By George Elliott Clarke
I write again to comment on the failure of the bulletin to address the issue of “cancellation” campaigns—and/or “gangstalking” (the term utilized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association), i.e., bullying and harassment conducted to censure, censor or silence academics (and other intellectuals, including writers), actions which are—I hold—strictly heinous when backed by other members of the intelligentsia—citizens whose work relies upon free speech guarantees.
Yet, while both the CAUT and the Writers’ Union of Canada (WUC) swiftly denounce actions undertaken by governments or cultural administrators to interfere with or to impede intellectual/ pedagogical civil liberties, both have been slow to condemn “third-party” or “civil society” (whether rightist Volk or leftist Woke) efforts to deny scholars, writers, or public speakers a chance to debate perspectives, bear witness to experiences (creatively fictitious or perfectly factual), or to share scholarship.
Nevertheless, these suppressive, oppressive and repressive regimes are just as horridly damaging to the free exchange of ideas—as well as threatening to personal security—as are the much more brazen examples of despots banning or burning books or cops swinging batons at protesters’ heads.
I am moved to write again because the May-June 2023 issue of the bulletin carries an informative interview with Mr. Samuel Dunietz, who protests rightly American state legislators attacking post-secondary education institutions for circulating or teaching (or even reading) ideas that run afoul of a particular ideology.
Mr. Dunietz states eloquently his opposition to attempted, governmental interference in academia, noting, “The ability of faculty and post-secondary institutions to be free of interference and to have the security to innovate is crucial to the discourse of democracy and necessary for a free society.” That’s all very well and good, but I find it troubling that Mr. Dunietz collapses “Anti-woke”- ism into only Republican barbarism, but says nothing (i.e., nothing printed in the interview) about “civil society” activists—of either right or left ilk— attempting to thwart academics (or other intellectuals) from sharing publicly their research or their teachings because one side or another dreads that the content of the speech or writing will violate philosophical, political, or ideological perspectives that proponents believe beyond reproach or even reasonable doubt.
My quarrel here is not with Mr. Dunietz, who seems affable and fair-minded, wise and good-intentioned, but with the Canadian intelligentsia’s failure or refusal to condemn the shouting down of academics (and others)—and the promotion of assaults upon our persons— practices fomented by parties who seek no discussion, but do want books pulled from circulation or syllabi, or who seek the censure or (attempted) firing of professors who advocate ideas that these cabals find or deem disagreeable.
It is cowardice and hypocrisy to pretend that the only threat to ourselves arises from Neanderthal administrations or authoritarian (foreign) governments or states. We also need to reject forthrightly censorship calls from both leftist-and-rightist, self-righteous “activists”—as well as from their often nicely tenured allies who will okay bullying tactics so long as the Putsches are conducted against persons whose ideas they dispute.
Perils to academic freedom are not always bluntly identifiable in terms of sighting the gloved fists and jackboots of (offshore) tyrannies brazenly “cracking down” on minorities, refuseniks, dissidents. No, sometimes, the dangers arise from citizens who feel that, given their affiance to a vital, socio-political movement, they have a “right” to forcefully drive intellectuals from our desks and/or from lecture halls. Rather, we must cast a cold eye on all self-appointed guardians of public/ political “morality,” all of our domestic, “politically correct” versions of Iran’s “Morality Police,” and all the proponents of “Two-Minutes Hate” campaigns (as seen in Orwell’s 1984).
Although it is unpopular to say so, even communities articulating exquisitely righteous grievance cannot be permitted to stifle academic exchange or, for that matter, artistic expression. So, shame on our academic organs for not denouncing this serious, anti-democratic menace— and, yes, may a righteous degree of shame redound upon the WUC as well.
A necessary coda
When I wrote my Letter to the Editor of bulletin last July 18, 2023, it was a follow-up to a previous letter, sent in Fall 2022 (in response to the September 2022 bulletin editorial), whose content was similar (and which was, like the above letter, copied to the WUC), i.e., a protest against the facile criticism of the illiberal actions of noxious actors elsewhere, while domestic censorship prompted by social activists (of whatever ilk) gets studiously (pun intended) ignored.
I do object to that Canadian tendency to fault others for dogmatic discourse and violent bigotry, while not recognizing spasms of intolerance right here, within our own borders, especially when the perpetrators are not, for example, toxic-fume-spewing truckers lusting to “F**k Trudeau,” but persons who advocate social justice agendas that many of us support.
Yet, censorship is censorship, and I do not think that anyone’s allegedly “progressive” intent accords them fiat to decide who can speak and who must not. Indeed, the reason why we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms—and supposedly liberal academic, journalistic, literary, and arts institutions—is to preserve space— amid the commons—for frank discussion, fierce debate, and free exchange of perspectives and positions.
Thus, I am heartened to know now “that CAUT has recently adopted a policy in response to concerns about so-called ‘de-platforming’… The policy is consistent with our statement on academic freedom that states that no expression or idea, within the law, should be prohibited on a university or college campus.” I am quoting from CAUT Executive Director David Robinson’s email to me of August 3, 2023. He continues on to state, “A decision in January of this year by the University of Lethbridge administration to cancel a scheduled talk by a former academic of Mount Royal led us to issue this statement: https://www.caut.ca/latest/2023/02/caut-university-lethbridge-was-wrong-cancel-campus-talk”
I applaud this measure. But do other Canadian organs of opinion, creativity, and research uphold these principles? Well, I chose to “cc” my bulletin letters to the WUC executive because, in the winter of 2020, when I was first being aggressively “blacklisted”—and permitted no fair opportunity to rebut scurrilous defamation—the WUC said, replying to my appeal for aid, something like this: “We don’t want to raise the ire of communities that we are trying to court, and we fear that could happen if we offer you support. We feel for you, but you’re on your own.” Thus, I must call out hypocrisy when the WUC castigates— loudly—offshore fatwas issued by the usual suspects but is silent when the home-grown dictators of censorship are those who credit that a roaring bullhorn equals—organically—the promulgation of virtue. No! Here are the true moral equivalents: No human rights without civil liberties; and no civil liberties without human rights.
George Elliott Clarke
Department of English, University of Toronto