Education

Words Lose Their Meaning at Wilfrid Laurier University

I know that references to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 have been overused in reference to the current crisis over freedom of expression at Wilfrid Laurier University. But I’m hoping my position as a Laurier professor will win sympathy from readers so that that they might indulge just one more tip of that hat to Orwell.

Orwell wrote 1984 not as a standalone work but as the fictional counterpart to an essay he had written titled: “Politics and the English Language.” The piquant ideas of the essay, published in 1946, were repackaged in more accessible form two years later in the exciting narrative of his novel.

Though different literary forms, the key message of both works was the same: beware any person or group that redefines words so that they no longer align with facts, common sense, and common usage.

In the novel this idea is made blatantly obvious in the paradoxical mottos the totalitarian government requires its citizen to recite, such as: “War is Peace” and “Slavery is Freedom.” In the essay Orwell is equally straightforward stating: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

As one of a small group of professors pushing for maximum freedom of expression and inquiry at my university, I’ve been personally frustrated by my colleagues who claim that some topics are “not up for debate” and that censorship is required when a counter-argument offends the feelings of certain individuals or groups.

However, professionally, as a researcher in the area of communication, I’ve been fascinated by the way my university’s free expression opponents provide a vivid illustration of Orwell’s theory of political language. The examples are numerous, but I’ll focus on just two.

Details of the Controversy

On November 10th the National Post broke the story of a Laurier Grad Student, Lindsay Shepherd, who got into trouble for showing her class a video clip from TVOntario that featured Jordan Peterson. It was a debate where Peterson argued against compelled speech, saying why he would not be forced to use non-gender specific pronouns like “Ze” and “Zer”. These newly created pronouns are now used by some transgendered people who prefer not to identify as either male or female.

The trouble for Shepherd came from two professors, Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott, and a representative from the university’s Diversity and Equity Office, Adria Joel. They said the video should not have been shown and that doing so had created a “toxic environment” in the classroom.

Reaction from other media and the Canadian public grew slowly at first, but after a secret recording of the meeting was released by Shepherd, interest accelerated. The overriding opinion was uniform: Shepherd was right for neutrally showing two sides of a debate and her three interrogators — two professors and one administrator — were wrong.

Despite the overwhelming popular consensus that Laurier, and universities in general, should fairly present both sides of an argument, a substantial group of Laurier profs and students, bound by a far-left ideology, felt compelled to educate the public otherwise and so launched a counter-media campaign. Their first communications strategy, I’ll call it “the appeal to safety,” illustrates Orwell’s concepts of political language better than some of his own examples.

The Appeal to Safety

In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell describes how those hungry for power and position will use “meaningless words” to achieve their desired goals. He writes that they use words “which are almost completely lacking in meaning” that if used as intended, or substituted for clearer terms, would reveal “at once that language was being used in an improper way.”

In media interviews, op-eds, and public letters posted to social media the leaders of this opposition group sought to redefine the meaning of harm. In popular understanding, harm to a human involves infliction of long-term damage that compromises normal appearance or function.

But this group jettisoned the established criteria and instead equated harm with taking offence and having one’s feelings hurt. Thus, under their new definition, they claimed students who found the ideas of Jordan Peterson objectionable and were exposed to them in a four minute video had been severely injured.

Furthermore, the injury was not isolated to just those who saw the clip of the debate. Even hearing that such a video had been aired on campus was enough to do mental harm to others. Echoing the party line with hyperbolic flourish, the op-ed of one Laurier activist proclaimed

We need to acknowledge that debates that invalidate the existence of trans and non-binary people or dehumanize us based on gender are both a form of transphobia and gendered violence. There is no neutral way to demand that someone defend their very existence and their right to a safe school and work environment.

In addition to “gendered violence” the term, “epistemic violence” was also used in their communiques. In his essay Orwell makes us aware of those who use “pretentious diction” as a method of manipulation; they use special words “to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.” Certainly, “gender violence” and “epistemic violence” have the ring of clinical authority and suggest the claims of the free speech opponents have empirical backing.

Unfortunately, clinical authority is not on their side. Their attempt to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” was exposed when news reports began citing the most up to date psychological research. Existing research suggests that, for the average person, no lasting harmful effects arise from exposure to ideas they might find offensive. Amongst clinical psychologists, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is currently considered the gold standard treatment for anxiety disorders, including PTSD. A core component of CBT is exposing a person to their fears as well as reducing behaviors which encourage avoidance. The underlying logic of this technique is that avoidance increases mental fragility while exposure decreases it.

One article debunking the concept of rampant “mental harm” being perpetrated on campus referenced the work of Emory University professor of psychology, Scott Lilienfeld. Reviewing all the scientific literature on “microaggressions”— innocuous actions, comments or facts perceived to be racist or sexist slights — Lilienfeld concludes those claiming such phenomena cause psychological harm are wrong; “there is little to no empirical evidence to support such claims.”

While their definition of harm and related claims were incredibly flawed, the logic of my campus’ free speech foes was not. They knew that proof of harm, mental or otherwise, would bolster support for their campaign to restrict certain ideas. So, when it was clear the public-at-large wasn’t buying the claim that videos from public television make classes unsafe, they changed tack and began claiming discussion of freedom of expression itself puts whole campuses under physical threat.

For example, in an open letter to university administration released November 24th and updated the 26th, a group of pro-speech-restriction Laurier faculty claimed the heated public discussion over freedom of expression had caused “our campuses to become unsafe.” They called on administration to “ensure the safety and protection of students and faculty who are being subjected to discrimination, harassment, and threats on their lives.”

I categorically condemn illegal activities done under the guise of freedom of expression. When I read this open letter my response was revulsion toward the perpetrators and sympathy for those targeted. In solidarity with those affected, that day I posted to my twitter account: “I always say: be civil, criticize the idea don’t attack the person, & never threaten.”

