This article was published by McMaster’s Silhouette newspaper here.
“Universities have a fundamental obligation to oppose bigotry and closed-mindedness in all its forms.”
I fear that this quotation, extracted from context and posted by the McMaster Facebook page as an accompaniment to Patrick Deane’s monthly address, will be appropriated by misguided left-of-center activists to license censorial behaviour. Mr. Deane is referring to President Trump’s travel ban and its detrimental impact on the historically inclusive university. He rightly asserts the necessity of and historical precedent for academic inclusion and openness, describing Frederick Barbarossa’s valiant protection of foreign students in the 12th century. However, stripped of this framework, the quotation appears borderline Orwellian. Can, and should, the university dictate the line between closed and open mindedness? No. Freedom of expression, after all, must include the right to offend. The poisonously regressive antithesis to this attitude currently infects not only our campus, but campuses cross-continent. Indeed, California’s Higher Education Research Institute reported last year that “71 percent of freshmen surveyed in the fall said they agreed with the statement that colleges should prohibit ‘racist/sexist’ speech on campus.” The same study found 43 percent of respondents believe “colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus”. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof summarizes the problem: “we’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”
Opposition to expression is inherent close-mindedness. The proclamation of the anti-alt right posters which tattooed the walls of our campus last November, “any attempt to legitimize right-wing racist and fascist views in politics and society will not be debated,” is wrong-headed and capitulationist. Aside from the nebulousness of what constitutes such -ists, the very act of refusing to discuss plays into the opposition’s hands. We must tackle opponents directly to ultimately destroy destructive movements – and we cannot do that if we ignore them. The words of Mr. Lincoln are salient here: “as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” We cannot and should not claim the right to be censors. To deny another the right to speak, no matter how absurd their opinion may seem, is to imprison oneself in the cage of one’s own perspective. Thomas Paine says as much in The Age of Reason: “I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”
This leads to the question always dodged those who would restrict free expression (or, at least, argue it should not include the right to offend). Who is to be anointed moral arbiter? Who shall deem which expression is ‘bigoted’ and ‘close-minded?’ The answer, of course, is that no person so qualified exists. The university exists not to oppose; rather, it exists to provide a platform for discourse and, in that way, facilitate conflict resolution through more speech, not enforced silence. Mr. Deane’s article argues this, as it were: “our universities, like our society, are only enriched and strengthened by diversity of opinions.” I only hope his full article attracts as much attention as the easily misinterpretable quotation selectively plucked by the powers behind the Facebook page.
As Patrick Deane writes, the travel ban, like most of the actions taken by our neighbour’s troglodytic, temperamental, Cheeto-coloured commandant, is wrong-headed. Equally deplorable is any attempt to stifle free expression. I implore readers to jettison the muzzles poised readily by their trigger-fingers and, instead, exercise their right to retort.