There was an out-of season Calgary Stampede last week when institutions to which he had given important parts of his life fell over one another to distance themselves from Professor Tom Flanagan. This social-lynching-by-moral-panic revealed the self-righteousness and censorious eagerness to condemn that lies perpetually just below the surface of Canadian public opinion. And, of course, Mr. Flanagan is just a bit too clever, revels a bit too obviously in the public eye, and takes a bit too much pleasure in tilting at the sacred cows of our politics, to expect to be cut any slack.
But of what does he stand condemned? He raised an issue of principle which is at least arguably worthy of discussion, but he was heard to have endorsed behaviour which we all detest. A person of his experience might have known better, but publicly airing doubts on such issues is part of a healthy public life. Canadians swear they are looking for men and women of principle as leaders, until they meet one whose principles they do not like.
In fact, Flanagan’s sin boils down to this: Like many academics, but unlike most conservatives, he imagined (at least in this case) that moral issues in public life turn upon abstract notions of justice and rights – fairness, philosophically construed. But, as social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir argue, such notions are only a part of moral debate. Another important part – which many to his left felt Mr. Flanagan underestimated – is concern for the suffering of others. And, say professors Haidt and Kesebir, there are in practice other considerations which move citizens: respect for authority, in-group loyalty, and a commitment to purity, sanctity and moral self-discipline. It was on the rocks of these less “reasonable” – in the sense of rationally manageable – moral dimensions that Mr. Flanagan ran aground.
This country is chronically short of people who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet. Now we are likely to have one less. The high-minded will rejoice at another effective policing action over freedom of debate. All the many Canadians who claim to support human rights will once again have failed to understand that rights are for the unpopular and the unwelcome (for the Ezra Levants as well as the David Suzukis) as much as they are for curbing Third World dictators and common and garden racists. In fact, the “one less” above is likely an underestimate – anyone else with doubts about the shibboleths we use to identify the worthy will now think twice about expressing them. But we are clear, if we were not before, where the Conservative Party of Canada and the University of Calgary stand on child pornography.
The Canada I was born into accepted social, racial and linguistic prejudices as normal. It saw certain citizens as more obviously worthy than others, not because of their accomplishments but because of their backgrounds. It was a grey, stultifying, complacent and self-satisfied society. We have now left much of that behind, but it seems we have done so at the cost of a new kind of conformity, based not on genetics and social stratification but on the systematic and uncompromising respect for a certain type of liberal discourse, a kind of self-censorship which guarantees the hegemony of values now in vogue, as if language itself constitutes social justice and the values in question are immutable and beyond discussion. How much better, in the case at hand, if we had had some facts and some duelling expertise before rendering judgment!
As far as we know, when Tom Flanagan next meets his confessor, he will have but venial, not mortal, sins to confess. And Canada will have less stimulating and less intelligent public debate.
Richard D. French is CN-Tellier Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Ottawa