McGill students demand end to free speech on their campus

December 6, 2020 • 11:30 am

I have long since been disabused of the notion that Canadian universities—indeed, Canadians in general—whom I used to see as more sensible than Americans, are also less woke than Americans. Indeed, some of the biggest abrogations of freedom of speech (even though Canada doesn’t have the equivalent of the American First Amendment) have been at Canadian schools. Remember how Lindsay Shepherd was treated at Wilfred Laurier University?

Well, McGill is about to match Wilfred Laurier, at least in the anti-free-speech rhetoric espoused in a new “open letter” on the Students’ Society of McGill University site  (click on screenshot below). The letter is signed by The Students’ Society of McGill University Executive Team, The Anthropology Students Association, The Anthropology Graduate Students Association, World Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Association, Black Students Network, Muslim Students Association, Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and the Thaqalayn Muslim Association.

Their statement explicitly demands the cutting back of freedom of speech, which, it says, conflicts with the right of students to be free from “harm”. (This, of course, is the usual trope.) They cite research that supposedly shows the harm that “microaggressions” (read “offensive speech”) are supposed to cause, but because these data involve self-report, I’m dubious. Now there’s no doubt that someone can be offended or even get depressed a bit when hearing speech they don’t like, but in my view, the benefits of free speech outweigh the “harm” caused by speech (often a pretended harm, I think, voiced to gain status). And, as Salman Rushdie said, “Nobody has the right not to be offended.”

The opening paragraph of the letter (the first three excerpts below) is about as explicit a statement as I’ve seen about why we can’t have complete freedom of speech. The bold bits are mine. You’ll recognize many of the tropes, like the claim that McGill was built on a “history of oppression”:

It is no secret that, like many other academic institutions,  McGill University was built on a history of oppression, its existence made possible by profiting off of the labour of enslaved and marginalized peoples. This regrettable history not only tarnishes the University’s past but also continues to influence how the University operates today. Scholars have abused their right of free speech and academic freedom to defend acts of rhetorical violence against marginalized communities on campus, shielding racist, sexist, and transphobic speech behind the term “controversy.”

Sorry, but rhetoric is not violence; equating the two simply debases the meaning of the word “violence” and serves to chill speech. Now the speech these students decry is speech that is racist, sexist, and transphobic, which they want to ban because it causes “harm.” While they’re not specific about what kind of “hate speech” they want banned, we’ll see some examples in a minute. The letter goes on:

Freedom of expression is traditionally considered central to permitting the free exchange of ideas and debate and fostering the university environment. Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context. David Gillborn, a critical race theorist at the University of Birmingham, suggests that the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness, since “[w]hiteness operates to invest speech with different degrees of legitimacy, such that already debunked racist beliefs can enjoy repeated public airings where they are lauded as scientific and rational by many White [sic] listeners, who simultaneously define as irrational, emotional, or exaggerated the opposing views of people of colour.” Moreover, evidence from psychology, social work, and medicine suggest that microaggressions, including racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic speech, have numerous and significant impacts on the health, wellbeing, and educational success of marginalized people.

The idea that speech deemed “legitimate” is only that speech emitted by whites is nonsense. For if anything is true, it’s that many people of color are speaking out loudly and frequently, both in person and on the Internet. In fact, this letter itself is an example of what the authors consider legitimate free speech. The “white free speech” they decry is touted as bigoted speech whose airing apparently gives some “scientific” credibility to racism. But that’s also nonsense if you believe that a prime tonic for speech you don’t like is counter-speech. And there is plenty of counterspeech against speech considered bigoted, hateful, and transphobic. I offer as one example the tons of speech offered in response to what was seen as J. K. Rowling’s “transphobic” writings and tweets, which of course weren’t transphobic at all. The volume of counterspeech, many by marginalized people, must have exceeded Rowling’s own words by a factor of hundreds.

Finally, if you look at the link to the claims that “microaggressions” are harmful, they aren’t all that convincing, as they are based on self-report, and also neglect the possibility that people who are more easily offended, and more readily claim harm, may also be more willing to discern microaggressions in their quotidian environments.

The paragraph continues (these three bits are from a single opening paragraph):

The defence of discriminatory dialogue at the expense of the safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour reflects the power of whiteness in determining what is and is not considered acceptable speech. Upholding free speech at the cost of marginalized groups permits racist talk with real-world impacts; it teaches future generations that perpetrating this kind of harm is acceptable. These harms are not hypothetical; they have been and will continue to be felt by marginalized communities on campuses across the country.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends: an explicit claim that free speech cannot be permitted because it creates harm in marginalized groups. They make this even more explicit further down:

While material featuring harmful language can be used prudently, the use of bigoted material, whether ableist, transphobic, racist, or otherwise discriminatory, is unacceptable, and McGill University has made no effort to resolve this tension. The University’s Statement of Academic Freedom defines no limitations for academic freedom, failing to address the responsibility of professors to use their freedoms responsibly. Equity and academic freedom need to be addressed as intertwined issues and McGill University falls short in this regard. . .

