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Incorrectly labelled

University life has turned toxic when unpopular opinions are reviled, stigmatised and silenced, writes a leading ethicist. 
Margaret Somerville | 24 February 2009

My work as an academic and a commentator in the public square involves dealing with issues such as euthanasia; the treatment of seriously disabled new-born babies; access to health care, especially expensive new treatments; withdrawal of life-support treatment; abortion; prenatal genetic screening; new reproductive technologies; "designer babies"; human embryo stem cell research; cloning; "manimals" – embryos with both human and animal genes; artificial sperm and ova -- making embryos from two same-sex adults; synthetic biology; transplant tourism; xeno-transplantation – the use of animal organs in humans; the use of animals in research; being soft/hard on crime and drugs; needle exchange clinics; safe injecting sites; capital punishment; the law and ethics governing armed conflict; the ethics of robotic warfare; same-sex marriage; polygamy; and so on -- all controversial social-ethical-legal values topics.

How we deal with each of them is important not only in itself, but also in determining the values on which our societies will be based. That is true because all these values are connected with life, birth or death, the events around which we have always formed our most important individual and collective values.

These values, together with our principles, attitudes, beliefs, myths and so on, make up the societal-cultural paradigm on which our society is based – that is, the "shared story" that we tell each other and buy into in order to form the glue that binds us as a society.

I have been arguing that we must search for a "shared ethics" and that everyone, both people who are religious – and, if so, no matter which religion – and those who are not religious, have a role to play in that search, including through their participation in the public square.

This stance has caused some people to want to silence me, including, as can be seen from some of the comments on my article "The Campaign Against God", on MercatorNet, by labelling me as religious. Here, I want to speak from personal experience in this regard and, in doing so, I hope to make clear why I believe that such attempted silencing is a serious threat to our societies that needs to be guarded against.

Ryerson University...

In 2006 I accepted an invitation to receive an honorary doctor of science degree from Ryerson University. 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. (While I abhor discrimination against homosexual people, 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, so I do not think same-sex marriage is a good idea, because of the impact it has on children’s rights.) That, in turn, generated an even bigger media storm across Canada, in defence of freedom of speech.

Labelling someone as politically incorrect or religious operates by shutting down their freedom of speech. The people labelling someone as politically incorrect also automatically attach to them labels of being intolerant, a bigot or hate-monger simply for making the arguments they present. As well, in the case of religion, they label them as irrelevant to public discourse, brainwashed, a puppet and so on. This "derogatorily label the person and dismiss them on the basis of that label" approach is intentionally used as a strategy to suppress strong arguments against the stance taken by the labellers and, also, to avoid needing to deal with the substance of their opponents’ arguments.

The Ryerson protestors sought to "deal" with me by labelling me. I was described as guilty of a hate crime; the new Ernst Zundel, a vitriolic Holocaust denier (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 sent a very powerful warning to all those who might happen to share my views – or any other non-politically correct views -- that they should not speak them publicly for fear of the same kind of treatment.

The protestors demanded that the university withdraw its offer of the honorary degree and set up a poll and a website on which protests could be recorded. I also received very large amounts of hate mail.

The university said that if it had known what kind of person I was, they would never have offered the degree, but that it was too late to withdraw their invitation – it’s somewhat surprising that they didn’t know in view of the large amount of general media publicity my views had previously received.

At the convocation I had bodyguards, a special security car, a hotel booking in another name, underground entrance to the convocation hall, and so on. There were protesters outside and among the faculty on the platform who had brought posters and rainbow flags hidden under their academic gowns. They turned their backs and displayed these as the degree was conferred. Many TV crews were present filming these events for national television -- a special section was set aside for them in the hall.

However, what happened as the degree was conferred was completely astonishing. Thunderous applause erupted – eventually I had to signal to the audience to stop it.

As I went to the podium to deliver the Convocation speech (which we’d thought might not be possible) a single male voice called out from the back of the hall: "You should be ashamed of yourself!". A collective wave of a very loud Shhh! swept from one side of the hall to the other. I gave the speech with no interruptions.

The university had suggested that I leave the hall immediately after my speech, but I refused, as the custom was for the honorary degree recipient to greet each graduating student. I greeted the 310 graduates individually as they came on stage to receive their degrees -- many said something kind or complimentary -- only two refused to shake hands, and one shook, but grimaced.

The president of Ryerson said of all the possible responses to the event as a whole, he’d anticipated, this was the only one he could never have predicted.

The convocation was reported the next day in a story in the Globe and Mail. Here’s what I wrote in response to that report, in a letter to the editor, only part of which was published in the newspaper:

That good facts are essential for good ethics is especially true in journalism, so let’s examine some facts. Your reporter writes, "A steady applause began in the packed auditorium as Dr. Somerville was hooded, although it wasn’t clear if it was meant for her or the demonstrators standing quietly in the middle of the stage".