However, my sympathy diminished when, on the evening of November 26th, Global TV news investigated the “unsafe” state of my campus. They reported Waterloo Regional Police had received no complaints of harassment, let alone threats to life, from Laurier faculty or students. A similar piece in The Globe and Mail the next morning stated no complaints of harassment or threats had been filed with Laurier Campus police.

While I continue to abhor threats and harassment, in the absence of supporting evidence I’m left to wonder whether the faculty and students who claimed “threats on their lives” were sincerely concerned for their personal safety, or simply concerned that their position would gain popular support.

My campus’ free expression opponents probably realized their assertions of harm were reducing, not increasing, their credibility in the eyes of the public. Accordingly, around the end of November I noticed a refocusing of their messaging. The political language strategy that I now saw being emphasized I’ll call: “the appeal to contextualization.” It’s a strategy that again combines Orwell’s twin concepts of “meaningless words” and “pretentious diction.”

The Appeal to Contextualization

I say they refocused and began emphasizing this strategy, but it wasn’t new. It was employed right from the start of the controversy. In fact, it first makes its appearance in the recorded comments of professor Rambukkana.

Explaining to Shepherd why it was wickedness to air a debate that allowed equal time to Jordan Peterson’s views on gender-pronouns, Rambukkana says that Shepherd’s “neutrality” is “kind of the problem”; it’s wrong, he explains, “bringing something like this up in class not critically.”

Here, his use of “critically” does not reflect the common meaning of “presenting opposite views.” Instead, it’s a reference to the leftist ideology of critical theory. Critical theory was created largely by a group of Marxist academics who started out in Germany but ended up at Columbia University. It posits groups and ideas must be presented in terms of the oppressed and the oppressor with the position of the former being elevated and that of the latter being muted or silenced completely.

That his notion of what constitutes “critical” differs from most people’s becomes clear when he openly refutes Shepherd’s claim that the purpose of “university is to challenge ideas you already have” in the neutral spirit of open, two-sided, debate. Rambukkana says that some ideas are not “up for debate” and that the proper way to approach certain views is to tell students, “this is a problematic idea that we might want to unpack.” When pressed by Shepherd if this form of contextualization isn’t tantamount to “taking sides”, Rambukkana, unphased, responds, “Yes.”

In one last plea to reason, Shepherd asks if it does not demean the intelligence of university students to believe that they must be told how to think about an issue because, after all, they are “adults.”

Rambukkana replies, “Yes, but they’re very young adults. They don’t have the critical toolkit to be able to pick it apart yet. This is one of the things we’re teaching them, so this is why it becomes something that has to be done with a bit more care.”

Rambukkana’s insinuation that “teaching” equals indoctrinating summarizes how “the appeal to contextualization” works. But I’ll “unpack” it a bit further.

As the dialogue between Shepherd and Rambukkana shows, this strategy is simply a version of “leading the witness” or “priming the candidate.” In a court room setting, leading the witness is an illegal practice in which an attorney presents information in a biased way to elicit the right responses from a witness on the stand. Similarly, in an academic setting, priming the candidate occurs when a researcher asks certain questions, or shows particular images, in order to motivate specific thoughts or responses in a human subject. In both cases, an authority figure is putting words or ideas into the mouth or mind of someone under their control.

While they try to give it a coat of respectability, “leading” and “priming” is exactly what those promoting “the appeal to contextualization” strategy believe should happen in the classroom.

As I’ve said, Rambukkana introduced the “appeal to contextualization” but increasingly it’s found in the latest open letters and op-eds crafted by Laurier’s free expression opponents.

In an open letter to the student body issued November 28th, the presidents of Laurier’s undergraduate and graduate student unions issued a joint statement calling for “proper contextualization and intentional facilitation by instructors” to ensure “challenging material should not willfully incite hatred or violence.” We should probably keep in mind that their point of reference when they mention “challenging material” that “willfully incites hatred or violence” is the showing of a four minute clip from public television.

Similarly, in a national op-ed published December 5th, one of Laurier’s sociology professors threw her support behind “the appeal to contextualization” describing what enlightened censorship looks like in her class. She wrote:

When I show videos of controversial speakers like [Jordan] Peterson and Anne [sic] Coulter in my classes, it is within a critical context where students can deliberate on the boundaries between free speech, hate speech and human rights in a democratic society based on social justice ideals.

I don’t think I’m misinterpreting when I repackage this professor’s classroom ground rules as: we can discuss controversial speakers but only within a critical [theory] context [of oppressed and oppressor] that judges the speakers on [my] social justice ideals.

Of course, this begs the question, what happens if students in her class don’t play by the ground rules? That is, what if they have an opinion that’s at odds with critical theory or some of the more radical ideas of social justice?

Sadly, we know what happens. Students challenging concepts such as white privilege—regardless of their intent or the quantity or quality of their facts—are labeled racists, those debunking the gender wage gap are labeled misogynists, and those giving equal time to an argument opposing compelled pronouns are labeled “transphobic.” (Again, “transphobic” is the actual label university representative Adria Joel used to describe Shepherd despite her insistence that, ““I know in my heart, and I expressed to the class, that I’m not transphobic.”)

Next, after receiving their obligatory label, these non-conforming students will be accused of spreading hate speech. Besides Shepherd’s case at Laurier, a quick Google search provides scores of examples from of universities where this has also happened. Then comes the final step in the process whereby those making the accusation of hate speech will say they now have the right to shut down their ideological opponents.

To be sure, my Laurier colleague says as much when, in the same op-ed, she writes:

As an academic, I support free speech as well as academic freedom. But these are not without limitations. Freedom of expression is limited by the consequences of that speech. Spreading hate is not free speech.

