Campus Speech and the Inflation of Harm

Posted April 10, 2018
By William Bruneau

There’s more interest in campus free expression than we have seen since the Great Student Revolts of 1968, or even further back in the last century, in the arguments of the 1930s and 1940s over fascism, social democracy, war and peace. Some of this revived interest is the result of big social movements—the women’s movement(s) of the past half-century especially—and some of it is an indirect consequence of multicultural policy and practice.  At all events, Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 1:9) might be wrong: there may be “something new under the sun.”

But it’s not merely a new or somewhat new thing, it’s also a national and international development. It’s intriguing that in writing about the meetings UBC has been holding over the past few months, one could just as well be writing about Waterloo, Ontario (Wilfrid Laurier University), or the University of Toronto (and the Peterson affair), or Montréal or Sherbrooke or Trois-Rivières. The phenomena are trans-national, although by no means the same in each instantiation.

Freedom vs. safety—belief and non-belief

One could go further. There’s an eerie similarity not just in content, but in tone in recent arguments about free expression. The content looks predictable enough: social justice, economic fairness, gender rights (LGBTQ rights, but not just those rights), ethnicity, race. Worrisomely and significantly, talk about these matters tends often to wander from considerations of freedom/liberty to something else…talk about safe, restricted, and restrained environments. Both the content and the tendency to wander are apparently…everywhere.

There’s a 21st-century tension here. If you’re pro-choice or pro-life in 2018, you will desperately want to be heard, and to be heard using language with which you’re familiar. You’d rather not hear from the “other camp,” and indeed you might like to eliminate the “other camp” altogether. The same might be said of arguments on gender and sexuality,  whose proponents see the case for X or Y or Z as self-evidently true, and who can readily imagine a world where their “opponents” have no voice at all.

This last view is reminiscent of another: the position where we say, “Well, to believe not-X is to be disrespectful to me, and much worse, it amounts to doing harm—to me.” That means your freedom of expression should be denied to you, and really, it never existed (!). Among the best expositions of the problems raised by this position is David Bromwich’s article on things we are “allowed to say.”

The tension between believers and non-believers isn’t only a matter of faith or epistemology. Rather, it is a tension between:

[1] free expression that permits, invites, and welcomes believers-in-not-X to have their say, and to do their darndest to persuade others and

[2] one’s own passionate delight in good-old-fashioned-X. If you see the proponents of not-X as harm-doers, and if you are utterly persuaded by X, and if you notice that the followers of not-X are excellent communicators and persuaders, you will be tempted to limit their speech—and indeed you are on the road to authoritarianism.

And with all of that in mind, I return to the UBC meetings I mentioned at the start.

The UBC Draft Statement

The recently appointed UBC Senior Advisor to the Provost on Academic Freedom, Neil Guppy, and the rest of the University administration, have been trying to encourage “civil” and informed debate, and to get past the difficult birthing pangs of a new Statement on Free Expression. In 2017 and 2018, the statement has been met with curiosity and some (mostly passive) support, mixed with suspicion, cynicism, and downright disdain.

The first draft of the Statement has gone back to committee. The Statement showed a remarkable concern for the sensitivities of students and staff, but ended up giving a picture of free expression as a kind of zero-sum game [ZSG, my expression].

In this game, the speech of energetic and persuasive arguers might overpower or oppress the speech of less energetic and persuasive arguers. A fortiori, those people who come from minority groups (First Nations, Asian-Canadians, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people on temporary contracts, and so on) should be assured in advance that they will be taken seriously, whatever the soundness / validity of their views. Furthermore, the university should take every step it can to prevent unpleasant, discomfiting, “challenging” moments where their worldview is put to the test.

