As a university student, it is my job to listen to new ideas, consider them carefully, and judge their merits. This is why the current trend of policing and censoring controversial ideas on campus has disturbed me. I first noticed this trend in 2017 when deplatforming riots occurred at the University of California Berkeley and Evergreen College. Later that year the faculty-led scapegoating of Wilfrid Laurier graduate student Lindsay Shepherd was a further reminder. Shepherd made the mistake of playing a television clip of Jordan Peterson. Her supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, was appalled that Shepherd had created a “toxic environment” and admonished her for it. Words are dangerous, it would seem – so long as those words are politically incorrect.
In 2017 I joined the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. I became deeply interested in issues of open debate and viewpoint diversity. I hoped to explore these issues with students as a high school teacher. I quickly realised, however, that Ontario’s faculties of education are part of the problem. I saw professors push their preferred ideologies and openly dismiss traditional educators as old-fashioned. In courses such as “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” and “Social Foundations,” concepts such as “white privilege” were presented as fact, rather than as debatable theories with particular philosophical and political origins. In September 2019 I began my final year of teacher’s college at Western University feeling conflicted. While some teachers were thoughtful and discerning, many seemed to view themselves as the moral arbiters of society. When I tried to discuss contrary views with my peers I was shut out or shouted down. The accepted narrative was that of the postmodern philosophers, whose dichotomous worldview gave rise to the notion that humanity is divided into the “oppressors” and the “oppressed.” Advocates of individualism, self-reliance and personal responsibility were treated as Socrates had been – as corrupters of the youth.
That same month, newly elected Ontario Law Society benchers concluded a successful fight against the Statement of Principles, a form of compelled speech which would have coerced lawyers into expressing their support of, and belief in, equity, diversity and inclusion. I knew that this statement would have likely been endorsed by the Ontario College of Teachers, an organisation for whom equity, diversity and inclusion function as a new Holy Trinity. I printed a copy of an old LSAT and began to study. I wanted to work in a profession alongside people who valued free expression as much as I do. I accepted an offer of admission from Queen’s Faculty of Law in February and graduated from Western some weeks later.
Recently, I was discouraged to read a letter from a group of Queen’s Law students calling for Sir John A. Macdonald Hall (home to the Faculty of Law) to be renamed. The advocates argue from a position of moral superiority which – however emotionally satisfying – stands in direct conflict with the principles of higher education.
The students rightly denounce Macdonald’s support of the Indian residential school system, the Chinese Immigration Act and the Electoral Franchise Act. While reasonable people today consider these institutions and policies morally repugnant, they were not controversial during Macdonald’s time and his support of them is not indicative of his character. The students argue that “Queen’s University would be protecting the mental health of their students” by removing Macdonald’s name. The notion that words alone are dangerous, and that students must be protected, is antithetical to a university’s mission – to nurture and protect independent thought. The letter’s authors believe that their place is to shelter students from uncomfortable historical realities. Can an imperfect person be praiseworthy despite their faults? Individuals must decide for themselves. As former University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray has said, “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”
In their 2019 bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue against the moralized linguistic purism for which some Queen’s students advocate. They explain how a generational spike in mood disorders and the “corporatization” of universities interacted to create a campus environment which, despite claims to the contrary, is detrimental to mental health. Students are now viewed as customers to be pleased and expect material and mental comfort rather than academic rigour and challenge. Some administrators, faculty and students believe that a desirable amenity is protection against “harmful” speech (i.e. Macdonald’s name). As a social psychologist, Haidt exposes this approach as unscientific. Acceptable treatments for anxiety disorders do not involve sheltering patients from the source of their anxiety – rather, patients are gradually exposed to that source. In the process, anxious people discover that they are strong enough to overcome their anxiety. When universities attempt to protect students from negative emotions, they risk worsening symptoms of mental illness by legitimizing cognitive distortions such as blaming (focusing on another person as the source of one’s negative feelings).
The letter also claims that removing Macdonald’s name would allow for increased representation of minorities who have not received the “recognition they so deserve.” This statement implies that individuals are deserving of recognition because of their race, rather than their merits. Indeed, many of the worthy Canadians deserving of celebration are minorities. Their merit, however, has nothing to do with the colour of their skin, but with the quality of their character and the legacy which they inspire. If Queen’s students believe that race is reason enough to name a campus building, it stands to reason that they believe race to be sufficient grounds for removing a building’s name. The implication is that Macdonald’s name must be removed because it is European Canadian. This is an example of what the late Roger Scruton called oikophobia: the felt need to denigrate the customs, cultures and institutions that are identifiably one’s own. In the words of philosopher Benedict Beckeld, oikophobia commonly follows the same trend: societies transition from “naïve and self-important beginnings to self-contempt and decline.” While we must recognize the shameful elements of Canada’s past, we need not accept a self-flagellating historical narrative that requires guilt and atonement from European Canadians. This letter promises to “make particular effort to centre the voices of minority students” in the decision-making process. Again, student voices are being amplified not because of the merit of their arguments, but because of their ethnicity. The idea that a someone’s point of view is valid simply because of their race is fundamentally racist. The letter disingenuously claims to “protect” students, “celebrate” diversity, and “take positive action.” In reality, it attacks European Canadian culture and the people and institutions that that contributed to the founding of this country.
Such people and institutions were flawed, as all people and institutions are. But if we accept that personal errors in judgement and moral failings render individuals unspeakable, we should all retreat into our homes indefinitely, and lock our doors behind us. Few of us are born with the virtues necessary to father a nation, but we all possess the vices required to blindly embrace the status quo. Removing Macdonald’s name is not about protecting students – it is about claiming moral superiority. Incidentally, racist institutions and legislation often come from a place of moral purism. This was certainly the case for the Residential School system, which forced Indigenous children to accept a supposed moral epitome. Nicholas Davin, advisor to Macdonald, said: “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” This is the policy modern universities are in danger of adopting when they rename buildings, pull down statues and cancel controversial speakers. Students whose ancestors were murderous colonizers, intolerant Christians or European expatriates are kept within a circle of political correctness. They are taught to feel guilt and shame for their culture and are encouraged to embrace a new, morally superior, one. The modern university risks becoming the New Residential School.