It doesn’t matter to these free speech foes that their interpretation of what constitutes hate speech is completely at odds with the facts. I imagine that they rationalize their “noble lie” because the ends justify the means. But they willingly ignore that in the history Canada no one has ever been convicted of hate speech for statements that use civil language, are absent threats or incitement of physical violence, and reflect fair comment or factual evidence. While there are moves from those on the far-left to change the current legal status-quo, it’s currently the law of the land that Canadians are free to challenge and criticize any idea, person, or group provided they adhere to the criteria I’ve described.

The Appeal to Common Sense

The bulk of my essay has explored how political language has been used by a significant group of professors and students at Wilfrid Laurier University to craft two appeals meant to stifle free speech. In keeping with the theme of this essay, I’ll conclude with a final appeal of my own—an appeal to common sense. I’m making this pitch to those on my campus who feel restrictions on free expression and inquiry—beyond the bounds of Canada’s current laws—are needed.

To my faculty colleagues, in particular, I say: Please reflect on the history of the marginalized people and groups that you’re seeking to protect through your calls for enlightened censorship. Consider how it is that they now enjoy the enshrined rights they do. If you’re honest, you’ll admit that the single greatest factor in their collective advancement has been the ability to articulate their arguments freely.

In light of that evidence alone, it’s absurd to think that restricting free expression at this time will come to any lasting good.

Mind you, it was George Orwell who said there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them: “no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

 

David Millard Haskell is an Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University.

43 Comments

  1. I love Nineteen Eighty-Four but 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Patrick McGoohan’s cult Sixties show The Prisoner and in many ways that surreal dystopia better reflects the absurdity of the present.

    The stifling conformity and forced civility, the primacy of society over the individual, the constant assaults on our perceptions of reality and personal sense of autonomy, the ostentatious displays of civic virtue.

    Orwell’s nightmare was ultimately one of honest brutality: a Minutes Hate, a boot kicking a face forever, or caged rats clawing at a human face.

    McGoohan’s world is one where anyone can run for office yet have their voices drowned out when they try to speak. There’s no poverty in the Village; like a campus every material need is catered for. The residents are infantilised. Education is learning to recite approved answers by rote.

    Questions are a burden for others; answers are a prison for oneself.

  2. Caligula says

    The suffix “-phobic” is a reference to a phobia, which may be defined as an irrational fear (of something or other).

    Describing a viewpoint as “-phobic” thus implies both fear and irrationality. Yet those calling others “-phobic” rarely seem to present evidence that the accused is, in fact, either fearful or irrational.

    But if we’re discussing fear and rationality, might such terms be more reasonably applied to, “You can’t say that because your speech is hurtful!”?

    • Andrew says

      I attended an anniversary showing of 1984 earlier this year. Coincidentally, the movie theatre is short walk from Laurier. The original movie was shown with a recent interview with the director Michael Radford. He mentioned that the film seemed more necessary than ever in today’s political climate. Despite all the rigour of Trump and Brexit at the time, it didn’t feel like he was talking about them. It really hits home now.

  3. Carl Sageman says

    How is it possible that Quillette is so articulate compared to every other media outlet? I believe the answer is the leadership.
    I recently watched a video of Milo Yiannopolous at Parliament House in Australia (a must see of good and bad). Despite the Australian media being collectively oppressive and very sexist, there were many journalists there who supported his more constructive messages – which would seem like a contradiction. The Sydney Morning Herald’s “domestic violence is only a man thing” was still prevalent and Milo handled this inconsistently (false: it impacts men as much as women: false – women are impacted more) and (true:this is a problem for men and women, you are divisive).
    What it highlighted is that some people in the media want to do the right thing but are stifled when they try – and they need help. Many of us have become deeply antagonistic towards the mainstream media because they refuse to tell basic facts – James Damore, Domestic Violence, Antifa, Hate Speech … the lies flow like water from a tap. There is no commitment to the truth from ANY outlet.

    This article is brilliant! The real problem is compromise of human decency, compromise of facts, even the endorsement of violence.

    I feel that common sense is under threat. If the only thing the media respond to is lies, feelings and sensationalism, then how will those who rely on “facts, logic and reason” respond? With the same propaganda, or with violence?

    The media and Hollywood have lead us down a dark path. I believe Milo was right when he said “if there’s a fight between the left and the right (with fists), the left will lose”. Milo tried to discourage this – but if you’re vilified as a nazi and white supremacist for simply existing, you’re ignored as a victim of domestic violence because you have a penis and you are bullied out of education (eg. Women as vets is STEM and totally female dominated and it’s still not enough for the media – eg. Ars Technica again yesterday), it will get to a point where the only recourse is violence. That scares me – but the media’a contempt of the average person will break us as a society.

    Quillette’s reason and logic is the one good thing in society’s favour. Reason.com is OK, but, nowhere near as enlightened. Something needs to give. May it fall in the favour of common sense, fact and integrity.

  4. Jason B says

    Fabulous article. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

  5. Jeff Wray says

    While I think it is fair that Mr. Haskell confronts the insular views of many critical theory focussed scholars, I believe that it is disingenuous to argue that speech itself cannot cause harm, particularly to those to which the speech itself attacks. The works of psychologists that Haskell cites refer to individuals being exposed to potentially upsetting words and ideas on a general level. There is a big difference between this and being faced with the assertion that one’s personhood is invalid (an attack that transgendered individuals continually face). Universities are designed to advance the cause of knowledge and students should be exposed to as many different views and ideas as possible, however, should we allow forums (in the name of free speech) to those who want to destroy or invalidate the human rights of others?

