Secret police on campus
The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2008
In the 2006 movie The Lives of Others, there is a scene where two senior Stasi agents are having lunch and they overhear a junior colleague at a nearby table making a joke about Erich Honecker, the dictator who ruled communist East Germany during the Cold War.
The younger agent notices his superiors listening. Terrified that he's crossed the line, he falls silent. One of the senior agents assures him he's among friends and cajoles him into finishing the joke. Afterwards, the senior man tells the joker he'll spend the rest of his career in the mailroom. The younger man looks stricken, until the senior officer says he's only joking.
Cut to the next scene: We see the young agent working in the mailroom.
I thought of these movie scenes after reading of Queen's University's plans to hire six students as “dialogue facilitators.” Their job will be to intervene in conversations they overhear among students in dining halls and common rooms in which topics of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability and social class are discussed. The facilitators, says Patrick Deane, the university's academic vice-president, are supposed “to serve their peers … in difficult or sensitive discussions” and foster “a spirit of mutual respect and understanding …”
The idea has earned the university much mockery, and deservedly so. As Leon Craig, a political philosopher at the University of Alberta, puts it: “You're going to have people eavesdropping on conversations and if they hear a code word they don't like they'll take that person aside and try to get them to think correctly about the world.
“It's an outrageous idea. That any faculty member would go along with this idea just shows you the extent to which our universities have decayed.”
Indeed, how do you foster a “spirit of mutual respect” by hiring a cadre of students to spy — and that's what it amounts to regardless of the university's euphemisms — on other students. The argument that freedom of speech entails “a commitment to mutual understanding,” as Deane claims, is facile. Understanding is always important, but in this case the notion of mutuality is suspect.
A liberal who commits himself to the “mutual understanding” of Islamist terrorism effectively surrenders his freedom since the other party has no interest in understanding liberalism beyond finding a way to destroy it. Science-based evolutionists who seek “mutual understanding” with those who promote creationist doctrine as equally scientific are effectively committing intellectual suicide. The reality is that some ideas, some principles, are mutually exclusive, and to “respect” those who hold unintelligible views is to retreat in the face of fanaticism.
The Queen's Student Affairs website says “facilitators” are intended to “respond to, stimulate and invite engagement across difference and tensions that arise among and between groups” in university residences, particularly when those differences demonstrate “incidents of bias, prejudice … harassment and discrimination.” I'd like to know how the university defines “incidents” of bias and prejudice, although I can guess. Will those who challenge the anti-male assumptions of radical feminism be frog-marched to sensitivity seminars?
The phrase “social justice theory” that Deane invokes in reference to the facilitator's training betrays the university's real motive. “Social justice theory,” broadly understood, holds that principles of “justice” should be extended to all spheres of social life. It sounds nice in theory, but in practice it amounts to the imposition of Marxist and left-radical agendas to the exclusion of others. In other words, the program's real purpose is to promote the supposedly progressivist ideologies of radical feminism, gay rights, multiculturalism, and, lest we forget, anti-westernism (read: anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism).
This isn't free speech; this is indoctrination. Will students who tell a self-inflated facilitator to butt out be directed to a course of social therapy? If some poor student uses the words “Islam” and “terrorism” in the same sentence, will he be reported to the human rights commission? Queen's administrators don't really want free speech. They want agreeable speech.
But that's not education; it's propaganda. A good portion of any university education happens outside the classroom in informal conversations and encounters that are, or should be, completely freewheeling. The notion that some topics are subject to the admonishments of some happy-faced facilitator offends the very essence of individual freedom. Supervised speech is a monologue, not a dialogue.
It is not hard to foresee an intellectual chill descending on the Queen's campus (or any university that adopts a similar program). Power, as they say, corrupts, and it doesn't take much imagination to forecast that self-righteous facilitators will translate their power to intervene into the authority to dictate. Intervening in the lives of others is no joke.
Robert Sibley writes for the Citizen. See his blog, Ideas & Consequences, at ottawacitizen.com/blogs.