It isn't nothing to receive a letter like that. But I will say that in the context of Ms. Coulter, it seems a little bit hard to believe that someone who is both such a flashpoint and who has absolutely no trouble dealing with the toughest critics would actually be substantially cowed. She can certainly throw a punch and take a punch. So it seems a bit hard to believe that she was actually cowed by the letter.
But of course, treating the question only at that level misses the key point of principle: and that is whether it is good policy to send out specific letters to some speakers reminding them of these things. Does it leave too much room for subjective bias? Or the perception of bias?
Here I think it is probably unnecessarily complicated to send out individual letters. Much better, I think, would be to have a clearly articulated and transparently shared set of 'principled guidelines of debate' that would inform speakers and participants and protesters about the norms of debate on the university. The Manning Centre had one for their recent conference. Most people would like it if the House of Commons had a better one. Maybe the university already has one? Either way, I think it would be a great idea for the university to outline a transparent set of 'guidelines' that were sent to all speakers, it would both ensure that all participants knew the privileged norms of debate and free speech and allow everyone to engage in a respectful manner that would let us hash out really controversial topics in useful ways. And there would be no possible way to interpret them as being applied in a biased manner nor as 'chilling' any particular political or social views.
Maybe that sounds a little head in the clouds. But in my defence, I've seen it work not only in seminars and university meetings, but also in contentious civic meetings and in executive boardrooms. So, I stand by the idea that we can voluntarily take steps to ensure civil debate and extend the freedom of speech as far as possible…
Margaret Wente: I like your idea of more formal terms of engagement for speech. Perhaps we should start with the House of Commons.
People are very, very concerned with a "safe" environment, by which they mean not physical safety, but psychological safety - an environment in which nastiness is not allowed. But why should we be surprised? We've conditioned students to think that obnoxious speech is dangerous, a human rights offence, and possibly criminal.
But by those measures people like Ms. Coulter wouldn't be able to speak on campus at all. Her whole job is to be incendiary. That's why she was invited, and that's why people turn out to see her. It's not about reasoned debate. It's about entertainment and outrage, with a twist of wit, in her case.
I also worry that we're a little too concerned with niceness, especially on campus. I kept running into the word "safe" this week. People are very, very concerned with a "safe" environment, by which they mean not physical safety, but psychological safety - an environment in which nastiness is not allowed. But why should we be surprised? We've conditioned students to think that obnoxious speech is dangerous, a human rights offence, and possibly criminal. It's as if they're so fragile, and so suggestible, that being exposed to flamethrowers like Ms Coulter will either wound their delicate psyches, or else turn them into bigots like her. Too many of them believe that the right not to be offended is right up there with the right to free speech. And this, I think, is tragic.
Paul, thanks for the stimulation. Over to you for the last word!
Paul Saurette: Thanks Margaret, well, just to be clear, I don't think that any set of debate guidelines that I have in mind would rule Ms. Coulter out from coming to town nor from speaking the way she likes. Suggesting that it is a good idea to have campfires in a pit isn't the same thing as saying we shouldn't have campfires.
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