    While Rambukkana certainly erred in the manner (two faculty and a staff member confronting a lone grad student was idiotic and abusive) that he and the two others initially dealt with the situation, he had every right as the course instructor to tell Shepherd not to show the video in class. It is, after all, his class and not hers. She is a teaching “assistant”. Showing a video of a non-expert (Peterson) on the use of pronouns with relation to individuals who identify as transgendered was in no way useful to the course material. Even if it was, he had every right (however right or wrong) to tell her that he didn;t want the video shown. He has academic freedom. She, as a teaching assistant, does not.

    While Haskell wants to make this case about freedom of speech, it is really about a struggle for power within academia. Individuals such as Haskell and Peterson are using cases such as this to make a name for themselves in an area of academia that is well outside their areas of expertise. I agree that in many cases within academia there are cabals that want to enforce their social justice viewpoints on their colleagues with techniques that would have made the Jacobins proud. However, within most social science and humanities departments these individuals, while often noisy, are by far the minority. Yes, most faculty members in these departments are left-wing, but they aren’t all critical theorists or Marxists.

    Haskell is simply looking to gain traction from this event. While he likes to attack his “far-left” and “Cultural Marxist” fellow faculty members, he should also make clear that his scholarship derives entirely from his Christian Evangelical faith (in his case, of a far-right variant). While the term alt-right these days has little actual meaning, Haskell’s op-ed writing (his only significant contribution to scholarship is a book published by an Evangelical press that was certainly not peer-reviewed, while his PhD came from an online pro-apartheid university in South Africa) suggests that he aligns quite clearly with most who identify with the term. He denies the negative influences of colonialism, views white males as an oppressed group, denies the existence of transgendered people, and has absolutely no respect for his fellow academic colleagues.

    • John Doe says

      To say a teaching assistant doesn’t have academic freedom is disingenuous. You question that “should we allow forums (in the name of free speech) to those who want to destroy or invalidate the human rights of others?” Then in your last paragraph, you attack Haskell personally for his Christian Evangelical faith, and assume that he far-right politically. First, do you even know Dr. Haskell personally to make such a claim? On two levels, how do you know he’s a Christian, and second, why does that automatically make him far-right? You are conflating a diverse religious tradition into a monolithic entity that must be aligned with the far-right. By joining “Christian” with “far-right” you are attacking him on a personal level to destroy and invalidate his right as a human. Second, you then suggest that because he has a book published by an Evangelical press then it can’t be valid? In addition, then you say that because his PhD comes from an online pro-apartheid university in South Africa, all to discredit him. To say he knows nothing about colonialism is also disingenuous, scholars of religion are probably more equipped to deal with it than a film maker. After “googling” your name, it appears you are in film studies? You are out of your league when you’re talking about sociology, religion, or even Christianity for that matter. Christianity ranges from Catholics to Mormons to Baptists to Pentecostals. Again, assuming you are from Michigan State University, you are writing from a context where Christianity is portrayed as an Evangelical “repugnant other.” Good sir, on multiple levels you have fallen victim to the same things you critiqued Dr. Haskell on. You have actually discriminated against Dr. Haskell because of his religious background (again assuming that he is an Evangelical Christian), and that is against the law.

    • Save the ‘look over there’ routine for the undergrads.
      Just to give you the heads up, attacking an identity rather than the idea only validates the idea further.

    • mattw06992014 says

      Some key points:

      1. Free speech is harm. Sounds a little like 1984.

      2. Mr. Rambukkana had every right to tell Ms. Sheppard not to show the video. Apparently, showing a relevant video is harm. More 1984. In reality, this was a nonevent blown up out of all proportion by Mr. Rambukkana.

      3. “… , it is really about a struggle for power within academia.” This sounds like critical theory in action.

      4. Mr. Wray goes on the personal attack. Where have we seen this before? It’s at the top of every liberal’s playbook.

    • S Ahmad says

      It is obvious that we are in a realm of obfuscation. Let us look closely at your first paragraph. Your ideas follow this order:

      1. It is pretentious to argue that “speech itself cannot cause harm, particularly to those to which the speech itself attacks”. Odd phrasing, but you mean that speech harms those it attacks.

      Despite being a mere tautology, this sentence provides no proof that Haskell or Shepherd did indeed encourage anybody to attack and harm any student. Vague generalizations sound sonorous, but provide no solidity to winds, as Orwell said.

      2. Some psychologists refer to exposure of individuals to “potentially upsetting words and ideas on a general level” but denying someone’s identity is a far serious offence.

      I certainly agree with the point, but can you please give us some examples of these upsetting ideas and words? The “big difference” is what we would like to know. How exactly do the transphobes invalidate the trans identity by speech?

      And where exactly was this assertion in Shepherd’s TVO video that denied “someone’s personhood?”

      3. Students should be exposed to “as many different views and ideas as possible” but not to the speech of those “who want to destroy or invalidate the human rights of others.”

      We are drowned now, as I really can’t make head or tail of your line of thought. Perhaps because you didn’t describe the “big difference” in the preceding sentence, we can’t figure out what you mean. How do you distinguish between “as many different ideas as possible” and the destruction of others’ human rights by free speech? How is the dichotomy established? Do you think it would be better to define what free speech really is before going in all directions without substantiating anything?

      May be Shakespeare was right too, like Orwell. Some people just love giving names and habitation to airy nothingness.

    • Taupe Pope says

      Who has disputed Dr. Rmbukkana’s right to choose what his TA shows in his classes? Following the discussion, I got the impression that his reasoning was what caused all the outrage.

      When has JBP claimed to be an expert on transgenderism? His contention is that the government should not force people to user others’ preferred pronouns and that the legislation enshrines a social-constructionist notion of gender which is unsubstantiated.

      So far Mr. Wray you have not engaged with any of the ideas presented.