. . . When the voices of students are sidelined and disregarded, the solution is not and cannot be active listening and dialogue, as the Principal argued. While inclusiveness and academic freedom are both invaluable principles, they cannot always coexist. Thus, when the University refuses to define limitations to academic freedom, the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students become inherently secondary. This is best exemplified by the University’s decision to first underline their respect for “free speech” when bigoted dialogues do make their way onto campus. The message McGill sends is all too clear; when equity and academic freedom come into conflict, they are more than ready to “abandon one principle in favour of another.”

As they should! We’ll see shortly the kind of speech these student organizations consider to be bigoted, ableist, transphobic, racist, and discriminatory. But it’s amply clear from the above that counterspeech and “active dialogue” won’t suffice. They want speech to be BANNED.

Of course, the determiners of what kind of speech is unacceptable—The Deciders—will be these students, who will try to get McGill to ban it. (Let’s hope they don’t succeed.)

But what kind of speech do they want McGill to prohibit? They give some example when damning the writings of emeritus professor Philip Carl Salzman, an anthropologist.  After the two paragraphs below, they demand that McGill remove Salzman’s Emeritus Professor status. This tells you the kind of speech that’s considered harmful—microaggressions. I invite you to read the links to see for yourself:

In the past year, several articles have been posted on public forums by Professor Philip Carl Salzman, a retired Professor Emeritus of the McGill Anthropology Department. In one recent example, Salzman goes on to write that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.” Salzman goes on to condemn multiculturalismimmigrationgender paritycultural equalitysocial justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism.

Despite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts. Meanwhile, his affiliation with McGill lends him credibility that would not otherwise be afforded if not for his status as a Professor Emeritus of a respected institution such as McGill University. In providing such commentary while presenting himself as an affiliate of this University, Salzman’s recent publications in public fora demonstrate a lack of consideration for his responsibility as an academic.

For example, the link to Salzman’s supposed denial of gender parity is a discussion of how different preferences of men and women—differences that may be based on biology—may lead to a lack of equity (representation) in various fields. While you may dispute his claims, it’s certainly not “hate speech”, and may well contain more than a grain of truth.  As for “rape culture”, I myself would deny such a term as it’s often used. While one rape is too many, and it’s a vile and horrible crime, we do not live in a “rape culture” that sees rape as okay, that is experiencing an unprecedented wave of sexual violence on campus, and that society strives to let rapists off the hook.

In all of the examples above, what the McGill students see as “hate speech” is speech that is at least debatable—though I by no means agree with all of Professor Salzman’s claims—and should be debated.

Along with whatever woke classes McGill University has on tap, they should add to them a class of “free speech”, and one taught by someone like Geoffrey Stone, not one of these McGill students who sees all speech they don’t like as not only harmful, but worthy of censorship.

26 thoughts on “McGill students demand end to free speech on their campus

  1. Professor Emeritus Salzman recounts the McGill student groups demanding his cancellation at: . And those of us with advanced cases of emeritis thought we were safe! No more!

    The next step is obvious. Even if the Emeritus status of culprits like Professor Salzman (and our host and me) is cancelled, those of us who express heretical thoughts may still be guilty of microaggression through our presence in group photographs of faculties, symposia, and other gatherings. To protect marginalized populations from this harm, a campaign to air-brush us out of such photos will surely come next. That method was once popular in a large Eurasian society of recent memory.

  2. “[w]hiteness operates to invest speech with different degrees of legitimacy….”

    Apparently, non-whiteness does as well. When I read these things, I am always left wondering about the extent to which the students realize that they are just engaged in a pure power-grab, and how much their arguments are just sophism.

    1. Sophism is a bit of a flattering description of their thinking. I almost envy the lack of self-awareness required to miss the fact that the views of the perpetually aggrieved about the structure of society are (for good historical reason) equivalently offensive to their rhetorical opponents.

      1. Which is why they invented the get-out-of-jail card handed by Intersectionality Theory. They’ve defined their opponents as unable to be offended or truly besmirched , due to being at the top of the power structure.

        1. …which is a very handy inversion of the power structure. It’s like sumptuary laws but instead of class or caste serving as virtue/vice, we have privilege as the ultimate vice and oppression as virtue. The privileged may not wear the trappings of the oppressed, meaning they don’t get to complain. This is what a couple of sociologists have dubbed Victimhood Culture, in opposition to the still mainstream Dignity Culture (in the west).

  3. “Despite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts.”

    That’s rather ironic, coming from woke students!


    Now the speech these students decry is speech that is racist, sexist, and transphobic, …

    Or perhaps: “… speech that they claim is racist, sexist, and transphobic, …”.

