By: Alexander Sallas
“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-centre activists to license censorial behaviour.
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 across the continent. California’s Higher Education Research Institute reported last year that 71 per cent of freshmen agree that colleges should prohibit racist and sexist speech on campus. The same study found 43 per cent of respondents believe colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers from campus.
The proclamation of the anti-alt right posters that tattooed the walls of our campus last November stated, “Any attempt to legitimize right-wing racist and fascist views in politics and society will not be debated,” is wrong-headed and capitulationist. Opposition to expression is inherent close-mindedness.
The act of refusing to discuss plays into the opposition’s hands. We must tackle opponents directly. We must prove flaws to destroy destructive movements, and we cannot do that if we ignore them. 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 stunt the development of your own perspective and argument by being closed-minded.
This leads to the question always dodged by those who would restrict free expression. Who should be the anointed moral arbiter? Who shall deem what expressions are bigoted and close-minded? The answer is that no person so qualified exists. The university exists not to oppose. Rather, it exists to provide a platform for discourse and facilitate conflict resolution through more speech, not enforced silence.
Deane’s article argues, “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 easy to misinterpret quotation used by the powers behind the Facebook page.
As Deane writes, the travel ban was wrong-headed. Equally deplorable is any attempt to stifle free expression. I implore readers to read deeper than the social media quote presented and exercise their right to retort.