Review of Normand Baillargeon (ed.), Liberté surveilée

September 2019

Normand Baillargeon (ed.), Liberté surveillée. Quelques essais sur la parole à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur du cadre académique (translation: “Freedom on probation: some essays on speech inside and outside the academy”), Montréal, Leméac, 2019, 268 pp, ISBN: 978-2-7609-1322-8.

A few years ago, Normand Baillargeon, formerly a professor of education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), enjoyed much success with A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense: Find Your Inner Chomsky (2008 [French original: 2006]). That book has now been translated into ten languages.

For the collection Liberté surveillée (Freedom on Probation), Baillargeon invited thinkers from various intellectual, academic, and political traditions to reflect on the growing “malaise in the democratic conversation” in Québec.

In his introduction to the volume, Baillargeon observes that after having long fought in favour of freedom of expression, including within academia, part of the left is now hostile toward it. He notes that this evolution occurred during the period in which area studies multiplied and the disciplines contracted, which resulted in an erosion of scholarly standards. As well, because universities have become commercial, and because of the postmodern and identity politics rejection of norms, teaching has in places become indoctrination, and that has led to specific ideological positions being declared the only acceptable ones.

If we are to recover freedom of expression on campus, Baillargeon maintains, we must refuse to forbid any intellectual position a hearing, even those that diverge from ours. Baillargeon ends his introduction by inviting Québec universities to design and defend a clear policy on academic freedom.

The essays are grouped into three sections. The first section concentrates on legal questions and cases. Pierre Trudel examines various juridic interpretations of the scope and limits of freedom of expression from around the world as well as in Canada. Trudel then examines some challenges to freedom of expression. He considers the responses of states and other organizations to demands for censorship (in libraries, for instance, or on the internet). Often, Trudel tells us, expression is censored without the reasons being made public. Trudel concludes that the legal framework must balance the freedom to talk with the need to protect people’s dignity.

Jocelyn Maclure says that both hateful and hurtful speech erode the social status and self-respect of the people targeted. An adequate legal framework, he holds, would involve a broader and more nuanced understanding of the harm principle than J.S. Mill provides, even though only the most serious forms of denigration of vulnerable groups should be illegal. Current debates on freedom of expression put liberal normative theorists in an uncomfortable predicament, since in responding to worries about the harm the freedom they advocate can cause, they must rely more than they would like on pro-social personal dispositions and civic virtues. Our legal right to offend, ridicule, and hurt people with our words obliges us to be conscious of the effects our speech has on others, to consider other people’s deepest values and commitments, and to accept to be criticized ourselves. The only liberal remedy, concludes Maclure, is to question hateful speech and to model other ways in which to interact with people.

Maryse Potvin and Siegfried L. Mathelet examine instances of hate speech in Québec that have occurred as a result of a decade of public discussion of secularity. The debate from 2006 to 2008 on reasonable accommodation and then in 2013 on the Québec Charter of Values led, they write, to a trivialization of racism and an increase in hate crimes. In the province right now there are over twenty active ultranationalist or extremist groups, including La Meute and the Fédération des Québécois de souche. These groups appeal to freedom of expression to use social media to spread their identity-related populist rhetoric and propaganda. Though the strategies of manipulation found on their websites and Facebook pages clearly constitute hate speech as defined by the law, enforcing the law has proven difficult. Furthermore, politicians and columnists often ignore their ethical responsibilities to respond to their expressions of hate. Potvin and Mathelet argue that the government should overcome its inertia by adopting a stricter legal frame and expanding possibilities for class action suits. The government should also, they say, endeavour to educate people about the consequences of racist and other hate speech.