ZSG attracted opposition and support, but mostly opposition. Philosopher Paul Russell’s comments on the UBC draft statement include a useful example of the risks involved in going along with ZSG:

Someone might make a remark to the effect that "Muslim belief gives little or no proper weight to the value of freedom of expression".  Given the vague qualifications and conditions attached to free speech and the ways in which it may be restricted, this document could easily be read as suggesting that remarks of this kind should be condemned and prohibited in the context of the university. Whether one finds comments of this kind sensible and credible or not, it is plainly the right of students and faculty to express views of this sort - although they will certainly offend and cause discomfort to those in the Muslim community, among others. It is significant that many who would object to remarks of this sort would not object to remarks such as "the Catholic religion/ Christian Evangelicals/ Conservative Party gives insufficient value to the importance of free speech." The principles and boundaries here are arbitrary and a matter of a person's own ideological preferences and prejudices - the stance taken breeds and encourages hypocrisy of every kind.

Early in his comment, Russell writes that the draft statement “gives lip service to the value of free speech and moves directly on to place heavy emphasis on the need for restricting it in face of competing claims.”

The same Paul Russell gave a talk 2018 February 7 to the UBC Association of Professors Emeriti, a particularly well attended assembly of ninety-some persons, including laypeople from the community. Addressing an audience with various outlooks, Russell emphasized a great danger: the danger of inflating everyday understandings of “harm” so as to allow (or encourage) the suppression of speech or behaviour that might, just maybe be seen as harmful.

The blog post you are reading is consistent with Russell’s views, but goes on to offer historical and political reasons for a more explicit commitment to freedom of expression, and a more nuanced view of “harm.” One finds precedents for this sort of commitment in the Yale statement (1974), the Toronto statement (1992), and parts of the Chicago statement (2012) It is uncertain why the UBC draft took so little account of powerful arguments already published elsewhere in Canada and North American.

An Example

Meanwhile, in academic years 2016 and 2017, UBC students (like students at Wilfrid Laurier, Toronto, UQAM, Dalhousie, and so on) have attracted the attention of the local and national press. Last fall’s “clubs week” (during which UBC student associations look for new members, advertise their wares, and generally make waves) included demonstrations and lectures by pro-choice and pro-life groups, along with student associations devoted to one religious belief system or another, and still more student societies for various ethnic groupings on campus.

I was surprised one late 2016 September day outside the student centre (now called The Nest) to find myself confronted by large, shocking photos purporting to show things as “they really are” in a women’s health clinic, somewhere in the world. Directly in front was a large sign carried by pro-choice students, set up so as to obscure the view of passers-by.

The predictable result was another round of debate at UBC (from 2016 October to the present) about students’ rights of free expression, especially the rights of students in certain social niches—religious, political, ethnic. Unsurprisingly argument quickly devolved into related disputes about university property, about the general legal status of religiously minded student groups, and the authority of the university’s Senate and Board of Governors in such matters. The question of sensibility/sensitivity played its inevitable part in public (and presumably private) argument among students. Importantly, the general question how to think about freedom of expression hasn’t yet been posed in any sustained way.

Advancing the concept of free expression

In short, this recent history at one Canadian university suggests three reasons for clarifying and advancing a concept or concepts of free expression:

First, this is un moment fort—a strong moment—of public interest in free expression and free thought. We should grasp the nettle.

Second, it is a moment when concepts of free expression could be greatly strengthened—or weakened. Demands for civility, safe spaces, and special languages (one thinks of Orwell), have been strong for at least the past twenty years. Those demands raise the possibility of a stifling conformity. An earlier blog on this site made the case that the acquittal of the killer of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan in 2018 showed why, in the name of free expression, we needed then (and still need) at least two languages—a language of legal administration and a language people can use to speak freely and finally a truth contrary to power and domination. These are not the languages of safe spaces and respectful workplaces.  

Third and finally, we have a chance to ensure that government and governance in the university, the school, and the wider state are at least consistent with the demands of free expression, free speech, and (in the case of university teachers) academic freedom. It is more than time for critics and writers (the present writer certainly included) to do systematic work on (a) the ways university senates do and do not provide a clear and strong framework for free expression; (b) the ways legislatures can contribute to broad public understanding of free expression -- not least through Freedom of Information legislation, human rights law, and clear commitments to free expression of scientific and artistic work, whether by public servants or by private individuals; and (c) the implications of the common law and the Charter for free expression.

Free expression is not a game, and crucially, it is not a Zero-Sum Game.