Society never becomes more tolerant, but merely shifts the target of its intolerance. At various times in history, and in various places, the authorities have sought to crush anti-slavery speech, anti-Communist speech, and a multitude of religious doctrines deemed to be heretical.
Censorship always stems from the same impulse: the authorities are firmly convinced they have the absolute Truth, and are therefore entitled to suppress what they deem to be false. This holds true for European fascist regimes in the 1930s, Communist regimes around the world since World War II, and the tyranny of relativism in today’s post-modern, post-Christian Canada.
A recent example occurred at the Law Faculty of the University of Alberta. In November, a number of law students claimed to have been severely traumatized by an article in the law students’ newspaper, Canons of Construction. Titled “Desperate Drunk Girl Finds Self at Hal-LAW-ween,” the satirical story describes a drunk law student “who has been single a little too long” making advances on other law students at a party, then bumping her head and falling down. The column concludes: “The very next day, she quit drinking, put on a chastity belt, dropped out of law school and enrolled at a yoga academy. She finally learned that she don’t need no man to make her happy, and that praising the virtues of fair-trade, organic and environmentally sustainable armpit wax to yuppie moms in her trainee yoga instructor classes is way better than catching gonorrhea for the sixth time.”
Third-year law student Lerina Koornhof was outraged. She went to the media with claims that this article perpetuates “dangerous” stereotypes about women. Others claimed that the article creates “an unsafe environment for all women in law school,” degrades women as a “marginalized group,” and perpetuates sexual assault.
How a fictional story about one promiscuous drunk woman can constitute “overt sexism,” “misogyny”, or “stereotyping” has not been explained. Should a fictional story about a drunk, promiscuous gay black male be banned as an attack on blacks, or as an attack on men, or as an attack on gays? Or as an attack on all three groups? The very notion of “stereotyping” casts a dangerous chill on healthy discussion of social, moral and cultural issues. To prohibit “stereotyping” is to destroy our freedom to think, speak and write about any person – real or fictitious – who might qualify for membership in a so-called victim group, i.e., female, gay, aboriginal, black, etc. Totalitarian thinking seeks to conform reality to ideology. Ideology comes first, and then reality must be squeezed into it. Totalitarian thinking can manifest itself in the form of a swastika, a rainbow flag, the hammer-and-sickle, or any other ideology.
Canons of Construction apologized to those who felt offended, explaining that, “satire is a vehicle for dialogue; for people to take a deep, hard look, internally and externally, at some of the nastier things that permeate around us.” The editors then published the complaints they received (with permission from the writers) in the December issue of Canons of Construction.
A good newspaper will publish criticisms and rebuttals. That is how free expression is supposed to work: debate sharpens our minds, and discussion is a messy-but-effective vehicle for arriving at truth, or at least coming closer to truth. In a free society, if a newspaper wishes to, it may – without pressure or constraint from authorities – print rebuttals to a column or article.
Unfortunately, this University of Alberta story does not end with Canons of Construction publishing the rebuttals and criticisms of outraged law students.
Instead, the Law Faculty administration chose to intervene by hosting a “Town Hall” meeting to soothe the aggrieved and comfort the offended. Dean Paul Patton delivered a speech in support of “equity,” “diversity,” and “inclusivity.” While the article’s author has not faced formal disciplinary proceedings, the Dean’s message is very clear: you are not free to express your opinions, unless they are the ideologically “correct” ones. Sadly, the Dean is not helping his students prepare for the practice of law, which requires debating your opponents, thinking through arguments, and presenting better ideas. Lawyers can feel very offended by opposing counsel’s factum and arguments, but there is no way to silence opposing counsel, nor should there be.
Dean Patton treats law students as fragile snowflakes, who will instantly melt away when confronted by the heat of an idea they object to. This is no way to prepare students for the practice of law–let alone for adulthood and good citizenship.