    • Kromtěch Oněch says

      I have come to this site recently and I like it here a lot. One of the main reasons why are people like you. Under every essay, in the comments there is at least one person like you, a critic. Simply, somebody who disagrees with the author. And most of the time, the critique has a point which forces me to stop and rethink my previous views. Your time which you put into crafting your ideas helped me to further develop my ideas. Your critique is helpful to me because I know that I tend to some certain ideas and biases, reductions, prejudices etc.. Your opposite voice helps me to navigate from the land of self-deception.
      I know that it sounds lofty and sometimes its not true, sometimes I continue to lie to myself no matter what you tell me. My point is that we are all imperfect being which tend to view the world their own way.

      The forces of self-deception are very strong, ever-present and in current internet world full of echo chambers easy to come by. We tend to build worlds which confirms our own views and we need to let others to challenge the strength of our walls.
      By preventing public debate you slower the very social progress you fight for. You are trying to prevent the possiblity of self-actualization.
      In a way, yes this issue is about power. By claming that some public issue is not up for a debate is claiming that you decided something and you are not going to discuss it with anybody else. You did not submit it to a public discussion and vote, you decided it by yourself. And that is kind of power I do not want you to have. We all feel that our own ideas should rule the world but let our ideas compete in a fair game.

    • “being faced with the assertion that one’s personhood is invalid”

      This is precisely the sort of hyperbolic twaddle that Ms Shepherd’s three interrogators were spraying around. What does it even mean ? At various times people have denied the “personhood” of, say, foetuses or Jews or slaves, with the consequence that such “non persons” are alleged to fall outside moral and legal protections afforded to “persons.” With very unpleasant consequences for them.

      Provide an example of anyone whose “personhood” is denied these days (foetuses excepted.)

      As for Peterson’s qualifications to discuss personal pronouns – who do you claim is more expert than him in such matters ? He’s read a great deal and he’s written a great deal, and he’s lectured a great deal – far more lucidly than most college Professors. If anyone understands English usage, it’s him. If you mean he’s not an expert in persons with unusual gender identities , again who’s more of an expert ? He’s a clinical psychologist !

      Peer review, meanwhile, is meaningless in echo chamber political subjects since only political orthodoxy will be accepted.

      As S Ahmad pointed out, obfuscatory language is used to deflect from genuine discussion. The naval term is “making smoke.”

      • Jeff Wray says

        I appreciate the responses to what I wrote that directly confront what I actually said (i.e. those that didn’t attacked me for being a “liberal”). I went out of my way to highlight Haskell’s religious and ideological beliefs, along with his decision to obtain a PhD from a pro-apartheid university, to provide a point of reference for his place within battle currently raging within academia. One does not need to be a critical theorist who reduces everything to a power relationship to recognize that this is a battle being fought by extremists on both sides, with the “Social Justice Warriors” on one side and the free speech advocates of the “alt-right” on the other (the labels are usually applied by the alternate side to identify/slur the other). Most academics are caught in the middle. While they are uncomfortable with placing limits on free speech, they are nonetheless concerned about campuses being forced to provide forums for crackpot theorists (flat earthers, for example) and inflammatory speakers on a level equal to that of a Nobel Laureate. Most academics are usually just as uncomfortable with the puritanical positions undertaken by many social justice advocates within academia who see “phobia” and “hate” everywhere and refuse to allow anyone that they perceive as expressing them from speaking on campus. On Canadian university campuses, there are far more inflexible social justice advocates than those such as Haskell and Peterson, and they often go too far in their attempt to shield students from “harm.” But I see just as much opportunism in Haskell as in those he is attacking. “Free Speech” is being used as a tool in an attempt to re-establish the previous centrality of the unquestioned virtues of white, Christian, heterosexual males and their ideas and institutions within academia. Haskell has made it clear that he believes that protesting a speaker is an attack on free speech. However, say, for the point of argument, that you are a First Nations student whose parents or grandparents lived through the horrors of the residential school system and a speaker was invited on campus to give a talk on the virtues of residential schools. Should you have a right to protest the speech peacefully? Unlimited free speech advocates almost always say no, as protesting is argued as being threatening to the speaker and an attack on their free speech rights. The media likes to portray this issue as one in which “snowflakes” cannot handle unsettling ideas, but the issue is far more complex.

        • OK, let’s unpack this.

          However, say, for the point of argument, that you are a First Nations student whose parents or grandparents lived through the horrors of the residential school system and a speaker was invited on campus to give a talk on the virtues of residential schools.

          It doesn’t matter who you are or what the talk is about. These “Who, whom ?” questions are completely irrelevant. If a protester has to satisfy some oppression qualification to protest, or if the talker has to satisfy some viewpoint qualification to talk, there’s no free speech. There’s heavily regulated approved speech. Not the same thing. So if you arrive at a different answer to the question when you substitute “Nazi” for “First Nations” and “the benefits of breastfeeding” for “the virtues of residential schools” – you’re doing it wrong.

          Should you have a right to protest the speech peacefully?

          There’s the rub. What is the content of “protest” and “peacefully” ? Making your objection known by expressing your contrary view in a way that doesn’t interfere with the talker getting safely to the premises where he is to give his talk, nor with his willing listeners getting there safely too, nor with his listeners being able to hear the talk without it being heckled, interrupted, shouted down or disrupted – that’s a peaceful protest. Nothing wrong with that at all. But blocking the entrances, threatening behaviour towards talker or attenders, disrupting the talk with sit ins, chanting, turning off the mikes ; trying to make your counter speeches at the same time and in the same hall, so that you drown him out, or at least prevent him saying his piece – no that’s not a peaceful protest. This is not rocket science. If you’re doing something that would get you thrown out of a theatre for disrupting the performance of a play, you’re not peacefully protesting. You’re using force to disrupt the performance. Same applies to a speech.

