Demonizing Dissent

September 2020

This past summer I wrote an open letter of dissent (a copy of which is available on the SAFS website) addressed to Mount Royal University’s president and the executive of my faculty association. Both the president and the MRFA executive released statements condemning racism and vowing to work towards making institutional changes to redress the effects of “systemic” racism at MRU. My first concern with their releasing their statements pertains to process. Universities are beneficial to society to the extent to which they support free and open enquiry, and the best universities are grounded on a foundational commitment to this goal with its concomitant, unqualified support for the exercising of principled dissent. For it is only in a climate in which dissent is expected that the truth can win out over our tendencies to engage in group think, confirmation bias, and pseudo-scientific thinking. And it is only in a climate in which the truth emerges that we can benefit from the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and for the instrumental benefits that accrue to society via successful research efforts. A foundational commitment to free and open enquiry is also necessary for a university to discharge its duty to its students to prevent all forms of brainwashing, including political interference that impedes students’ efforts to autonomously and authentically endorse their own beliefs and values, thereby promoting the cultivation of responsible citizenship among other benefits.

Making the commitment to free and open enquiry foundational means that the pursuit of this good must (almost!) always trump any other political or social goal. And this means that academic administrators should maintain a public position of strict neutrality on the wide range of controversial empirical and evaluative questions on which we research and teach. My complaint with Mount Royal’s president was that by publishing his views about the causal efficacy of racism and “systemic” racism he contributed to an environment that makes it more difficult for faculty – especially non-tenured faculty – and students alike to express opinions that may be inconsistent with his views but that may nonetheless be correct or partially correct, and which might contribute to our knowledge and understanding. Similarly, faculty associations should limit their public advocacy statements to matters of direct concern to their members, not deterring them from pursuing work that might lead them to draw conclusions at odds with said statements lest their opposition result in withdrawn support and other reprisals. The executive of my faculty association violated this principle by publishing a highly polemical statement.

My second concern with the release of these statements is more nuanced and relates to the wider context in which their declarations were published, which was during a period in which many other groups of faculty, departments, and other academic bodies, including the Canadian Association of University Teachers, released somewhat similar statements. A supporter might claim that the statements were so similar because they advocated for a basic matter of justice that any reasonable and moral person would accept. Although there is some truth in this assertion, it glosses over a deeper issue relating to academic freedom and scholarship, and the justified purpose of a university. All moral people agree that racism is wrong, and for more than one reason, not the least of which is that it involves discriminating against a person for an arbitrary or irrelevant reason. However, the unanimity of the various statements extended to complex causal questions involving challenging and controversial normative issues employing rather vague and contested concepts.

Whereas the proponents of the various statements may regard these other claims as being on the same level of certainty as the claim about the wrongness of racism, given that the claims are different we need to consider each separately and assess this further assertion (that all the claims are equally or almost equally certainly true and morally justified as well) on a case-by-case basis. This would seem an obvious point except that in the present climate reasoning to this point is one thing, expressing it is another. For one of the troubling aspects about the current controversy over racism is that it is taking place at a moment when there is an expanding element both within and outside of academia who persist in moralizing disagreement by viewing any dissent as evidence of bad faith dealing and a lack of rectitude. According to these people, those who do not regard a range of other claims regarding the nature, causes, consequences, and remedies for racism and “systemic” racism as being at the same level of epistemic and moral certainty as the claim about the wrongness of racism are themselves immoral.

Is it too obvious to point out that this is an ad hominem attack and that as such it is an example of fallacious (and pernicious) reasoning? Some believe, given the seriousness of the wrongs of racism and considering the intransigence of those in power and the inertia that plagues society on this urgent matter, that history will judge kindly those who are on the right side of this issue. If this means that we must make some questionable tactical choices to pursue this worthy political goal, well, that is a small price to pay.

If we set aside the arrogant assumption that only those who take this path care about justice, and entertain the possibility that others who recommend a different path also care, then it becomes clear that a difference in political approaches marks these two paths. I refer to proponents of the first one as defenders of a politics of protest. In contrast I support what I refer to as a politics of education. I believe that becoming educated is already a political act. Before one can justly influence the exercising of power and the making of difficult decisions involving the settling of conflicting interests one must first become informed. My advice to students who want to make the world a better place is to go to school. Learn how to think well for yourselves. Study the law, public administration, economics, science, philosophy, and an array of other subjects. We will need all of you. Among other things, your education will prove useful when we try to translate the slogans on those protestors’ placards into effective change. It will prove useful for turning platitudes into policy.

Of course, many will claim in response to the distinction that I have drawn that the two are not mutually exclusive. One can teach and also advocate for more “direct” political changes. One can both attend school and march in the streets. Fair enough. I do not mean to overstate the difference between the two but in acknowledging this I also insist that there is a difference as well, at least among those who advocate a politics of protest and are willing to pay the “small” price I mentioned above. For those who recommend this path ultimately value a set of predetermined political goals over the enquiry into the truth about questions regarding racism. Demonizing dissent predictably results in the subversion of reason and this is inconsistent with the idea of a university that regards free and open enquiry as a foundational goal. By regarding a number of open, complex, and nuanced questions in the debate over the role that racism plays in the promotion of injustice as closed and settled, those who would subvert the good exercising of reason make a sharp break from those who advocate for a politics of education.

This returns us to the point I noted earlier about the unanimity of the responses among so many academics. Obviously no single author or separate group of authors is responsible for the cumulative impact of these statements and so each individual author or signatory to these statements might plausibly deny blame for any negative cumulative impact of the statements as a whole. But the cumulative impact is negative at least to the extent to which it strengthens the politics of protest I have described here. No doubt many are fine with university faculty and administrators using their authority to pursue this sort of political strategy. The main point I wanted to make in my letter of dissent is that I am not.

Ironically, opposition to a climate of free and open enquiry sets back the achievement of the very goal that advocates of a politics of protest claim to support; for a commitment to free and open enquiry, with its concomitant commitment to principled dissent, is part of the remedy needed to advance justice by counter-acting the harmful effects of racism; just as it is needed to expose the virus of self-righteousness that pervades public life. It is not just the truth that is threatened in the chilly climate in which free enquiry and dissent are demonized but justice as well.