Freedom of Expression and Making the Campus a Safe Space: Raising Questions about “Violent Speech”, “Privilege” and “Transforming” the University

April 2018

On February 9, 2018, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship and the Faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University sponsored a public forum entitled “Freedom of Expression and Making the Campus a Safe Space: Where Should the Line be Drawn?” The purpose of the forum was to get beyond a common problem that exists in discussions about freedom of expression. This is that exchanges on the subject tend to fragment into rival echo chambers, with little attempt to understand the points of contention that exist. Even worse, freedom of expression is often opposed by those who identify as being “on the Left”, resulting in support for freedom of expression being seen as a “right-wing” cause. This makes potential supporters of freedom of expression afraid to speak up; they do not want to be labelled as a person who is unsupportive of the political struggles of oppressed groups.

As someone who is both sympathetic to socialist ideals and a supporter of freedom of expression (similar to George Orwell), this is a very perplexing state of affairs. To try to get a better understanding of the arguments involved, five people, all of whom would probably consider themselves to be on the Left of the political spectrum, were invited to put forward distinct points of view about the restrictions that should be placed on freedom of expression at universities. Dr. Kimberly Williams and Dr. Rinaldo Walcott were representatives of the Women’s and Gender Studies perspective, while Dr. James Turk (Journalism) and I (Political Science) argued, as old school leftists, for unfettered freedom of expression. Dr. Sinclair MacRae, a philosopher, tried to map out the contested ethical terrain.

The entire event can be viewed on The Calgary Journal’s Facebook page. The question and answer segment is the most interesting because it shows a certain amount of interaction, providing an initial attempt at a clarification of views.

After watching the video several times and trying to understand the different perspectives, it appears that there were three significant points of contention. These concerned the definition of “violent speech”, the intersection of “privilege” and freedom of expression, and why and how universities should be “transformed”.

While supporters of freedom of expression often think that “violent speech” pertains to expression that incites violence against an individual or group, some of the panelists and people in the audience had a much broader definition. Although there was resistance to clarifying what was actually meant by “violent speech” (a representative from the Office of Campus Equity & Meaningful Inclusion, for example, responded to my attempt to get her to state what “violent speech” was with the assertion that she would not dignify this question with an answer), some information was forthcoming. There were comments that violent speech consisted of words that were perceived to dehumanize people or cause them psychological harm. A professor in the audience, D.A. Dirks, for example, argued that “[t]alking about trans women not being women leads to acts of violence against them”. Similarly, speech that was perceived to be derogatory towards black people could be characterized as “violent” as it might lead to the “caging of black bodies”, as had occurred when Africans were loaded onto slave ships. According to Rinaldo Walcott, speech itself can be seen as violent because “physical apprehension happens after ideas have been deployed”.

One notion of “violent speech”, which was not explicitly articulated, is the idea that some forms of expression constitute “epistemic violence”. This idea was put forward by the Wilfrid Laurier University Rainbow Centre in response to a teaching assistant – Lindsay Shepherd – showing a clip of an exchange between Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte about the use of the transgender pronoun “they”. According to the Rainbow Centre, the showing of this clip made the campus “unsafe” because “[t]hese debates, regardless of how ‘neutrally’ they are presented, constitute a form of epistemic violence that dehumanizes trans people by denying the validity of trans experience.”

Throughout the question and answer session there was substantial disagreement about similar epistemological matters. More specifically, the representatives of Women’s and Gender Studies seemed, at times, to assert that a trans person’s truth was different from that espoused by someone who identifies as cis-gender (when one’s biological sex and gender identity align). It was implied that the denial of the “truth” or “lived experience” of a member of an oppressed group could constitute a form of “violence”.

The second and third areas of contention – “privilege” and how the university should be “transformed” – were harder to decipher and link directly to arguments about freedom of expression. The panel member who talked about privilege the most was Dr. Kimberly Williams, who argued that her privilege made her question her decision to participate in the forum. Dr. Williams stated that she felt uneasy sitting on the panel because of being a cis-gender tenured professor, and thought that trans people who were less occupationally privileged should take her place. Dr. James Turk noted that he thought that “power” was a better word to use than privilege because freedom of expression was a right that should be exercised by all. This seems to indicate a disagreement between those who assert that the solution to power differentials is more speech, versus those who entertain the position that the expression of the “privileged” should be restricted to make room for the voices of the marginalized.

“Transforming” the university was an idea put forward extensively by Dr. Rinaldo Walcott. Walcott argued that the university was a “heteropatriarchal, white supremacist place”, and this required that fundamental changes should be made. According to Walcott, “for many of us the university is not a safe space and cannot be made a safe space unless it becomes a new university” because “multiple harms are enacted on minority communities…”. While it was never specified what these “multiple harms” were, one area of transformation that was mentioned was the development of “Trans Studies” programs. The representative from the Office of Diversity & Meaningful Inclusion also stated that the university was “objectively oppressive”. Again, it was not specified as to how this was the case, except to state that “violent speech creates violent actions, repeatedly”. A “redistribution of wealth” within the university was proposed as a way to aid university transformation, raising the possibility that these demands were just a sophisticated form of rent-seeking.