          Unlimited free speech advocates almost always say no, as protesting is argued as being threatening to the speaker and an attack on their free speech rights.

          I’ve never heard a free speech advocate object to a peaceful protest. But do you really mean a peaceful protest, or the use of force to prevent or disrupt the speaker from speaking to his willing audience, or intimidating* him or his listeners from turning up ?

          * for these purposes “intimidating” means putting reasonable people in fear for their safety, spitting at them, blocking their way or making them run a gauntlet of yelled abuse. It does not include referring to them in conversational tones by pronouns they might not themselves have chosen.

        • Kromtěch Oněch says

          I think Lee Moore addressed some of your points very logically. I see the free speech advocate as somebody who defends the idea of platform itself. Let´s us imagine a forum of people and a speaker desk. Or better, a cave full of indigenous people sitting around a fire and a speaking bone. The cavemen have gathered to discuss an important issue concerning their tribe. The bone is passed from member to member so his voice can be heard. The only rule is that everybody has right to the bone.
          Now tell me, when do you think the chiefman should intervene in the discussion? I think that only when somebody tries to prevent somebody else from holding the bone. So from free speech point of view you intervene only when somebody tries to abuse the platform.

          This abuse can have many forms so I agree that even advocating for free speech can in reality be a mask for misuse. Somebody who is denying somebody a platform can not by definition be a free speech advocate. You claim that Haskell and Peterson are doing so, can you provide any evidence to back up that claim? How they are misusing the platform?

          I mean it honestly, because maybe you see something what I can´t see. I see that they are defending the platform against people who are trying to prevent some people from holding the bone. The Lindsay Shepherd´s case clearly demonstrated this is indeed happening in the academia. Haskell and Peterson are speaking against people who are trying prevent others from speaking up. How is that bad? Isn´t that the very idea you are fighting for? Equality?

    • This is Dr. Haskell. There are lies here, above, that smear my reputation so I will reluctantly respond. I would invite anyone to view my Laurier faculty webpage to see that my research is extensive–14 peer-reviewed articles since 2007–including studies in Canadian Review of Sociology; Canadian Journal of Sociology; Media and Religion; Sociology of Religion (forthcoming); & Review of Religious Research. The majority of the journals I’ve published in are international and Q1. My book was peer-reviewed as were the studies contained in it. As for claims of holding a far-right evangelical faith, I have done public debates on Laurier’s campus where I argued the pro- homosexual position against a professor from a conservative Christian seminary; ironically, because of my radical “left” theological views in the past I’ve been disinvited from guest lecturing at a conservative Christian college. That said, I support the right of evangelicals to hold and articulate views that align with their faith. The comments above are definitely written by one of my “colleagues” from Laurier. I’m pleased that I’ve raised such passion. That you’ve had to resort to lies is a sure of sign I’ve done something right.

    • RE: “There is a big difference between this and being faced with the assertion that one’s personhood is invalid (an attack that transgendered individuals continually face).”

      We’ve been hearing this kine a lot lately. Not sure I’ve ever heard a more ridicuous assertion. Nobody questions anybody’s personhood. But you have no right to demand a damn thing having to do with your identity. You see yourself as you please. The rest of us will see you as we please. Fair enough?

      It is a dishonest game two could play if you want. Let me try.

      Don’t you dare use your hate speech to deny me my identity as somebody that knows the difference between a man and a woman. What could you possibly know about what it is like to be semi-rational and sentient, and the burden that carries in the brave, new fantasy world you seek to impose.

      Stop invalidating the existence of my eyes, ears, and brain. Being able to see the obvious is a big part of my identity. Your gaslighting hurts my feelings, so is pretty much like killing me, and you should therefore be found guilty of something deserving sanction – or at least made to shut up so I can feel better about my chosen identity.

      Quit cramming your hateful unicornism in my face and questioning my humanity – a humanity that is informed by the incontrovertible observation that sex is permanently determined at conception, not “assigned” at birth. I can’t take it any more. If you don’t stop, I will redouble my efforts to shut you up and kick you out because you hate, and we just can’t have that. I need identity protection from the state that includes you having your hateful pie hole shut by force if necessary.

      Pretty dumb argument, no? Nobody doubts that some people have difficulty with the sex they were conceived into and they deserve our kindness and sympathy as individuals. But this garbage about their personhood and identity as an excuse for bullying people like Ms. Shepherd is mendatious in the extreme and shows the bad character of its tyrannical propigators.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. By thank, I mean the expression of gratitide. By expression, I mean the conveyance of thoughts. By conveyance I mean the transfer of. By transfer I mean the movement from one place to another; a place being a specific point on the earth. By gratitude, I mean a feeling of emotional debt, By you, I mean a placeholder word to describe the author of this article. By placeholder, I mean that which is taking the place of another entity. By author, I mean the person who organized and presented the content in the article…

  7. Jeff Wray says

    1. I’m not at Michigan State University and I’m not a filmmaker.
    2. I said that Haskell should be honest about his objectives and that is why I provided some background on who he is. Note that I said that “his scholarship derives entirely from his Christian Evangelical faith (in his case, of a far-right variant).” You have heard of the “Christian right”? They do identify as such. Also, it should be pretty clear that I was saying that his Evangelicalism is of a far right “variant” and that not all Evangelicals are right-wing. The reason why I pointed out Haskell’s religious beliefs (which are obvious if you read his scholarship, twitter page and op-eds), is that his world view is entirely informed by them. He, like the far-felt “radicals”, “literary critics” and “cultural Marxists” he loves to criticize, is just as much an ideologue.
    3. If you knew anything about academia you would know about the importance of the peer review process. Do some research on Clements Publishing and if you can find that they peer review their books I will happily retract what I said–but you won’t.
    4. I pointed out Haskell’s PhD because he is the only academic I have ever heard of who got their PhD online and I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to get one from a pro-apartheid university in South Africa.

