Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, NS B3H 3C3

Outgoing University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera distinguishes strongly between academic freedom and freedom of expression.

“Academic freedom is so hopelessly misunderstood,” she said, according to a report on the CBC News website, 29 May 2014. “Academic freedom is there for you to be able to speak about things you absolutely are an expert on. We’re talking about free speech, here.”

The “here” in that last sentence refers to professors criticizing the policies at their universities. For Samarasekera, universities allow professors to criticize their institutions not because those professors enjoy academic freedom, for academic freedom, again, applies only to professors when they are speaking as credentialed experts. Rather, universities don’t sanction professors who speak critically simply because universities value freedom of expression.

President Samarasekera is not describing the institution of academic freedom as it actually exists at her university; she is, instead, proposing that things be changed. The collective agreement at the University of Alberta affirms, under the heading “Academic Freedom,” that professors are free “to speculate, to comment, to criticize without deference to prescribed doctrine” (article 2.02.3). Nothing in the agreement restricts that affirmation to speculations, comments, or criticisms made within a professor’s areas of academic expertise.

Samarasekera is, then, telling us how things should be, and not how they presently are. Those who so hopelessly misunderstand academic freedom might not be making a factual mistake regarding policies currently in place. They are simply wrong about what utterances should be protected under academic freedom.

President Samarasekera is not alone in her view that much of what is protected in collective agreements under the heading “academic freedom” shouldn’t be included under that heading. It is safe to say that most university presidents in Canada share her view, for, in 2011, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), an organization of university and college presidents, adopted a new statement on academic freedom that conspicuously fails to include both criticism of the university and public expression. (The AUCC statement is now being cited by some universities in their bargaining with professors’ unions. These universities would remove from collective agreements freedom of expression protections professors currently enjoy.)

Should we, then, reform policies of academic freedom along the lines Samarasekera describes, removing the protection they give to professors who speak on matters outside their credentialed expertise?

Samarasekera’s proposal certainly raises a host of practical difficulties around how to determine a professor’s areas of expertise. But that’s not the real problem with it. The real problem is that it rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of academic credentials.

It is true that earning a Master’s or Doctoral degree in a subject makes one an expert on a topic or two. More significantly, though, one’s degree indicates that one has acquired a high level of competence in enquiry, interpretation, critical thinking, and expression. The competence the master or doctor has acquired is a general competence, one that can be exercised on whatever field or topic to which the person turns her attention. It also indicates an outlook, a fondness for enquiry and discussion. An academic degree is not the credential of a narrow specialist, as a professional title is; first and foremost, it announces one’s citizenship in the republic of enquiry and letters.

Academic freedom, then, on a correct view of academic credentials, is not an expert’s freedom to voice her expert judgement, but the freedom of a researcher, scholar, or intellectual to carry on as a researcher, scholar, or intellectual. (Since researchers, scholars, and intellectuals are skeptical, if not disdainful, of authority and expertise, they would be embarrassed to claim the authority of an expert.)

Now, although Samarasekera would restrict academic freedom to recognized expertise, she would also defend freedom of expression on campus, as she makes clear both in her CBC interview and in an article she published in the Globe and Mail, 28 May 2014. In that article, she writes, “Certainly campuses are places where free debate must reign, even heatedly, and this free speech—just like academic freedom—must be defended in the strongest terms.” (Unfortunately, Samarasekera’s defence of expression on campus isn’t, in fact, in the strongest terms. She endorses, in her Globe and Mail article, Canada’s laws against defamation and hate speech, laws that deform enquiry and discussion to a greater degree than they protect anyone’s wellbeing.)

On Samarasekera’s campus, then, academic freedom would protect only expert opinion, and freedom of expression would protect what members of the university community say outside their spheres of expertise. In the end, everything would remain protected. Apart, then, from the mistake of thinking of academics as experts rather than intellectuals, why bother to protect professors’ freedom of expression under the heading of academic freedom?

Prudence. When freedom of expression is protected under academic freedom, a whole faculty union may well mobilize in its defence should it be threatened or violated. On the other hand, words from a university senate proclaiming freedom of expression on campus will protect nothing should an administrator decide that a professor’s speech puts the university’s reputation at risk, say, or threatens the campus atmosphere of tolerance and respect.

A whole faculty union may well mobilize. Nothing is for certain, of course, and there are plenty of examples of faculty unions happily siding with the administration against talkative professors. Still, if President Samarasekera were to have her way, professors would almost immediately enjoy no more security of expression than their students currently do.

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 17 July 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

The model in the ad in the bus shelter is emaciated, or she’s all of twelve years old in lipstick and silk. Or the ad is for a homeopathic remedy, or it belittles members of a vulnerable minority, or it celebrates consumerism. You’re moved to criticize the ad, to explain how it is misogynistic or otherwise oppressive, or that it promotes dangerous nonsense.

