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Wente vs. Saurette

The Coulter debate: Can you be too incendiary? Add to ...

University of Ottawa provost Francois Houle was criticized by many when he wrote a letter earlier this week to Ann Coulter cautioning her to "educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada" before her scheduled appearance at the university (since cancelled). He wrote that "promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges."

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To debate the implications of the Coulter Affair and its fallout, The Globe and Mail invited Paul Saurette, Associate professor of political philosophy, University of Ottawa, to exchange e-mails with National Newspaper Award-winning Globe columnist Margaret Wente.

We started the debate by asking:

Was Mr. Houle reaching beyond his grasp? Should universities limit free speech on campus?

Margaret Wente: Francois Houle walked right into a trap. If he knew anything about Ann Coulter, he would have known his letter - the one warning her that "promoting hatred….could lead to crimnal charges" - would be like catnip to a cat.

Universities should do everything possible not to limit free speech on campus. But some of our universities - often with the best of intentions - have become bastions of repression. That's depressing.

Over to you, Paul

Paul Saurette: Since I have no knowledge of the context surrounding the writing and sending the letter I don't feel that it's fair to evaluate it in terms of the Provost himself. Plus, personalizing these sorts of institutional decisions is one of the classic ways that a reasonable debate is reframed as a polemical ad hominem rant. It is no surprise that Ann Coulter has gone this route over the last few days claiming, for example, that Canadians "used to be so cool. You were smokers. You had epic hockey fights. We had half our comedians from Canada. Now you're all a bunch of girls named Francois." Funny maybe. But certainly not conducive to actually thinking this thing through.

OK - now to the guts of the issue. Margaret - you're absolutely right. From a strategic position, had the university thought about the political context and how the letter could be interpreted, they would have had to conclude that it was a public relations 'challenge' in the making.

But strategic considerations should not necessarily be the primary criteria when a public institution makes its decisions. On important issues of principle, the question should be what is the right thing to do.

So - was it the right thing to do? I agree that we want universities to be as open as possible and have a wide freedom of expression. And I also agree that good intentions can sometimes create bad policies. However, I'm not sure that it is clear that in general - or in particular in this case - that freedom of expression was stomped on and thus is an example of the bastions of repression.

To believe this to be the case, we would have to believe that the university's letter primarily functioned as a "veiled threat" that both (a) chilled her willingness and ability to speak and (b) encouraged protesters to behave in such a way that there was no other possibility but to cancel the event.

What do you think Margaret? Do you believe that the university's letter and the protesters' chants cowed the mighty Ann Coulter into silence?

Cheers, Paul

Margaret Wente: First, I'd note that free speech debates almost always arise from real events, and it's often hard to separate the two. This point is sometimes poorly understood. I've seen a surprising amount of comment that basically says, "Ann Coulter is a racist, and therefore she should be banned from Canada."



It was the wrong thing to do strategically, politically and morally, and I think the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers), which is very big on free speech, ought to censure them.


On the issue of whether Mr. Houle's letter (and the cancellation of the speech) had a chilling effect, obviously the opposite is true. It landed her in prime time for days. When will people learn that trying to impose censorship is like handing a megaphone to the person they're trying to shut down? You'd almost think Ms. Coulter had engineered the cancellation of her speech herself. (In fact, a lot of people think she did.)

On the issue of the appropriateness of the letter, it's extremely clear to me that the U of O authorities revealed their biases. I can't imagine they'd issue such a letter to (a) Michael Moore, or (b) the speakers who showed up for Israeli Apartheid Week. I can't imagine what was in their heads. That Ann Coulter, a fading right-wing professional provocateuse, might corrupt the morals of the young? It was the wrong thing to do strategically, politically and morally, and I think the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers), which is very big on free speech, ought to censure them. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Paul Saurette: In my view, there are absolutely no grounds to argue that Ann Coulter should be banned from Canada, a University, or anywhere else for that matter. And I am very glad that she wasn't banned either by the government (as has happened to others in the past) or by the University. I teach her work in my class, frankly, and I would be horrified if I thought that wasn't encouraged.

