“Free Speech Does Not Exist Outside Of Its Social Context”: McGill Student Groups Seek To Strip Professor Of Emeritus Status

Montreal’s McGill University is the latest school facing an attack on free speech and academic freedom.  We have followed efforts to fire professors who hold opposing views on police abuse or the Black Lives Matter organization. At McGill, eight student groups have gone further. They want to rescind the emeritus status of a retired professor to retroactively punish him for opposing their views.  Professor Philip Carl Salzman is a well-known anthropologist with an impressive record of publications and recognitions.  However, students are demanding the rare action to “protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues.”  They further declare in an open letter that free speech “does not exist outside of its social context” and that it has been shown to be “dictated by whiteness.”

We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views of the basis or demands of recent protests including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn.

The McGill open letter is signing on behalf of eight groups:

The Students’ Society of McGill University Executive Team
The Anthropology Students Association
The Anthropology Graduate Students Association
World Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Association
Black Students Network
Muslim Students Association
Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights
Thaqalayn Muslim Association

The letter explains why free speech should not be a barrier to punishing faculty for holding unacceptable or controversial views. Indeed, free speech itself is deemed harmful:

Freedom of expression is traditionally considered central to permitting the free exchange of ideas and debate and fostering the university environment. Free speech, however, does not exist outside of its social context. David Gillborn, a critical race theorist at the University of Birmingham, suggests that the terms of what is considered ‘legitimate’ speech are dictated by whiteness, since “[w]hiteness operates to invest speech with different degrees of legitimacy, such that already debunked racist beliefs can enjoy repeated public airings where they are lauded as scientific and rational by many White [sic] listeners, who simultaneously define as irrational, emotional, or exaggerated the opposing views of people of colour.” Moreover, evidence from psychology, social work, and medicine suggest that microaggressions, including racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic speech, have numerous and significant impacts on the health, wellbeing, and educational success of marginalized people.

The defence of discriminatory dialogue at the expense of the safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour reflects the power of whiteness in determining what is and is not considered acceptable speech. Upholding free speech at the cost of marginalized groups permits racist talk with real-world impacts; it teaches future generations that perpetrating this kind of harm is acceptable. These harms are not hypothetical; they have been and will continue to be felt by marginalized communities on campuses across the country.

The letter captures the chilling shift on our campus. Students and faculty were once the bulwark against speech controls and regulations. They are now calling for the censorship and silencing of those with opposing views. The “real-world impacts” that concern them do not include a world without free speech. Now free speech must be curtailed to conform to the “social context.”

The point of free speech is that it is not relative to the social context.  It can change social contexts (as did the speech of figures like Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk), but it is not dependent on social context. Free speech is a human right to expression. Society will not always approve of the viewpoints of some but free speech allows each person — including these students — to express their values and beliefs.

In a statement to The College Fix, Brooklyn Frizzle, vice president of student affairs with the Students’ Society, further explained that “no freedom is without limits” and that “freedom of expression cannot be used to defend hate speech.”  She said that the initial complaint against Saltzman came from the Canadian Arab Federation, which previously attempted to get McGill University to publicly condemn Salzman’s writings.

What is particularly chilling is the example cited for this action, a clear opinion expressed by Salzman on the Middle East:

In the past year, several articles have been posted on public forums by Professor Philip Carl Salzman, a retired Professor Emeritus of the McGill Anthropology Department. In one recent example, Salzman goes on to write that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.” Salzman goes on to condemn multiculturalismimmigrationgender paritycultural equalitysocial justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism.

Despite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts. …

Framing this as an issue of Professor Salzman’s academic freedom, rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe, illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues.

In a now common construct by liberal groups seeking to limit free speech and academic freedom, the students simply brush over the “editorial nature” of such writings. Instead, they insist that the opinions are “presented as though they are objective facts.”  Most opinions are stated from a perspective that they are correct in their historical, political, or social viewpoint.  Yet, the letter shows an increasingly common construct of denouncing opposing viewpoints as “fake news” or “disinformation.”

They are not alone. We have have been discussing how writerseditorscommentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. Even journalists are leading attacks on free speech and the free press.  This includes academics rejecting the very concept of objectivity in journalism in favor of open advocacy. Now, Columbia Journalism Dean and New Yorker writer Steve Coll has denounced how the First Amendment right to freedom of speech was being “weaponized” to protect disinformation.

In his response, Salzman tries to explain the difference between dialogue and diatribes on our campuses:

It appears to have eluded the students supporting this petition that a university is supposed to be a place where opinions, views, and theories are exchanged and critically assessed. I would welcome critiques of my articles through argument and evidence and am prepared to defend my positions. But these students have made no attempt to challenge my articles with contrary arguments and contradictory evidence. Their view appears to be that diversity of opinion about important subjects is unacceptable. Faced with opinions that they dislike, they attack the messenger rather than the message. And they move swiftly from accusation to sentence, without bothering to pass through argument and evidence.

