In May 2019, the United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta announced that it would require universities to implement the “Chicago Principles” on university campuses. These principles, it argued, would enable all speakers at universities to say whatever they liked, no matter how “unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”.
The response of many academics has been one of skepticism. Some have opposed this development as part of a “right-wing” agenda that threatens the autonomy of universities and emboldens white supremacy. Others have worried that the Chicago Principles might undermine academic freedom by preventing instructors from employing desired pedagogical practices. There is also the concern that the Chicago Principles could create a more polarized and litigious environment on campus.
Two of the most prevalent criticisms concern the content of what might be expressed in the context of unregulated speech – that discussing some ideas could constitute “hate speech” and might result in “harm”. The arguments about “harm” concern individuals who might be affected by the discussion of topics that have the potential to trigger a traumatic response. These individuals, such as survivors of assault, refugees, veterans, crime victims, and others, could be legally considered to have a psychological disability and launch lawsuits, grievances, and questions relating to the duty to accommodate. In other words, some academics have implied that the Chicago Principles should not be endorsed because it would leave universities open to legal challenges that the rights of the disabled had been violated.
These ruminations give a legal twist to what Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify as “safetyism” – “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns” (The Coddling of the American Mind, pp. 29-30). The contention that speech should be restricted because victims of trauma need to be protected, both in the workplace and the classroom, is an indication of the creep of this intellectually corrosive “sacred value”. Besides being contrary to the therapeutic literature, which maintains that people must learn to face the source of their anxiety if they are to overcome it, contentions about “harm” are subjective. This means that any topic that provokes emotional discomfort could be potentially labelled as harmful. Taking this view seriously undermines the academic mandate of the university, accelerating an unhealthy and destructive preoccupation with student feelings and “wants”.
Legal concerns are also purported to be the basis for another “worry” about the Chicago Principles. This is that the Chicago Principles are an American document and thus they do not consider the problem of possible “hate speech” being uttered. According to some faculty members, the provision in the criminal code stating that “every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of an indictable offense” creates an obstacle to endorsing the Chicago Principles. It has been maintained that this legal prohibition, in fact, is in direct opposition to the Chicago Principles because universities are supposedly obliged to restrict any speech that may violate 319(2). And because this section is quite vague in defining what constitutes “wilfully promotes hatred”, it is advised that universities should restrict all kinds of speech just to make sure that they don’t run afoul of the law.
This argument about “hate speech” is unconvincing. It has the feel of an attempt to rationalize opposition to free speech. The Chicago Principles specifically state that universities cannot allow speech that violates the law, and so hate speech - whatever it may be - would not be protected. That being said, it is not the business of universities to try to try to stop speech that they believe “may” promote a “vague definition of hatred”. If someone believes that such a violation of the law has occurred, it is a matter for the police and the courts, not the arbitrary judgement of university administrators, professors or faculty associations.
The tendency to focus on the law, however, is a smokescreen. Pretending that there are legal obstacles is more palatable than exposing one of the main sources of opposition to the Chicago Principles – Politically Correct Totalitarianism. Many university professors, some of whom try to control the dynamics of faculty associations, embrace a position known as “repressive tolerance”. This stance was first articulated by Herbert Marcuse, one of the founders of the regressive left and an unabashed defender of censorship. Marcuse maintained that it was wrong to allow right-wing opinions to be expressed because they had “a demonstrably aggressive or destructive character” that undermined the conditions for peace, justice and freedom. Such views should be censored, Marcuse argued, before pernicious “movements…can become active” and begin to influence society. In making these arguments, the question of “who decides” did not trouble Marcuse; he envisioned a politically correct intellectual elite using self-evident “experience” and “human reason” to distinguish between “true and false solutions”.
In universities today, “repressive tolerance” is often associated with the ideology of the politics of identity and entitlement and postmodern relativism, which dogmatically assert that a group’s perception of itself is important for their liberation. This “logic” can be seen in a more honest article by Shama Rangwala, who argues against the Chicago Principles because “[d]ebating the rights of marginalized people is always undertaken at the expense of those very people”. Uncomfortable discussions, according to Rangwala, should not occur if they are believed to “[reinforce] oppression”. The example that Rangwala uses is the “transphobic view” that “non-binary people are not real”. Entertaining the view that gender is binary, therefore, should be prohibited because this will supposedly “[require] a student to justify…their…identity”, thereby having “the effect of shutting down…speech rather than opening it up”.
This kind of opposition to open inquiry is illustrated by two controversies that unfolded at Mount Royal University (MRU) in March 2019. The first concerned an event put on by the Rational Space Network that asked the question “Does Trans Activism Negatively Impact Women’s Rights?”. While this question is a major area of contention in both the United Kingdom and Canada, professors at MRU argued that the event was illegitimate because it constituted “background radiation of trans lives – the knowledge that we are debatable. Our worth, our nature – debatable. This is actively harmful to the well-being of trans students…”. One MRU professor even maintained that discussing the question amounted to “hatred”.
“Hatred” and “harm” were also brought up in a second controversy involving Armin Navabi, an ex-Muslim atheist who was invited to give a talk entitled “The Case Against Islamic Reform”. This talk was cancelled because of the shooting that happened in Christchurch and the fact that proceeding with the talk would have made some students and staff feel uncomfortable. When the uproar that ensued led MRU to express regret for the talk’s cancellation, a secret document entitled “Academic Freedom at Mount Royal University: A Letter From Concerned Faculty” was sent to senior administrators. According to a faculty member who saw the letter, one of the claims made was that the talk should not have been held because some people might have experienced “harm” if it took place. One faculty member even implied in General Faculties Council that the event was connected to “hate speech”.
These two cases reveal the hidden agenda behind faculty opposition to the Chicago Principles. There are now many contentious ideas on university campuses that professors are opposed to discussing. This is due to the belief that some ideas are obviously “incorrect” because they are “harmful” and “hateful”, and so discussion is declared to be unnecessary. This view is buttressed by postmodern relativism, which maintains that there isn’t any truth to be pursued in the first place. The result is an anti-intellectual environment of repressive tolerance that is threatened by what the Chicago Principles are trying to bring about.
Objection to the Chicago Principles is made by those who wish to censor ideas that they cannot contest intellectually. The history of this tactic finds these Politically Correct Totalitarians to be in despicable company!