Furthermore, I couldn't agree more that this has been a publicity bonanza for Ms. Coulter. Everyone knows that one of the fastest way to the top of the charts is to have someone try to ban your material. It worked for the Sex Pistols. And it works for Ms. Coulter. And this, I think, should be a strategic lesson for everyone across the political spectrum. The best way to deal with all types of speech which are not truly inciting genocide is to find other ways to challenge those views. Banning almost never works.



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 it seems to me that you raise two more subtle issues as well. Did the letter (or other actions) really have a chilling effect? And are these standards applied unequally?

On the second one - I have no idea. It is a fair point to raise and I'm sure there will be more discussion of it - especially if Ms. Coulter decides to move forward with some official complaint.

On the first one - I am more than open to listening to people when they claim that informal measures have been used to chill their speech. These things happen and sometimes they have quite powerful effects. On this, frankly, both the left and the right agree wholeheartedly and they both roundly critique the mainstream media as privileging the other side and informally oppressing their side. In fact, much of the logic of Ms. Coulter's critique of her treatment by liberals (and the University) is precisely that these sorts of informal biases exist. After all, it was neither the police nor the university who shut down the event but the organizers. As such, it wasn't an issue of 'banning' nor of any official power being used to stop Ms. Coulter from speaking but rather an issue of whether other types of speech had informally had secondary effects which forced the organizers to cancel the event.

Do I think that the letter could reasonably be read as chilling Ms. Coulter's ability to speak?

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.

Moreover, I am certainly not one to argue that we should judge the appropriateness of speech on the basis of whether it's "polite" or "nice." And I certainly don't agree with the idea that we have a right not to be offended. The ideal of agonistic respectfulness that I mentioned earlier is quite different than arguing that we all just have to get along or that we have to tone everything down all the time.



I would like to invite my fellow citizens to pause, once in a while, to consider that we should sometimes turn down the volume so that we listen to others with as much intensity as we speak.


I suspect that if we were to take the time to explore what students were really worried about when they talked about a "safe" campus, a more sophisticated argument would emerge. I suspect anyway, that their strongest argument would not be the belief that they are individually entitled to face only those ideas that have been reduced to the intellectual equivalent of pablum or easy-listening muzak. Rather, I imagine that their argument would turn on the idea that the stereotypes used by Coulter lead to some sort of larger "harm" - e.g. by encouraging people to accept certain negative stereotypes which, presumably, lead to concrete actions of unjustifiably discrimination. Whether such an assertion about the effects of Coulter's speech is valid opens up another huge debate, one that, like Coulter's claim that the Provost's letter should be viewed as "harming" her ability to speak, deserves much more time and space to unpack and evaluate than we have here. Suffice it to say that we could make this a weekly discussion for several months to make sense of all of these claims.

So perhaps I'll end by focusing on the issue that my op ed focused on: what of the role of polemics in public debate, especially around emotional issues?

I, for one, would never say that we should 'ban' polemics or polemicists or suggest that we shouldn't listen to polemics. I will actually happily acknowledge that polemics can play a role in public and private life. It can help challenge orthodoxies. It can sometimes clarify an issue by simplifying it. It can get people engaged and motivated. It can make us laugh. It certainly also sells a lot of books.

That said, I think we also have to recognize that polemics also have some very significant disadvantages and costs as a model of public debate. It often intensifies divisions in society without good reason; it ramps up (usually negative) emotions and short circuits - both in terms of time and in terms of willingness - more thoughtful reflection; and it makes it really difficult to really listen to other ideas and try to understand why people might believe them. And this, I think, suggests that as a society, we should be careful and prudent about how often and where we encourage polemics. And I would like to invite my fellow citizens to pause, once in a while, to consider that we should sometimes turn down the volume so that we listen to others with as much intensity as we speak.

And I'm hopeful that this is possible. Because although the polemicists and their inflamed followers may generate the most noise and smoke at moments, the vast majority of Canadians do not share their vision of how debate should be undertaken. If anything could prove that, it was not only the fact that there was no violence at Coulter's talk in Ottawa (given that the most anger expressed was by people wanting to get in but weren't able to due to poor logistics). It was also proved by the fact that the vast, vast majority of people who showed up for the talk - whether they agreed or disagreed with Coulter - waited patiently in line for hours and wanted nothing more than to simply hear her speak.

Margaret - it's been a pleasure. Till next time,

Cheers, Paul

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