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Mark Mercer

Mark Mercer is professor of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, and president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.

Dalhousie’s code of conduct violates university values

Early last summer, Dalhousie University Student Union Vice President, Masuma Khan, proposed a motion that the student union should boycott Canada Day celebrations. Responding to criticism, Khan took to social media: “At this point, f—k you all. I stand by the motion I put forward. I stand by Indigenous students. (…) Be proud of this country? For what, over 400 years of genocide?” She added: “white fragility can kiss my ass. Your white tears aren’t sacred, this land is.” These posts violated Dalhousie’s student code of conduct, which prohibits “unwelcome or persistent conduct that the student knows, or ought to know, would cause another person to feel demeaned, intimidated or harassed.” That’s the official finding Arig al Shaibah, Dalhousie’s vice-provost of student affairs, made after conducting a formal investigation. The investigation followed a complaint from another Dalhousie student alleging that Khan’s “targeting [of] ‘white people’ who celebrate Canada Day is blatant discrimination.” Khan has declined to participate in an informal resolution process, which would have had her receive counseling and submit an essay. Dalhousie was slated to begin a formal process to determine her punishment, but they have since withdrawn their complaint due to public backlash. Universities these days neither understand nor appreciate freedom of expression on campus. That Khan was being persecuted for the content of her expression, or the manner in which she expressed it, was just one incident in a long line. Without freedom of expression on campus, though, universities cannot fulfill their mission as places of inquiry and discussion. Let us agree, just for the sake of argument, with the finding that Khan violated the student code of conduct. Let us also agree that she was abusive and that there is no place for abusive expression on campus. Why, then, was Dalhousie’s approach wrongheaded? What should… Read More

Why universities should cherish the civil liberties

Some people want others to refer to them using non-gendered or atypically gendered pronouns. Some hold that neither “he” nor “she” accurately applies to them. Others prefer that our common language didn’t irrelevantly indicate one’s sex. Favourite non-gendered alternatives are “they” and “ze,” while “he,” “she,” and “vhe” allows for a third sex or gender. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson has stated publicly that he will not honour student requests to use non-standard pronouns. One line of argument behind Peterson’s refusal is his view that there are just two human sexes, not three or four or a continuum, and that no one is both male and female. To refer to someone as “vhe,” then, is to imply something about them that one might believe to be false. The University of Toronto has directed Peterson to accede to students’ requests to use their preferred pronoun. In a letter dated October 18th, Dr David Cameron, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Dr Sioban Nelson, the Vice-Provost, Faculty and Academic Life, tell Peterson that “the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination.” Refusing requests by transgendered people is, they add, “contrary to the rights of those persons to equal treatment without discrimination.” If I had my way, every university in Canada would commit itself to supporting any member of its community who through exercising a civil liberty becomes the subject of a human rights complaint. I want to make three points about Cameron and Nelson’s position. 1. It is far from settled whether current or pending human rights legislation implies that failing to honour people’s pronoun preferences constitutes wrongful discrimination or harassment. 2. By insisting that such behaviour is wrongfully discriminatory… Read More

Censorship is a double-edged sword

He wanted to prove a point about double standards. Jerry Reddick, also known as the Dawgfather (he operates a hot-dog van), wanted to show that hate-filled nonsense about Muslims gets a pass while such nonsense about Jews doesn’t. And so he tweeted a set of anti-Semitic calumnies. A day later, around 15 January of this year, the police showed up at Mr Reddick’s Halifax home. Someone had filed a complaint of hate speech against Mr Reddick. The police investigated and, last week, said that the tweets “do not constitute a hate-related offence and the investigation into this matter has been concluded” (“Dawgfather won’t be charged for anti-Semitic tweets,” Halifax Chronicle Herald, 30 March). Mr Reddick supports the law under which he was investigated for a crime. He just thinks that the law should be applied uniformly. If questioning or mocking the Holocaust constitutes criminal hate speech, then so, too, he said in a recent interview, should displaying a cartoon portraying the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. I would have hoped his experience had led Mr Reddick to change his mind about the law to which he fell victim. The problem with laws against the expression of hate is not their uneven application, if, in fact, they are applied unevenly. The problem, rather, is that such laws affront our dignity and deform public discussion. Mr Reddick’s experience should signal to all of us the dangers of allowing the state to regulate, let alone criminalize, the peaceful expression of opinion or emotion. The best argument against hate-speech laws is that such laws prevent us from expressing ourselves as we wish. They run counter, that is, to the value of moral autonomy, to our desire to be the sort of person who has her own views for her own reasons… Read More

Academic freedom and incompetent teaching

Melody Torcolacci teaches a first-year course at Queen’s University, in Kingston, on the physical determinants of health. One of the things Professor Torcolacci tells her students is that some vaccines cause more harm than they prevent—or, at least, that the research doesn’t clearly indicate that they don’t. Students have complained, and now Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf has directed the provost, Alan Harrison, to gather information about Professor Torcolacci’s course. But what is the provost seeking to discover? What does the principal expect to do with the provost’s findings? (Perhaps the quest is now on hold. Prof Torcolacci requested and was granted leave from that course for the rest of the semester.) The provost cannot be seeking to discover whether Prof Torcolacci has endorsed false claims in her classroom. Who hasn’t? Professors speak falsely quite often. Indeed, our freedom to teach falsehoods to our students is protected by the collective agreements under which we work. Whether Prof Torcolacci has falsely taught her students that the jury is still out on the safety or effectiveness of vaccination should be a matter of indifference to the administration of Queen’s University. As well, Provost Harrison cannot be seeking to discover whether Prof Torcolacci’s teaching instilled in her students the false belief that some vaccines cause more harm than they prevent, or whether, by believing that they do, her students put themselves or others at risk of harm. That students might come to believe falsely because of a teacher’s teaching and that they might put themselves or others at risk because of their false beliefs are risks inherent in any educational endeavour. Remarks Principal Woolf has made suggest that Provost Harrison is to discover whether the evidence Prof Torcolacci presented in class was scientific and reliable, whether that evidence was presented objectively, and whether in… Read More

Hate speech laws – Repeal them

One thing we should do to increase our physical safety is repeal our remaining laws against hate speech. Isn’t that claim outlandish? It might seem obvious that if we want to protect ourselves, we should instead police expression even more vigorously than we do now, so that violent people will be less likely to see or hear something that sets them off. Well, of course, we know that by giving in to the heckler’s veto, we simply create more hecklers, and more raucous hecklers, at that. So maybe stricter laws against expression isn’t the answer. But how could having no anti-hate laws help us? I don’t mean to argue here for repealing our laws against the expression of hate on the grounds that they are anti-democratic, or that they deform public discourse, or that they are contrary to the ideal of the moral autonomy of the individual, though I think each of those arguments is sound. I mean to explain how the laws we currently live under, mild though some think them (though Arthur Topham or David Ahenakew would disagree), encourage the offended to take up violence. Those who lash out physically against people who (they feel) have ridiculed or offended them are lashing out because they believe they have suffered an injustice. My argument is that laws against the expression of hate endanger us because they affirm and encourage that belief. That is to say, countries that have laws against hate speech proclaim through their laws that some targets of expression are, indeed, victims of injustice. As victims of injustice, they are entitled to restitution through the punishment of their assailants. The police and the courts don’t always get things right, of course. Someone has defamed you by attacking your religion, and so you complain to the officials, but… Read More
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