Rent-seeking, in fact, often seems to be behind the attempts to oppose privilege (by creating barriers to entry for white cisgender straight males). It is argued that university resources should be diverted so as to institutionalize opportunities for subaltern voices to speak. By funding Trans Studies departments and Women’s Centres, for example, which can only be staffed by people espousing a particular identity, activists claim that the university will be able to combat the violence that is allegedly perpetrated by ideas believed to deny the humanity of oppressed groups. The pursuit of social justice also requires, we are told, that harmful ideas be prevented from spreading, like a virus, into the environment outside the university.

This view of transformation was very different from the one espoused by freedom of expression advocates. James Turk, for example, noted that the university could not be a safe space since it reflected what existed in society, and therefore we would expect that racist attitudes, because they exist in society, would also be present in a university. The university cannot be transformed in isolation from the wider society, it is reasoned, and the free exchange of ideas is necessary to determine how a more just future can be brought about democratically.

As is apparent from the above, there are significant areas of disagreement that exist about what universities should be like. The panel was a significant step forward because it enabled these divergent perspectives to be aired in one venue, and for a certain amount of mutual understanding to take place. With the exception of the one testy exchange that I had with the representative of the Office of Campus Equity & Meaningful Inclusion, the interaction was remarkably composed. Faculty, students and the general public were exposed to a clash of ideas based on very different political and philosophical assumptions.

That being said, important questions remain. First, is it possible for speech, in itself, to be “violent”? When the feminist Germaine Greer, for example, said “just because you lop off your doesn’t make you a woman”, was this equivalent to her slapping the face of, or inciting violence against, a trans-gender person? As the harm that will be caused by this comment is unclear, and will depend upon the subjective and unpredictable responses of those who hear it, how is it possible to restrict this kind of speech on campuses in any predetermined or systematic way?

Even more difficult are attempts to claim that questioning a group’s perception of itself constitutes “epistemic violence”. This is a major point of contention in universities today, and revolves around the epistemological question of whether or not knowledge is universal. According to Dr. Walcott, “we have to get beyond the idea that knowledge is neutral”, legitimizing the suppression of true ideas that are believed to cause harm. Disagreement about this came to the forefront in the exchanges that Rinaldo Walcott and I had about the violent reaction that the academic Charles Murray had faced at Middlebury College in the United States. I remarked that Murray’s presence on campus led some to claim that he was creating an “unsafe” space for black people, and taking this seriously would make it impossible for people to discuss Murray’s ideas academically. While not claiming to know if Murray’s arguments were valid (i.e. supported by evidence), my argument was that his views should not be censored because it prevented us from determining whether or not they were true. In fact, I noted that I was facing similar problems in questioning if indigenous spiritual beliefs were a “way of knowing”, as indigenous activists had claimed that this constituted “violence” and “oppression” by denying indigenous peoples’ ability to define themselves as a people. This, I pointed out, was a ridiculous argument; to say that an indigenous person’s spiritual beliefs did not constitute knowledge was not the same thing as loading black people onto slave ships.

I am still not sure what Walcott’s response was to the student demands for censoring Murray. He largely evaded the issue by stating that the opposition to Murray was never about trying to prevent people from stating what was true. Instead, the concern was that universities were creating “huge platforms” for “totally discredited knowledge” that “impinge[s] upon…minority personhoods”, and this indicated a “deeply warped moral universe inside the university”. But what if Walcott’s assertions about this work were inaccurate? His contention that accepting Murray’s claims would mean conceding that he, as a “negro”, was “really dumb” indicated that he was misinformed (Murray’s work was about population aggregates, not individuals). The reaction to Sam Harris’ interview with Murray on Harris’ Waking Up podcast also shows that these ideas have not been “totally discredited.” And if these questions are far from settled, as I was claiming, what are the implications of censoring them on the grounds that they make the university “unsafe” for black students?

Second, is “privilege” a useful concept in trying to develop a more robust conception of freedom of expression, and if so, how should it be addressed in universities? At one point in the question and answer session I noted that I have problems with the concept because it appears to be saying that my position in the university is illegitimate. I wondered why we used to talk about discrimination and trying to remove barriers and now we focus on “privilege”. Is this focus tantamount to saying “shut up” to those who are perceived to have more “privilege” than others? Walcott, in responding to this comment, argued that the notion of privilege had always existed, but that it had “returned” because of the inability of the university to be transformed.

This brings us to the third set of questions: Should the university be “transformed”, and what impact will this have on freedom of expression? James Turk’s conception of “transformation”, for example, seemed to be about making the institution more democratic, and this is consistent with a robust conception of freedom of expression. Rinaldo Walcott, on the other hand, implied that it was appropriate to stop people from speaking on campuses if they were putting forward “discredited knowledge” that was “violent” – i.e. perceived to deny the humanity of oppressed groups. This, in my view, will result to increasing censorship, divisiveness, and authoritarianism on campuses, but I could be wrong. I am anxious to discuss these matters further to determine if my rendition of these diverse perspectives is accurate.