I assume that McGill will stand firm on academic freedom and free speech. However, the greater danger is the growing anti-free speech movement on our campuses. The open letter of these students expresses views that were once deemed extreme and anti-intellectual. They are increasingly become mainstream as students and faculty alike yield to the temptation to silence those with opposing views.

106 thoughts on ““Free Speech Does Not Exist Outside Of Its Social Context”: McGill Student Groups Seek To Strip Professor Of Emeritus Status”

  1. To break this down into context…
    If you don’t agree with us, we will determine you are espousing ‘hate speech’ which is not protected speech.

    I wonder what would happen if the university placed these students on notice and threatened them for suspension.
    How would they react where their opinion has been found to be deemed ‘hateful’ and thus not protected. They they no longer have the right to espouse any ideas.

    The point is that if the shoe was on the other foot, would they still hold the same daft opinions?

  2. Liberalism is a philosophy of divergence, typically generational, sectarian, factional. When coupled with the Twilight faith (i.e. “penumbras and emanations”, conflation of logical domains), and a Pro-Choice, selective, opportunistic, relativistic (e.g. “ethics”) quasi-religion, it is a first-order forcing of progress (i.e. unqualified monotonic change) and its aftermath, with diverse historical and global precedents, and a trail of collateral damage from Beijing to Rome to DC.

    1. In Canada, the black population is about 3.5%. The Muslim population is about the same, so this makes it only some 7% of the population. Then consider the college brats featured here (and elsewhere) who simply parrot groupthink critical theory nonsense, and you are down to an even smaller percentage of super ignorant loudmouths demanding that their bigotry be rewarded.

  3. You all know this is China, Russia et al. speaking, right? This “protest” is bought and paid for by China. You all know that, right?

  4. There is a continuum of intelligence. At the lowest level, the person may not know anything but he has the sense to come in out of the rain. At levels 2-8, the individual can tell you why it rains, can predict when it will rain, and can even make it rain – all while dripping wet because he doesn’t have the sense to come in out of the rain. At levels 8-10-ish, the individual knows why it rains and can predict when it rains, but is more interested in coming in out of the rain so he won’t get his iPhone wet. The point is that mediocre intelligences perform mental gymnastics in order to justify the unjustifiable rather than doing something useful such as, say, coming in out of the rain or curing cancer or something. This is similar to inhabitants of economically advanced societies performing physical gymnastics because they no longer use their bodies for any useful purpose. People brag about schlepping around 40 lb backpacks as if it meant something, just as they brag about their Mensa memberships, without seeming to realize that 98% of the world’s population does more than that, all day every day, just to survive. The point is that the low IQ person and the high IQ person have something in common – common sense. Which is actually not that common. Mediocre intelligences are convinced that they’re geniuses and spend their lives in virtual urination contests with other mediocre intelligences. My father was a mathematician. He showed my brother and me a proof once that 1=0. It was a very long proof and there was a trick in it but you had to be a high level mathematician to see the flaw. The point is that the low IQ person would not understand the proof but would know perfectly well that 0 is not equal to 1. The high IQ person would see the flaw but would not need to in order to know that 0 is not equal to 1. The geniuses in the middle go through life convinced that 0=1.The Constitution is not complicated. Freedom of speech means freedom of speech. Period.

  5. I think criticizing the topics that JT covers here is fair game especially since JT here often criticizes the topics that mainstream media covers and JT generally promotes free speech and discussion.

    1. 50 black kids on bikes want to know your home address. We are inclined to provide it since they have a right to peacefully protest your comments

      1. The American Founders required citizens to be “…free white person(s).”

        The American Founders required voters to be: Male, European, 21, Net Worth 50 lbs. Sterling/50 acres.

        America was a republic of rules, discipline, rationality and coherence – esteem and deference were essential.

        The vote was solemn and defended.

        1. The American Constitution does not indulge diversity (i.e. color judgment) and other class bigotry. It does not discriminate by color or sex, or even gender. Although, it does name two parties to the compact: the People and our Posterity, where the latter can be denied human and civil rights when she is deemed to be a “burden” or an obstacle to social progress and revenue, and the former are subject to affirmative discrimination under the same dogmatic belief, not limited to racism.

  6. Thank you for making the time to provide the links to professor Salzman’s articles. Unfortunately, his thinking and arguments can’t be reduced to sound bites. I do think they can provide frameworks for debate, if and where open discussion is encouraged.

Leave a Reply