    1. Irony is lost on these authoritarian bullies. As Bill Maher aptly remarked years ago on Real Time, who raised these little monsters?

  4. It’s no surprise that these incredibly spoiled, supremely self-involved and spectacularly ignorant moppets penned such a screed. What is crucial in this incident is how McGill will respond. Based on what has happened at other Canadian Universities such as Laurier and Concordia, I think there’s all the reason in the world to expect the very worst. And, following Henry Adam’s epigram, that will almost certainly be worse than we expected.

  5. “Rhetorical violence” would make a great band name. I noticed they left an admonition of homophobic speech out of their letter. I wonder if that was to get the Muslim students on board, or have gays joined the formerly heteronormative patriarchal oppressors?

  6. The first of the critisicised articles about middle-eastern anthropology is interesting. I know nothing of the subject, though I’ve heard of the tribal cultures in that part of the world. The article clearly follows a conservative framing, where a modern, democratic “west” (including Israel) is opposing an undemocratic Islamic other (“No Middle East or North African country, other than Israel, is a democracy“. It concludes with policy advice:

    “The bottom line is that, based on our Western values, the Middle East is a nasty region, and it is unrealistic to expect it to become anything else in the foreseeable future. The policy implications are that Westerners should act strongly and decisively against aggression by Middle Eastern countries, but avoid invasions and long term occupations. The current American strategy of economic sanctions, special forces, and air power is the wisest approach.”

    The professor emeritus is associated with one “Middle East Forum” which is according to Wikipedia a conservative think tank, that promotes…

    “American interests and works to protect Western civilization from the threat of Islamism”,[1] advocate strong ties with Israel and other democracies as they emerge, work for human rights throughout the region; seek a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promote the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes.”

    That would be neocon talking points. I strongly object to this too, but won’t go into this. It‘s clear that Muslim students and wokies don‘t like such writing, and have every reason to dislike it. I assume because to them it‘s just very unflattering to their identities in which they take as much pride as a neo nazi in his aryan membership. Whatever it is, real objections or hurt pride, they didn‘t make a convincing case. Wokies often want to bully others by presenting their demands as no-brainer, self evident, obvious. But comically, they often take positions where the exact opposite is the apparent one (Islamic nations in the region really are theocracies, monarchies etc). It suggests cultism, where belief in increasingly eccentric ideas are costly signals that show the fealty to the ideology. Accepting the evident and obvious would be easy. To be clear, what‘s evident is that Islamic countries are autocratic — to say the least. Interpretations of the situation, policy, or neocon framing of a “West” that are identical to “ American interests” are not evident. But that’s why this must be debatable.

  7. I wonder how this offshoot of the Church of the Perpetually Offended view antisemitism and the many anti-semitic tropes espoused by the woke left. Should those comments be eliminated as well? Considering the values of the members of this church, I think not.

  8. I wonder if this describes them ‘bleeding heart’ wokes,
    COUNTABLE NOUN [oft NOUN noun]
    If you describe someone as a bleeding heart, you are criticizing them for being sympathetic towards people who are poor and suffering, without doing anything practical to help.
    with the emphasis on the last six words of the description.
    Now some may be doing more in other ways to help but in the big picture, banning free speech suppresses any means of inquiry into improving on human derived values.
    Free speech is fundamental to the cause.

  9. The students’ behavior here is something one might have been pretty sure was coming; the thing to watch is what the McGill administration’s response is. I think there are ample grounds for the most extreme pessimism here, given how things have played out at Laurier, Concordia, York and other Canadian universities.

  10. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell, inscribed outside of the BBC House in Portland Place, London.

  11. In one recent example, Salzman goes on to write that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.”

    And because he wrote wrongful opinions, removing the status he earned is both a virtue and a duty.

  12. Aaagh! The letter was just terrible. I couldn’t analyze it in public without repeatedly swearing.

    You’re doing gawds work, Prof CC ! Keep it up.

  13. That is so disappointing. McGill is not Canada’s greatest university (cf. University of Toronto, UBC). But as an English-language institution in a French culture it is our most important university. These students are unworthy of their school.

  14. Thank you again professor, for reading and summarizing that garbage so I don’t have to. I agree entirely.
    Sad that such an respected institution as that has fallen under the woke bus.

    In the world of psychology microaggressions are debunked. And “rape culture” is a myth. Rape is not a myth but that it is culturally acceptable is.

    This looks like a job for Super Pinker who (I think) got his undergrad degree there.


  15. Once speech is limited because of verbal violence, what will we do will speech that advocates for, say, a health insurance policy that would move millions off of their health insurance, meaning that many will go bankrupt or even die? With the same standard of verbal violence, we’ll have to prohibit any policy discussions about health care. And any other policy of note.

    1. Yes, because the purpose of these concepts is to implement far left political policies under the guise of fighting racism.

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