Correctly squelched

Margaret Somerville
Mercatornet, July 2008
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

In 2006 I accepted an invitation to receive an honorary doctor of science degree from Ryerson University in Toronto. When that was announced a powerful storm of protest erupted from the activist gay community and their supporters across Canada, demanding that, because of my views on same-sex marriage the University withdraw its offer of the degree. That, in turn, generated an even bigger media storm across Canada, in defence of freedom of speech.

One element of this "perfect storm" was many people expressing to me their deep concern about "what's happening in our universities." One thing that is happening is a growth in moral relativism. This can lead to a loss, on the part of university students, of substantive values, certainly shared ones, or even ethical nihilism, in the sense that ethics becomes nothing more than personal preferences.

Postmodernism is now de rigueur in the humanities and social sciences. Postmodernists adopt a relativistic approach: there is no grounded truth; what is ethical is simply a matter of personal judgement and preference. Moral relativism means that values are all of equal worth and which take priority, when they conflict, is merely a matter of each person's perception and preference. The result, paradoxically, is that "the equality of all values", itself, becomes the supreme value.

This stance ultimately leads, at least in theory, to extreme or intense tolerance as the "most equal" of equal values. But does that happen in practice?

That is where political correctness enters the picture. (I'm using this term as shorthand to cover a variety of identity-based social movements and the neo-liberal values that they espouse. I am not using it, as can sometimes happen, to describe people or their views or values derogatorily, which is not to say I agree with all of them.)

Political correctness excludes politically incorrect values from the "all values are equal" stable. It shuts down non-politically correct people's freedom of speech. Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is, thereby, labelled as intolerant, a bigot or hatemonger. The substance of arguments is not addressed; rather people labelled as politically incorrect are attacked as being intolerant and hateful simply for making those arguments.

Strategies for quelching debate

It is important to understand the strategy employed: speaking against abortion or same-sex marriage is not characterised as speech; rather, it is characterised as a sexist act or a discriminatory act against homosexuals, respectively, and, therefore, as, in itself, a breach of human rights or even a hate crime. Consequently, it is argued that protections of freedom of speech do not apply.

Another part of the same strategy is to reduce discourse to two possible positions. One must be either pro-choice on abortion and for respect for women and their rights, or pro-life and against respect for women and their rights. The possibility of being pro-women and their rights and pro-life is eliminated. The same approach is taken to same-sex marriage: One is against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and for same-sex marriage, or against same-sex marriage and for such discrimination. The option of being against such discrimination and against same-sex marriage, as I am, is eliminated. That is not accidental; it is central to the strategy that has been successful in Canada that resulted in having same-sex marriage legalised and maintaining the complete void with respect to having any law governing abortion.

In short, political correctness is being used as a form of fundamentalism, and fundamentalisms, especially "warring" fundamentalisms as manifested in the battles between religious fundamentalists and neo-atheist fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, are a grave danger to democracy. They vastly widen the divides between us, creating an unbridgeable "us" and "them" when what we need is a "we".

Moral relativism and political correctness in practice

The issue that sparked the "Ryerson controversy", legalising same-sex marriage, is an example of what "pure" moral relativism and intense tolerance, as modified by political correctness, mean in practice.

While I abhor discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and agree that same-sex marriage could be a powerful message of the wrongs of that, I oppose same-sex marriage because of its impact on children's rights. In choosing between adults and children, I believe we should give priority to children. I argue that children need and have a right to both a mother and a father, preferably their own biological parents, unless the "best interests" of a particular child require otherwise, as in many adoptions. Marriage limited to the union of a man and a woman establishes that right; same-sex marriage eliminates that right for all children (which is why I oppose the redefinition of marriage), but support civil unions (which do not have that impact).

The Ryerson protestors sought to "deal" with me by labelling me. I was described as guilty of a hate crime; the new Ernst Zundel (who, like him, should be deported - they were grateful that I came from Australia and could be sent back there); a neo-Nazi; and a member of the Klu Klux Klan. My views had no place in the university, they claimed. This approach eliminated the need to deal with the substance of my arguments. It sent a very powerful warning to all those who might happen to share my views.

