Western universities once supported a form of liberalism that invited people to dispassionately examine established conventions, consider sound sources of evidence, entertain different ideas, and participate openly in civil conversations.
In bygone eras, venerable academic societies, such as the Cambridge Union, attracted scores of members to various forums for public discourse and the free exchange of ideas. In Canada and the United States, shared cultural traditions encouraged scholars to examine ideas from all corners of public and academic life.
Dissident Scholars Struggle to Be HeardNotwithstanding the present state of higher education, I recently had a chance to join several engaged academics and citizens in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the rare experience of spending a thought-provoking afternoon on a college campus. The event was hosted on the grounds of St. Mary’s University by a local chapter of Canada’s Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.
The speaker was Dr. Christina Behme. Behme was born, raised, and educated in communist East Germany. She completed her first university degree in marine biology and began work for the Port of Rostock. When the wall came down she was on maternity leave, and by the time she was scheduled to return, her job had disappeared.
The impulse to seek out and defend free environments for study and thought is often strongest among those who were once trapped in totalitarian regimes.
When ‘Harm Prevention’ Trumps ‘Speech Protection’Behme’s early life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) taught her a lot about our present inclination to accept, almost without question, draconian restrictions on free speech.
At the Halifax session, she began by drawing attention to the so-called “no harm principle” derived from the thought of British liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill.
Mill was a strong proponent of free speech, but he also suggested that authorities have some obligation to prevent “harm to others.” Behme agrees that free speech can be misused and cause harm in some cases. That’s why we have laws against libel and slander. But, the fundamental principle of free speech has proven to be an enormous asset for the advancement of learning and the development of productive societies.
During the progressive academic decades that followed the 1949 U.N. Declaration, free speech became more and more restricted by broad socio-political caveats. A tendentious preoccupation with “harm prevention” began to trump the value of free speech.
Behme noted that Paragraph 27 of the 1968 constitution of the communist GDR, under which she grew up, granted every citizen the right to free speech and the freedom of the printed press, radio, and television.
On the other hand, the GDR Criminal Code listed “subversive agitation” and “misuse of media for bourgeois ideology” as punishable offenses. In communist regimes trusting “the people” is said to be good, but controlling people is even better.
Canadian citizens assume that our freedom of speech is protected as a “fundamental freedom” by the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Most understand that “freedom of expression,” which is protected by section 2(b) of the Charter, is indispensable to sustaining a free and democratic society.
But, as Behme implied, freedom of speech in Canada may be no more absolute than it was in the GDR. Section 1 of our Charter allows the government to pass laws that limit freedom of expression so long as the limits are “reasonable” and can be justified.
“Hate speech” and “obscenity” are two examples of harm often used to justify limiting speech rights. The former, in whatever form it might take according to “critical race theory” or other paradigms constructed by our woke intelligentsia, is enormously restrictive about what can be said in the public square or examined in a classroom.
Post-Truth Culture and the ‘Everyone Agrees’ TrapLooking back on her years in communist East Germany, Behme recalls that government disinformation in the GDR was based on a kind of convoluted consensual logic—not unlike that which exists in present-day Canada.
GDR apparatchiks would proclaim that something was true even though they knew it was false. Citizens knew it was false, but they also knew that anyone who questioned the regime would be punished for spreading misinformation.
So, everyone acted as if they believed everything they were told by the state-controlled media. The regime was aware that citizens knew what they were being told was false even though they had to act as if they believed it.
Behme contends that Western societies have been impacted by a similar form of social dysfunction, which she refers to as the “everyone agrees” trap.
People are naturally reluctant to engage in arguments they do not believe are being put forward in good faith. Authoritarian edicts such as “everyone agrees climate change is the greatest existential threat of our lifetime—and the science is settled” are clearly intended to marginalize and punish anyone who disagrees. Not long ago, some on the left even contended that “climate change deniers” should be imprisoned.
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary picked “post-truth” as its word of the year. “Post-truth” has certainly become an apt description for the stifling intellectual climate that has migrated from college campuses to North American society at large. More than ever, radical ideas that defy reality flourish in forums where rebuttal, cross-examination, exculpatory evidence, competing ideas, and the free exchange of information are virtually forbidden.
Reopening Closed North American MindsThroughout the symposium in Halifax, Behme emphasized that perversions of Mill’s “harm to others” principle and the “everyone agrees” trap have had destructive consequences for free speech and academic freedom in particular.
Surely it’s reasonable to assume that Mill was referring to actual material harm, not the obscure “intersectional victimization claims” at the center of 21st-century identity politics. It must be OK to occasionally disagree with the established woke narrative.
It has often been said that the first casualty of war is truth, and that’s especially the case for culture war.
It has taken us several decades to bring free societies to the edge of extinction, and university campuses may not be the most promising venues for civilizational renewal.
Nevertheless, there are growing signs that Behme and the handful of “scholars for academic freedom” in Halifax are part of a larger philosophical movement that’s seeking to reopen closed North American minds.
It may not happen overnight, but as the ancient Chinese proverb said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”