Daniel Woolf is the principal and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University.
Freedom of speech and academic freedom on university campuses have been in the news a great deal. This issue has not escaped Queen’s University. Recently, the faculty of law hosted a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson to discuss compelled speech, currently a very divisive subject within the Ontario law profession. The visit caused tensions on campus, with some individuals taking issue with the decision by one of the faculty members to invite him to speak. I took the position that the lecture should proceed and posted a blog explaining my own categorical support for academic freedom and civilized debate at Queen’s. The lecture went ahead, though not without a protest that at times pushed well beyond being respectful and peaceful.
I do not intend to address the protest, nor the particular beliefs and views of Dr. Peterson. Rather, I’d like to argue first, that freedom of speech and the goals of diversity and inclusion are entirely compatible and often mutually strengthening; and second, that those who challenge giving opponents the right and a platform on which to speak, are conflating two different issues and setting a dangerous precedent.
To my first point, one can promote any worthwhile goal through actions, including protest, while also supporting the aims and welfare of groups promoting a progressive agenda without challenging freedom of speech. The suggestion that by allowing a speaker who allegedly challenges aspects of inclusivity and diversity a platform, we are subverting the university’s own agenda is invalid. Both freedom of speech and the achievement of social goals are possible, and challenging one’s agenda should be viewed as an opportunity to strengthen and enrich this position, and when needed, change it.
Queen’s fully supports an inclusive and diverse campus and curriculum, and we continue to make important progress in pursuing these ideals. Diversity also extends to thought and opinion – it can’t simply be “diversity of the sort we happen to agree with today.” Universities should be physically safe spaces and diverse and inclusive. But protection from disagreeable ideas isn’t safety – it’s infantilization, and robs everyone of the opportunity to reflect and grow. Students: We are there to learn with you, to have our assumptions questioned and to question yours. We will not simply reinforce your beliefs and turn them into unexamined convictions.
However, even were these goals incompatible, I would still advocate for freedom of speech and open debate. They are the very foundation of democracy, even with all its faults and past and present failures of society. We are privileged to live in a country that protects the expression of views (with the exception of hate speech) regardless of ideology or affiliation. It permitted the lecture, as well as the protest outside it. It also permitted an open letter penned by faculty, students and alumni, criticizing the views I expressed in my blog. While I didn’t agree with many of their arguments, I respect the authors for exercising their rights to publish it and thank them for so doing.
For centuries, universities have been nurseries of intellect, shapers of society and more often than not, agents of social progress and economic mobility. The passion and energy of young people have played an enormous part in that. But passion made brittle by ideology that goes unexamined or unchallenged promotes hatred; it does not fight it. And so, faculty, students, staff and visiting speakers must continue to be allowed to articulate positions that will offend, challenge and even upset. It must be done safely and respectfully. Otherwise, in the long run, we are all the poorer and our fundamental shared values are at risk.