Was the Ryerson affair unique in our universities? I do not believe so. One current, very worrying example is the suppression of pro-life groups and pro-life speech on Canadian university campuses. Whatever our views on abortion, we should all be worried about such developments. Pro-choice students are trying to stop pro-life students from participating in the collective conversation on abortion that should take place. In fact, they don't want any conversation, alleging that to question whether we should have any law on abortions is, in itself, unacceptable.

Some people are going even further: they want to force students to act against their conscience as a condition for graduating. The group "Medical Students for Choice" would like to make performing an abortion a "required procedure", that is, a student would have to competently perform an abortion in order to graduate. Delivering a baby at term is not a required procedure. I do not need to emphasise the dangers of this in universities, no matter how worthy one's motives in promoting a certain stance. The most fundamental precept on which a university is founded is openness to ideas and knowledge from all sources.

The closing of the university mind

As well, over the last year or so, I have been dis-invited from three events. That has never happened before in my nearly 30 years of speaking engagements. And, probably uniquely, the withdrawals came from opposite ends of the values spectrum. One withdrawal was because my views were seen as not being pro-life and in another as not being pro-choice. Only a speech that would be preaching to the converted was seen as acceptable.

In the other case, a diplomatic explanation was given, but my hunch is that the university administrators, fund raisers, and public relations professionals involved were frightened of facing protests for having invited me. No one knows how many invitations are not issued because of fear of controversy. The cumulative effect is a silencing: And such silence is golden in more than a metaphorical sense -- potential donors are not offended.

Ryerson University received many calls from people saying they would never donate to the university again, if they conferred the honorary degree on me. A past Principal at McGill University received similar calls in relation to another controversial issue on which I spoke publicly, demanding that I be fired or they would never again donate.

Moreover, I was told that last semester law students at McGill had considered asking other students not to enrol in any of my classes as a means of public protest against my views on same-sex marriage, but changed their minds because that might have "made them look bad", especially as law students who should be defenders of rights such as free speech.

One of my classes was invaded by students, with TV cameras filming them, and had to be abandoned as they carried out a mock same-sex marriage. I've received very large amounts of hate mail, been the subject of an on-line protest petition and needed security precautions when speaking in public, all because I believe all children - including those who are gay as adults - need a mother and a father which opposite-sex marriage gives them and same-sex marriage takes away.

And, if that is how I'm treated, imagine how students, or even junior faculty, who hold views that are seen as not politically correct or, sometimes, just too conservative, feel. They are fearful of speaking out and feel intimidated.

What happened to shared values?

The further deep concern is that this conflict within our universities, and dealing with it by shutting down freedom of speech, might be a micro example of a much larger problem outside the universities. We might be at risk of annihilating some of our most important shared values and that creates a situation that threatens society itself. We can't hold a society together in the long-term without shared values, that is, without a societal-cultural paradigm: the story about ourselves that supports our most important principles, values, attitudes and beliefs, one that we tell each other and all buy into in order to form the glue that holds us together. Tolerance alone, and especially unbalanced by other important values, is nowhere near enough to found that story.

To ensure our story does not disintegrate and continues to be enriched, we must engage in mutually respectful conversation. The public needs academics to speak freely - and respectfully, openly, honestly, and without threat of repercussions - about contentious but important societal problems. That requires respect for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and academic freedom - the latter of which is meant primarily for the benefit of the public by allowing academics to feel they can speak the truth, as they see it, to power. The Ryerson events were in breach of all those freedoms.

Our universities should be models for the larger society of crossing the divides that separate us, not of widening them. In the broader context of our contemporary multicultural, pluralistic democracies, we must engage in mutually respectful conversation across those divides.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Her essay "Brave New Babies" will appear in MercatorNet later this month.