    • John Doe says

      Dr. Haskell has no obligation to be honest about his objectives. Apparently he should though because you are misunderstanding him. I want to encourage you to never assume someone’s position as an Evangelical Christian, especially when you are trying to discredit them. Scholars can write about an issue they have no connection too, as long as they give it fair treatment. I am familiar with the peer-reviewed process. The way you framed it though was an attempt to discredit Dr. Haskell on the basis of religious belief, which is still against the law. You’re right that the peer-review process is crucial to academia. I don’t need you to retract what you said because I agree with you. However, where we differ is that you attacked this man on religious grounds in order to discredit him. You won’t get in trouble for it though because Evangelical Christians are the easy punching bag of academia and society.

      • Jeff Wray says

        How exactly am I misunderstanding him? I simply pointed out that if you look at what he has written you will find that he is just as a much a polemist as those he seeks to discredit. Read what he has written outside of the recents debates over free speech on campus.

        • Kromtěch Oněch says

          Can you provide us with some links? Sorry I could not find anything on my own.

        • I sort of agree with many actual points about the case at hand Mr Wray makes. And it does look that he agrees that the treatment of the student by the university ideological purity task force was apalling (independent of whether one’s opinion whether she showed a good taste and sound judgement in showing that particular clip).

          And then he goes into Mr. Haskill character and integrity…..

          An old time favorite technique of all demagogues from all sides of the political spectrum has always been to attack the speaker rather than address his/her opnions.

          To add to Haskell’s points: one should particularly look out for the following words: “disingenuous”, “invalidate” and “problematic”. Virtually all SJW “debate” uses the same toolkit of trite speech klichees, that feel like they have come from the same manual of a brainwashed cult or the pages of Pravda circa 1970 (just my feeling – I dont imply that Mr. Wray has actually ever worked for Pravda). But I wonder – is there a manual somewhere?

          Why is this language “problematic” (to use Mr. Wray’s own words)? To start with “disingenuous”: not only it imputes less than honorable intentions to the speaker but it automatically “invalidates” (again, thank you, Mr. Wray – see below for the correct English usage of the verb “invalidate”) the speaker’s position by casting his/her integrity into doubt. After that there is no need to address the content of the argument – after all, why would anyone debate a liar and an apartheid supporter? But whatever Mr. Haskill goals and objectives are (and I do not necessarily identify with either) – his motivations will forever stay deep inside of his unconscious psyche. Thats why we discuss speech rather than the speaker.

          “Problematic”. This word does not have any information content except “I dont’ like whatever the other person has just said” It means that the said opinion is not wrong (or at least I dont have any evidence for that), it is not even very offensive, its just “problematic”. That’s another tool in the box to “invalidate” another person’s opinion without the need to actually provide rational arguments.

          Finally, the favorite: “Invalidate”. What does “invalidate” mean? From the Collins dictionary of English language: “To invalidate something such as an argument, conclusion, or result means to prove that it is wrong or cause it to be wrong.” English language does not support the use of this word as applied to a person, so I dont even know what this means. If the users of this linguistic monstrosity would explain what they actually mean, it probably would amount to the usual “it hurts my feelings”.

          Just some observations.

          • Kromtěch Oněch says

            But arent you attacking Mr Wray´s character as well? You said that he is a demagogue.

          • To Kromtech Onech: not at all. I am calling him a demagogue based on the rhetorical tools he is employing, not based on his religious or educational history or what I imagine might be his motives. I also explain why. See the difference, amigo?

  8. Pingback: People before Malthus — Freedom Today Journal

  9. Excellent summary, David, and a hearty thank-you for expressing these concerns. As a fellow advocate of civil free speech, finding solidarity in academic circles is rare, as so many have allowed themselves to be politically indoctrinated into accepting specific ideological and political dogmas, or don’t even see the wool that was put over their eyes in their youth. Many don’t see that these are political issues, and are so conditioned as to not even accept that contentious issues can and should be questioned or debated to continually sharpen our intelligence, even if the law currently supports one side. Refusing to even acknowledge the right of free debate in a civil manner in higher education is a sure symptom of deep structural decay. Termites have eaten the heart of many support posts, but how can they be repaired..?

  10. Rich M. says

    It’s encouraging to see more professors stand up against the outrage farming and distortions that so many on the radical left have been swept up in. I hope that Mr. Haskell is not hounded and attacked for his position, as Dr. Jordan Peterson, Lindsay Shepherd, Bret Weinstein, and Nicholas and Erika Christakis have been.

  11. This shutting down of speech serves the purpose of indoctrination, pure and simple. It does not allow any except far left viewpoints to prevail, as if this viewpoint was the same as the law of thermodynamics (ie, beyond question). Equating speech that is upsetting with “harm” allows anyone who disagrees with a speaker for any reason (even that they misunderstand the speaker, are ignorant of history, have no idea what is going on) to object that they are “harmed” and “invalidated”. We are then not allowed to ask how open our borders should be, what is the proper role of government in society, what do we do about social programs that have unintended consequences, or any of a myriad of topics that society must grapple with. Every possible point of view on any topic will offend someone for some reason. Some feminists object to the very idea of marriage and hate children: are we then not to allow a speaker on how to have a successful marriage or how to raise children? Are we not to be allowed to try to prove that not “all men are rapists”?
    To take the example above of Indian residential schools: it was some of the indian leaders of earlier times who thought this was key to the survival of their people. Some of these leaders even urged their members to intermarry with whites, again for their survival. History is complicated.