The second section of Liberté surveillée is devoted to women and feminist issues. First, Diane Guilbault and Michèle Sirois (both cofounders of the group Pour le droit des femmes du Québec) note that feminism has suffered because left-wing political correctness advocates censorship. As well, feminist intersectional analysis, which questions the validity of “We women” and “We feminists,” has led to attempts to limit the speech of radical feminists on such topics as the Islamic veil, gender identity, and prostitution. Guilbault and Sirois argue that accusations of transphobia and of being “white, bourgeois, and colonialist” are aimed to discredit universalist feminists. They contend that intersectional feminists have revived sexual stereotypes we thought had been laid to rest. Their main point is that intersectional feminism prevents solidarity among feminists; in our time of neoliberalism and individualism, it is risky to fight for women’s collective rights.

In 2016, a lecture at the Université du Québec à Montréal by the philosopher Rhéa Jean was disrupted minutes after it began and then cancelled. In her essay in this volume, Jean shows how ideas of gender and sex get confused and connected and then incorporated into the vague concept of personal identity, all of which distorts our understanding of objective realities. Jean complains that transgender activists tend to prevent free discussion of their claims by defaming and censoring their critics (through disinvitation, for instance). In doing so, they impoverish the debate by imposing their views. Jean argues that redefining “gender” and “sex” in certain ways could affect the security and health of girls and women. She worries that witch hunts may adversely affect the quest for knowledge about sex and gender, leading to ignorance and error. That would be bad for all of us.

Annie-Ève Collin, who, in 2016-2017, witnessed censorship first hand when she was defamed for her views on the Muslim veil and transgenderism, examines closely contemporary antiracist and intersectional positions. Intersectional feminists enlarge the definition of racism to include objections to religious practices or beliefs; that way, Collin says, antiracism becomes for them a political strategy and a form of censorship. Collin rejects this movement for its lack of rigour, since it promotes subjective experiences as indisputable truths, and blurs the definitions of “man” and “woman.” Collin reminds us of the importance of freedom of expression for inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge.

The last section focuses on freedom in academia. Joseph Yvon Thériault notes that in the 1970s, left-wing groups would seek to restrain bourgeois discourse in the name of a future free and egalitarian society. Nowadays, on the contrary, limits on speech are themselves taken to be empowering, for the university is conceived as dominated by power relationships; whence the necessity of pedagogical safe spaces. Thériault claims that opposition to power in the university bypasses the structures crucial to genuine deliberative and conflictual democracy. Commenting on cases at UQAM, he demonstrates that censorship and speech requirements come from the absence of institutional leadership. Students and activists are infantilized when universities abdicate their role as guardians of learning and instead attempt to strike bargains to keep everyone happy. The crisis of freedom of speech on campuses is a product of the will toward direct democracy; no one will defend the university in the name of political democracy itself: “Democracy is withered away by an overflow of itself.”

The book concludes with reflections from Jean-Marie Lafortune and Hans Poirier. The province of Québec, Lafortune and Poirier remind us, never codified in law the right to pursue truth through science or scholarship; academics are protected only through their collective agreements. Since freedom of inquiry and discussion are vital to the pursuit of truth, scholars and academic scientists have a responsibility to express their views, even when those views might be upsetting. Yet, academic freedom is threatened by both internal and external factors. The former includes pressures from administrators and faculty members themselves; the latter includes pressures from religious, political, and economic powers (these days, mainly economic). Although universities have a responsibility to protect academic freedom, they’ve adopted managerial principles of governance and left faculty members relatively powerless. Lafortune and Poirier argue that because restricting academic freedom compromises the university’s ability to govern itself in light of academic values and goals, academic freedom, including for untenured researchers and teachers, must be protected fully in collective agreements. As well, national academic associations must fight against the entrepreneurial model and defend academic freedom even outside of campuses.

Liberté surveillée is without doubt an informative and stimulating collection. It includes well-argued essays that, in various ways, proclaim freedom of expression a crucial value of both universities and democratic nations. The essays are united, first, in that all warn against the present hardening of ideologies and, second, in that all urge that university people undertake a real, democratic conversation about the institution we cherish.