University administrators and student unions are tearing down something more important than statues. These self-appointed censors are dismantling the dialectic method bequeathed to us by Socrates and generations of scholars, triggering a brain drain away from academia.
Neither arcane nor novel, the rigorous, timeless methodology at stake means examining, discussing, and arguing opposing ideas to learn and arrive at the truth. This has been a fundamental part of the progress in medicine, engineering, technology, law, democracy and justice that we enjoy.
The ‘opposing ideas’ part is not an optional ingredient. Just as a candle’s flame starved of oxygen sputters and dies, so does the advancement of knowledge when starved of criticism. Open inquiry and free expression are no longer under threat; they are becoming extinct on campus.
Numbers tell the tale
The Campus Freedom Index, published by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), has consistently tracked the rise of censorship at Canadian universities. The 2020 edition found “69 per cent of Canadian universities expressly commit themselves to the promotion, celebration, and/or appreciation of diversity and inclusion, while a mere 21 per cent bother with committing themselves to upholding free expression and open inquiry.”
Among the worst student union culprits are the Simon Fraser Student Society and the University of Ottawa Students’ Union. Both revoked club status from student groups with anti-abortion mandates.
In January 2020, University of British Columbia administrators cancelled a speaking event hosted by the Free Speech Club featuring journalist Andy Ngo. The administrators cited concerns over violent threats from a local Antifa chapter. Not without irony, his talk’s topic was to be Antifa violence.
No virtuous person could object to the benevolent but loosely defined terms of equity, diversity or inclusivity. At face value, these objectives and their advocates appear honourable enough. However, hidden behind these innocuous-sounding clichés lies a sinister ideology and zealots committed to the cleansing of dissenting opinions on the shaky grounds that it may trigger someone.
Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor and the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, explained to University Affairs: “our public universities are coming in many ways to resemble the religious universities that take that ideological mission very seriously, only this time the ideological concern isn’t producing good Christians but producing people who have the correct social attitudes towards diversity, sustainability, and so on.”
Just like Galileo was cancelled in the 1600s, the parallels to our times and our universities are startling. This summer, for example, the University of Alberta fired Kathleen Lowrey – the associate chair of the anthropology undergraduate program – for sharing the heresy that sex is not a social construct.
One principal culprit for the undermining of learning is the wave of cultural Marxism that has overtaken Canadian universities. As prominent psychologist Jordan Peterson has noted, pseudointellectual programs are turning universities into indoctrination centres. Participants must pledge allegiance to the principles of diversity, inclusion and equity. Gender studies, for instance, promote the vilification of white men and obsessively seek out any and all random discrepancies between men and women to prop up the latest oppression narrative.
Internet: the last refuge
This onslaught of cancel culture and persecution of free speech in Canadian universities has purged those who fail to adhere to the “progressive” orthodoxy. An intellectual exodus has commenced in recent years with free-thinkers spontaneously congregating to form a new movement: the Intellectual Dark Web. The open-debate environment that has evolved from the public spaces of Athens to university classrooms now flourishes away from our universities on the internet.
Peterson and Gad Saad are some of Canada’s prominent public intellectuals fighting for academic freedom. Other notable rebels include Janice Fiamengo, “the anti-feminist professor,” and Debra Soh, a sex researcher who decided to leave academia upon completing her doctorate. The author of The End of Gender refused to support the “early transitioning approach” for gender-dysphoric children. After writing about this issue, she realized her dissent meant she had “no hope of surviving in academia.”
The free marketplace of ideas may no longer exist within the confines of the ivory tower, but innovation continues to occur on the outside. The Journal of Controversial Ideas established in 2018 by philosophers Francesca Minerva, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer is “the first open access, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal specifically created to promote free inquiry on controversial topics.” It’s not affiliated with any institution, and authors may publish their works under a pseudonym to protect their physical safety and their careers.
Given the creeping censorship on mainstream platforms such as Facebook, alternative online communities for intellectuals have emerged. One such safe space for heretics is IndieThinkers, founded by Justin Murphy, a former academic. The website is still in beta, but it provides many of the benefits of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions (monthly conferences, tutorials, discussion forums and mentorship) without censorship or bureaucracy.
The intellectual exodus from our universities has begun. It’s a somber moment in the history of higher learning as free inquiry slips beneath the waves of political correctness and these once-courageous institutions refashion themselves into indoctrination centres.
All is not lost, however, because as long as free thinkers live and breathe, academic freedom will triumph – just no longer at our universities.
Caitlin Rose Morgante, from Toronto, studies economics at Boston University and is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.