  12. Rich Rostrom says

    Get your Orwell quotes right:

    “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

  13. A thoughtful and thought-provoking essay.

    Your support for Lindsay Shepherd has been unwavering from the beginning, and a refreshing contrast to the muddy thinking of profs who mistakenly underestimated her as a white-privileged “girl” who could easily be bullied and intimidated.

    Thanks for validating by logic, argument and research what most of us instinctively know by consulting our moral compass. For those who don’t have one, perhaps your thoughts will find their way into the rule books that spell out for them what is right and what is wrong.

  14. In other words, the learned nothing, and they apologize for nothing. Just wait till the cameras and media attention are back off them. Diversity™ means everyone MUST think alike about ‘diversity’. OR ELSE

    Freedom now from this enforced, coercive, parasitic, anti-White, genocidal diversity™.

    It’s time to let diversity™ be somebody else’s strength.

  15. This is Haskell again. My comment above got out of order so I’ll tack it here at the end as well. Thanks for many great insights above, btw. I wanted to address the smear to my reputation by Jeff Wray (so called). He misrepresents my past research work. I’m proud of my scholarship (listed on my Laurier faculty webpage)–14 peer-reviewed articles since 2007–including studies in Canadian Review of Sociology; Canadian Journal of Sociology; Media and Religion; Sociology of Religion (forthcoming); & Review of Religious Research. The majority of the journals I’ve published in are international and Q1. My book was peer-reviewed as were the studies contained in it. As for claims of holding a far-right evangelical faith, I have done public debates on Laurier’s campus where I argued the pro- homosexual position against a professor from a conservative Christian seminary; ironically, because of my radical “left” theological views in the past I’ve been disinvited from guest lecturing at a conservative Christian college. That said, I support the right of evangelicals to hold and articulate views that align with their faith. The comments above are definitely written by one of my “colleagues” from Laurier. I’m pleased that I’ve raised such passion. That you’ve had to resort to lies is a sure of sign I’ve done something right.

  16. Joe MoMA says

    As a leftist and college professor–what a cliche!–I actually have a passionate belief in free speech. In general, I think it’s necessary to let the ignorant, hateful, and irrational have their say and then crush their arguments. Allowing anti-democratic values to fester in the shadows is why the U.S. is in the position it is today: an openly racist president who courts the resentment of white voters.

    I don’t think the professors at Laurier handled this correctly. That said, I find it interesting that Prof. Haskell and so many other free speech defenders fail to engage with the argument that Peterson’s stance–and the broader “I will not give in to compelled speech” claim–does in fact encourage the dehumanization of trans people. One commenter above says, “Hey, it’s not like we’re putting them into concentration camps.” What a high bar we have set for ourselves! Speech which says “you are not a person like other people” is indeed harmful and lays the ideological groundwork for potential violence. Also, I imagine most of you would be enormously upset if I kept referring to you by the opposing gender pronoun of your choice. Do you not “compel” me to call you “he,” for instance? Doesn’t that abridge my freedom of speech? The answer, by any rational definition of free speech, is no. But this double standard, which is exactly the point, doesn’t seem to be a concern here.

  17. Just for the avoidance of doubt I’ve seen a lot of his videos and I’ve never seen Dr Peterson say anything remotely derogatory about transgender people. He reserves his criticism for political extremists and compulsion merchants. Moving on :

    Speech which says “you are not a person like other people” is indeed harmful and lays the ideological groundwork for potential violence.

    That sounds like a bit of an indictment of the people insisting that he and she are not good enough, and we need to branch out to xe and xer and the rest of the alphabet soup. If anything says “you are not like me” it’s having to say “xer are not like me.”

    “Also, I imagine most of you would be enormously upset if I kept referring to you by the opposing gender pronoun of your choice.

    No I would assume that you were trying to wind me up, or you were a bit of a prat, or that English was not your first language. I would spot that you were using the wrong pronoun, but it would be wrong because it was objectively wrong, not because I had chosen to present myself to society in a particular form. Now if I were in fact a man, but felt that I was a woman, or at least felt that I would really like to be a woman and to be treated as a woman, and I dressed in a skirt and tried as hard a possible to look and behave as a woman, and perhaps even had some surgery, and you kept on calling me “he” then I might get upset. Your refusal to play along would cut to the core of my desire to “present” as a woman, because what society thought about the effectiveness of my attempt to cast off the unfortunate anatomical facts would probably be pretty important to me. But for me as I am, I couldn’t care less if you want to call me by the evidently and objectively wrong pronoun. For it would be telling me something about you – about whom I care not a jot – and nothing about me – about whom I care a lot.

    Now what this tells us is that transgender people will often be rather fragile and confused (and even, very sadly, suicidal) about their “gender identity” (because of the objective clash between brain and body, not merely because of the “cruelty” of society) and that a civilised person should treat them, like anybody else, with the presumption of respect. And so one of the first things a civilised person should do is to push back against any plans that political activists might have to put a big red cross on their foreheads, in the form of wacky new and distinctive pronouns that no human could possible learn and remember, to emphasise how different they are. And the second thing would be to push back even harder against political activists trying to pass laws to compel other people to acknowledge their chosen gender. Things that people will happily do voluntarily they will resist if you compel them.

    Do you not “compel” me to call you “he,” for instance? Doesn’t that abridge my freedom of speech?

    No. You can call me what you like. If I don’t like what you cal me, I shall simply ignore you. And that is my best advice to transgender people too. If you come across people who treat you unkindly, ignore them, and find some nicer people to engage with. But if you feel confused and suicidal because of your gender identity, I suggest you go and see a good psychiatrist to help you to cope. Dr Peterson would be a good choice.

Comments are closed.