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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.

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

Why not abortion for good reasons only?

Should abortion be a legal option only for women who have good reasons for terminating their pregnancies? Bad reasons for terminating a pregnancy might include that the fetus is female, that the fetus has a small deformity, that the fetus has genetic markers for retinitis pigmentosa or for homosexuality, or that the child will be deaf. These are bad reasons because girls and women, people with deformities or handicaps, blind people, lesbians and gays, and deaf people can all lead full and wonderful lives. Bad reasons might include the inconvenience of being pregnant right now or of being responsible for a child in the near future. Good reasons for terminating a pregnancy, then, might include that the fetus is anencephalic or has markers for Tay-Sachs disease. They might also include that the pregnancy occurred because of rape or that continuing the pregnancy endangers the physical or mental health of the woman. These would be good reasons, it seems, either because they take abortion to be a form of mercy killing (the case of anencephalic fetuses) or because they tip the scales in the balance between the rights of the pregnant woman and the rights of the fetus (the case of the woman’s health). Those who advocate restricting abortion to cases of good reasons say that they are moderates in the abortion debate, that theirs is a nuanced position. They would not ban abortion, just restrict it, and the restrictions they propose are needed to protect the dignity of human life. They note that wanting to abort a fetus because, for instance, it is female expresses sexist attitudes towards girls and women. Sex-selective abortion, they say, is discriminatory, and discrimination on the basis of sex is in Canada properly illegal. There is at least one large confusion within the good-reasons-only position… Read More
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