It was an overwhelming, standing ovation from the vast majority of the audience. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I would guess at least two minutes. If the audience wanted to express disapproval of me surely one would expect them to join the protestors by booing me. President Levy took it as support for me saying "This is the one possible response that never entered my mind" and told me to turn and look at the Faculty behind me. A very substantial number [about two-thirds] had not turned their backs and had joined in the standing ovation. I finally signalled to the audience to stop applauding and sit, which they did. Would they have done that if they were protesting against me?

As I then went to the podium, a lone voice shouted out something like "Shame on you!" or "You should be ashamed!" (I can’t remember exactly). But a very loud, widespread "Shhhh!!!" response emerged from across the audience again signalling their support for me.

I shook the hands of over 300 graduating students. Of them one young woman shook hands but with a very disapproving scowl; one young man refused to shake hands; and one wearing a rainbow triangle I just bowed to and he walked past. All the rest smiled, it seemed to me, warmly; many said congratulations on my degree; a few said "courage" or "keep up the good work" or "keep on standing up for what you believe in"; quite a few said they loved my convocation speech; and a couple that they wanted to be "ethical lemmings" a reference to my convocation address.

I gave an interview to your journalist, Scott Roberts, late yesterday afternoon after arriving back in Montreal [from Toronto]. I asked him if he had been inside the hall at convocation and heard my speech and he said, "No, I arrived late", that is after these events took place. So how could he write what he did about the applause being ambiguous? What evidence is there for his statement? Such evidence is central to the fairness and honesty of this story.

In fairness to the Globe and Mail I want to place it on the record that although their editorial board was strongly in support of legalising same-sex marriage, they spoke forcefully against the protestors who tried to silence me. In a lead editorial entitled "How Ryerson failed Margaret Somerville", they decried the University’s placating response to the protestors and warned of the dangers of not supporting freedom of speech.

The Learned Societies meeting...

I also had another interesting experience related to my being seen as "controversial" a few months ago at the Learned Societies Congress that was held at the University of British Columbia and attended by around 10,000 Canadian academics.

Professor Noreen Golfman, from Memorial University, Newfoundland, the president of the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences which convened the congress, received complaints from people who object to some of my views and the values they reflect, that it was inappropriate to have invited me as one of two keynote speakers.

When asked by a Globe and Mail reporter why she had done this she replied that "the Congress never got any news coverage, so she and her committee thought perhaps it might if they had a controversial speaker". The next day the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail. Professor Golfman also told the reporter that inviting me "shows we [the congress organisers] are not afraid of taking risk with our speakers".

Other incidents...

As well, over the last year or so, I’ve been dis-invited from several events – that is I have accepted an invitation to speak and agreed on all the terms and conditions and some time later been told the invitation was being withdrawn. That has never happened before in my nearly 30 years of speaking engagements. And, probably uniquely, two of 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 the other case as not being pro-choice.

In the other instances, I believe that the organisers, university administrators, fund raisers, and public relations professionals involved were frightened of facing protests for having invited me – it’s easier to side-step controversial speakers. No one knows how many invitations are not issued because of fear of controversy.

I give between 20 and 35 invited speeches each year and since the Ryerson events I’ve been asking my hosts whether they had received protests for inviting me. Without exception the response has been "yes", even, to my surprise, in a small city in the Prairie Provinces of Canada, where I had asked the question just to be conversational while being driven by a faculty member, whom I didn’t know, from the airport to the university. In some cases the protests were from members of faculty, as well as students or alumni. In all cases, my hosts have quickly reassured me that "everything was under control", with explanations ranging from saying that they had organised security services, to the Mounties had done a "threat assessment".

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 received similar calls in relation to another controversial issue – the ethics of infant male circumcision -- 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 with the two brides wearing rainbow flags as bridal veils.

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, or even religious, feel. They are fearful of speaking out and feel intimidated.

Whatever our own views on these matters in dispute -- whether in our professional roles or personally -- this is a situation that we should seek to remedy.

And, in the context of discouraging or repressing public square discussion, one mustn’t overlook politicians. They, perhaps most of anyone, want to avoid these social-ethical-values issues that are too hot to handle and create "no win" situations, because politicians lose votes whichever side they take on them.

To ensure our "shared values story" – the story on which we base our society -- does not disintegrate and continues to be enriched, we must engage in mutually respectful conversation. Among many requirements for doing that, the public needs everyone, and especially academics, to be able 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 and not, as was true of the way I was treated, have power speaking to silence my stating my truth as I see it.

The Ryerson events and some of the other incidents I describe were in breach of all of those freedoms.

Margaret Somerville is director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, and author of The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit.

Copyright © Margaret Somerville . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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