisms so as to chisel their arguments down to their best (as happens in other disciplines)?
On the contrary, these anti-discussion policies were supported by feminist protestors who chanted (to a rather catchy tune, I must admit), “Shame on U of T for allowing Misogyny” in opposition to a talk given by Drs. Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson regarding their unusual takes on misogyny and misandry. So the protestors weren’t just criticizing the two McGill academics (using outlandish, mischaracterizing language to do so), they were also advocating that Young and Nathanson not be allowed to speak at their university where apparently academic feminism has landed on the truth, and so really has no need to be critiqued—thanks anyway.
(It should be noted that not all feminists necessarily agree with such totalitarian tactics and arguments, but nevertheless, I don’t see any academic feminists criticizing them in the public square.)
(2) They physically block free speech:
Along with opposing the formation of anti-misandry groups, some feminists have physically attempted to stop university groups from presenting controversial speakers by
(B) pulling fire alarms (see feminist critic and English Professor Dr. Janice Fiamengo’s talk at the University of Ottawa in 2013, and Drs. Young and Nathanson’s talk at the University of Toronto in 2013).
I wish this were a straw opponent I’ve set myself up to argue against; surely, every intelligent commentator agrees that literally blocking people from discussing a topic is a contravention of free speech. Not necessarily. Consider a debate on The Agenda with Steve Paikin with Dr. Fiamengo and Justin Trottier (National Policy Director at the Centre for Inquiry) arguing on the one side that free speech must be unfettered, while their opponents, Dr. Alice MacLachlan (Professor of Philosophy at York University) and Rachel Décoste (identified as “community organizer, motivational speaker, and Huffington Post blogger”) countered that these protests were an example of such freedom.
Said Décoste :
“I don’t agree with the fire alarms pulled, but when somebody says that the statistics that we’ve been based on forever are wrong, and therefore rape is not as much of an issue as it should be, I think that draws laughter, if not crying, because it’s just so preposterous. So, if [Dr. Fiamengo] wants to speak, that’s fine, but she doesn’t get to have the forum of our publicly funded universities, paid for by my and your taxes to disseminate that information that’s just not right.”
So, while Décoste officially doesn’t agree with using fire alarms to shut down the professor, she doesn’t condemn the behaviour; instead, she defends the censorship ideals that seem to have provoked it.
Meanwhile, her ally in the discussion, Dr. Alice MacLachlan, argued that, while “No mainstream feminist, including [herself] are ever going to defend the pulling of the fire alarm…,” the protests, themselves, “warmed her.”
“I think it’s important,” she argues, “to talk about what we mean by free speech. I care a lot about free speech. I teach John Stuart Mill. I’m committed to philosophy. We started because Socrates was silenced. Free speech means freedom from government interference and sanction. It doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. And these consequences can include vigorous reactions, criticisms, protests. Unfortunately, it can even mean that the debate doesn’t happen…”
Free speech versus Freedom from consequences is, of course, a noble distinction. Yes, those who utter terrible and/or controversial ideas should be free to say whatever they like, but they cannot expect the rest of us not to criticize them for it. But this protest went beyond the consequence of criticism: it was an attempt to physically stop the talk before it happened and while it was in progress.
(Note: while the fire alarm may have been pulled by one criminal, the resulting exit bell was cheered by the gathering of protestors.)
Dr. MacLachlan is free to have her spirits buoyed by the protestors, but instead of saying she won’t defend the pulling of fire alarms (we don’t know her opinion of blocking entrances), why doesn’t she call out those who supported these actions as traitors to free speech? Instead, McLachlan abdicates her duty to philosophical rigor by helping herself to the most beneficent symbolic interpretation of the protestors without incorporating into her analysis their clear breach with freedom of speech. She says to Dr. Fiamengo that some vigorous protests can lead to a debate not happening. That may be, but what is the professor’s position on the moral legitimacy of the means by which these talks were stopped and/or delayed? It wasn’t the noble protesting that disrupted the talks; it was actions such as fire-alarm-pulling and entrance-blocking. If Dr. McLachlan approves the end effects of these protests, is she not obligated to either admit that she is also in favour of the means, or that she thinks these protestors were well-meaning, but ethically disabled in the way in which they achieved their results?
(I’ll spend more time on the above debate in an upcoming spin-off post, FREE SPEECH vs. FREE SPEECH.)
(3) They bully those who disagree with them (or those who want to learn about those who disagree with them):
Setting aside what I wish were just a straw-human argument (the problematic claim that physically stopping free expression should be considered free expression, too), there is, I think, something anti-intellectual contained within protesting university talks aimed at presenting ideas. I am of course not suggesting that the resisters don’t have a right to protest, but I am criticizing them for being anti-intellectual in doing so. There is, as Dr. MacLachlan argued, a vital history of civil protests against governments even if the slogans within such resistance movements are necessarily simple and free of nuance. Such anti-government protests may be crucial to our democracy because they resist those in power; they tell our leaders (and fellow citizens) that some or many of their people are dissatisfied with government policy.
In the case of resisting ideas, however, I am not convinced that protestors can help themselves to the same ethical justification for their loud actions. Individual, non-government thinkers may have influence, but they are not in power, so I don’t think such a blunt instrument as shouting simple slogans at one’s opposite thinkers is a necessary or appropriate tool of resistance on a university campus.
I repeat: protestors have (and should have) the right to criticize any group they choose, but I’m troubled that a philosophy professor, such as Dr. MacLachlan, is unwilling to question their intellectual righteousness. Capital C censorship involves blocking people from speaking (check!), but small C censorship includes bullying and intimidating those who hold contrary views to the established orthodoxy. If, in Dr. MacLachlan’s philosophy class, some students shouted down others for expressing their ideas, I hope (and suspect) she would she tell the intellectual gathering that, in a philosophy class, there is an expectation of respectful discourse such that everyone is allowed to freely express themselves. Universities, I understand, are intended to be places where all ideas are given opportunities to be heard (and criticized); isn’t that why we think it’s so important to give professors life-time tenure, so they’ll never be afraid to speak out when they disagree with popular thought? So why is Dr. MacLachlan so unwilling to say that, while the student protestors had every right to yell at the feminist critics, they were in fact anti-intellectual for doing so?
To my thinking, the primary reason campus feminists are so loud in their resistance to criticism of academic feminism is because—like toddlers being told No for the first time—they are not used to it.
I will make my case for this “terrible twos” hypothesis in Episode II of this series.
FREE SPEECH FROM FEMINISM SERIES:
I: FREEDOM FROM SPEECH (you were just here)