University Free Speech, Ivory Towers and the New SectarianismThe free enquiry of higher education in the West is under serious threat.
What happens in universities often indicates where things are going in the wider culture. The university should be a watchtower over the surrounding culture to note and analyze the happenings in that culture and sound warnings based upon that analysis. Instead, they are sometimes described somewhat pejoratively as "ivory towers"—beautiful, expensive and largely useless.
… they should be allowed to exist as long as their tendency to be illiberal is tightly controlled.
Recent debates on campuses in Europe and North America raise serious questions about the extent to which universities are places of free expression.
On November 29, 2006, Ottawa radio station CFR 580 held a poll on whether Carleton University should restrict the activities of pro-life groups on campus.
As far as the voters had it, the answer is quite clear, with 76.6 percent of 1374 voters choosing "No, it's an issue of freedom of speech."
The student council vote, however, was 26 to 5 in favour of excluding the "pro-life" group. "Between freedom of expression for anti-abortion groups and respect for reproductive autonomy and equality rights of women we come down on the side of women's equality rights," says law professor Martha Jackson, University of Ottawa, in the NationalPost (December 7, 2006).
Or, as George Orwell writes in Animal Farm: "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
Unfortunately, Carleton University is not the only Canadian university acting in this way. The Student Union at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus (UBC/Ok) has refused to register a pro-life club. Registration is necessary for a club to post fliers, advertise and hold meetings.
The response of the campus human rights officer—whose "mission" is to ensure that UBC/Ok is "welcoming and respectful" and "champions fair treatment and embraces diversity"—to the concern about recent moves against freedom of expression in universities was that the Student Union is not bound by UBC/Ok policies on harassment, discrimination and academic freedom.
The Union called a special meeting to vote on the pro-life club. Faculty and administration looked the other way when less than 100 of the 5,000 member student body voted to refuse club status to the pro-life group.
Imagine the furor, if by a similar margin a group of students had brought in compulsory advocacy of "pro-life policies" at UBC/Ok? Or think of "pro-choice" or humanistic policies being denied access to status, funding and facilities.
This kind of "shut down the traditional side" strategy has led to numerous lawsuits in the U.S. when universities banned religious groups from accessing university facilities or money on the basis of a supposed university orthodoxy superior to diversity.
In this new world, groups that are "anti-religion" or hold "anti-traditional religious views" have no trouble obtaining funding; once at the table, their game is dominance, not cooperation.
These movements suppress the arguments of the others not by besting them in intellectual debate, but through back-alley methods of administrative clobbering: de-funding, de-legitimization, stigma and opprobrium.
By way of example, Birmingham University banned its Christian Union after the group refused to permit non-Christians to become executive committee members.
Edinburgh University, at the behest of gay and lesbian activist groups, is considering cancelling the privileges of its Christian Union because its members do not support same-sex sexual conduct and wish to discuss—in polite and civil ways—alternative viewpoints about sexual morality.
"Tolerance is, or rather should be, a street in which the traffic flows in two direction," reads a Times editorial (November 18, 2006). "Universities are establishments in which ideas are supposed to be incubated and exchanged, championed and challenged. A student union should be a forum in which that philosophical debate takes place and not a body that takes it upon itself to determine which arguments are acceptable or sufficiently "right" to be allowed an audience. A blinkered secularism is no better than theological dogmatism."
Pro-choice/abortion and same-sex activists are using these sorts of tactics to shut down dissenters on campus. What these groups have in common is a lack of understanding and respect for civil society, thinking they alone are the holders of the truth all men and women will eventually adopt. The beliefs of others are suppressed and their own beliefs firmly established. In light of such convictions and tactics, they have much in common with the Taliban.
They also share a homogenizing tendency, another application of "convergence liberalism." Having used the open textured nature of contemporary liberal societies and their universities to gain access to positions of control and influence, they now use the same political processes of these universities to attempt—as did Communists, right-wing McCarthyites and certain kinds of socialists—to shut down the opposition in ways that are not respectful of diversity and freedom.
One need not go so far as to suggest that pro-choice/abortion activists and homosexual and lesbian activists are Bolsheviks, but in terms of their quest for dominance and many of their underlying conceptions of persons and societies, they are every bit as intolerant and illiberal.
They are the real threat to the freedoms they have so cleverly twisted; their views pose a threat to genuine freedom, not the other way around. One could be excused for banning such groups; however, they should be allowed to exist as long as their tendency to be illiberal is tightly controlled.
Whether the UK universities, Carleton and UBC/Ok succeed in their efforts will be an indication not only how far we've gone in the restriction of free speech and expression, but also whether—and how many—people care.
"These manifestations of fundamentalist secularism will merely create harder fanatics of all religions, including atheism," writes Ruth Glendill in The Times.
These new movements are like new religions; their war, a religious one. What they sorely lack—and the non-religious faith movements pose greater threats to freedom than religions—is the history of learning about civil society absorbed by established religions.
Graham Good calls these new movements "the New Sectarians," functioning like the worst sort of religious bigots in the past. They are the new theocrats and we are right to fear them. The challenges to open society these theocrats make will attack the very religious conceptions that restrict their all encompassing social-engineering agendas. The politically correct atmosphere of contemporary universities can show us where many of these new-il-liberalists would take us if they got the chance.
In short, the free enquiry of higher education in the West is under serious threat. If Carleton and UBC/Okanagan join the many in the U.S. and now the UK that are failing to do the right thing, we shall be left with a smaller island on which to stand as the tides of the New Sectarianism march us toward its dreary future.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity," lamented Yeats. That being the case, the conviction of the best must increase to moderate the intensity of the worst.
Iain Benson is a lawyer and the director of Ottawa-based think-tank Centre for Cultural Renewal.
Originally published in Christian Week, January 15, 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2007 Christianity.ca.