You could write a letter to its sponsor, but you want a wider and more open audience for your message than just company executives. Perhaps a letter to the editor would be better, or a blog posting, or an essay for a magazine or quarterly review. If you have the money, you could rent space for your own ad.

Each of these options is perfectly fine, but you want something more immediate, something that will reach the same people on the street who can’t help but see the ad.

And so you write or draw on the ad itself or affix a sticker to it. Your message might be short and catchy or long and argumentative, but there it is, right on the ad, talking back to it, available for anyone who looks at the ad to see.

Now you’ve taken care, of course, not to damage the plastic sheet covering the ad. You haven’t etched your message into the sheet, or used ink that won’t ever wash clean. Your sticker can be scraped off fairly easily. It’s okay to mark up the ad itself, if it’s not behind plastic, for it will be removed when its tenancy expires, leaving no vandalism behind.

Being conscientious about property as you are, you might have to return to re-instal your message should it be removed before the ad comes down. You’re conscientious by nature, certainly, but still you’re happy for people to notice your concern not to damage anything. They’ll mark the care you took.

Perhaps the ad made you angry, but your anger is not your message, or not your only message. If your anger were your only message, you would have affixed your sticker to the face of the model or written your words over the name of the brand. You would have tried to obliterate the ad. That, though, would have been to prevent the advertiser from getting his message out. It would be like shouting down a speaker rather than answering him in the discussion period or demonstrating against his views. Destroying the ad, like disrupting a talk, is not at all in the spirit of critical engagement or democratic action. Whatever a person who destroys or disrupts an occasion of expression might be trying to say, his or her central message becomes disdain for freedom of expression and the endorsement of authoritarianism that that disdain implies.

You leave your comment a bit off to the side, or work it into the spaces, so that the message of the ad is not obscured. Your comment speaks against something in the ad, rather than effaces that something. You have cost the advertiser nothing, at least nothing that he or she is entitled to, and yet you have made your point, and made it to exactly the audience you desired.

Should your actions count as vandalism? I don’t see why. You’ve merely turned a monologue into a dialogue or offered to a captive audience another side to consider. An act of vandalism is an act of ill-willed destruction, but you’ve been nothing but creative and public spirited.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

One large obstacle in the way of defending graffiti is simply the dismal quality of the vast majority of the stuff. If most street artists were even only half as talented as Banksy, the task would be easier.

Yet isn’t the quality of the urban landscape often enough just as dismal? A crumbling overpass isn’t made any more unsightly by tags and scrawls, however stale or uninspired. When buildings are ugly and empty lots are surrounded by rough plywood sheets, insipid art doesn’t render the scene any less appealing.

Let’s just say, then, that there’s fault on both sides. If cities and landowners were to make their property attractive and interesting, the vandals would come to understand that they, the landowners, care about the visual environment. This might move the artists to find proper venues for their work, or at least inspire them to pick up their game. And if the vandals were to learn to draw, and were to develop new styles and fresh ideas, then we all would be more inclined to accept their offerings, perhaps even to cherish some of them.

Yet expressive vandalism remains vandalism, even if it marks up nothing worth looking at in the first place, and even when it marks it up well. How can that be defended?

To begin with, by emphasizing the “expressive” part. Graffiti and other forms of expressive vandalism are attempts at expression and we should all be free, and encouraged, to express our ideas, beliefs, and emotions. Life is awful when one is prevented from hanging oneself out for others to see.

But the walls, bus-shelters, and underpasses don’t belong to these people, one might object. Artists ought to rent space or buy property themselves if they want to display something, or submit their work to magazines or put it on the internet. Apart, though, from the fact that street artists lack the means to buy space, this objection implies that it’s the people with money who should determine how our urban environment looks. Well, maybe it’s your wall, but it’s everyone’s common space.

Many of the walls and telephone poles in our common space do belong to these people, though, for they belong to the public. Surfaces owned by municipalities and governments are a resource for artists and could be distributed as such, just as space for buskers is in subway systems. Moreover, people who own buildings can lend out walls for murals.

Of course, in the end, property rights must take precedence. But that doesn’t mean that property owners, including the city, should either deny artists venues or jealously guard their control over the visual environment.

To summarize the defence: much in our cities is already too ugly to be made worse by graffiti; graffiti enables impecunious artists to reach a wide audience; and it’s unfair that civic officials and property owners alone should determine the look of our streets. In the end, though, defending graffiti on these grounds will fail if the quality remains so low. Graffiti can be successfully defended only when people are happy to look at it. If you are going to grab surfaces, especially ones that aren’t yours, make what you do with them worthwhile. Then you can rightly claim to be improving the visual environment and enhancing people’s experience of the city. Your argument that it shouldn’t be only the owners who get to call the shots will acquire the authority of your accomplishment.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, 7 July 2014

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

Last August, Warner, a seven-year-old from Ottawa, told his parents he would rather die than look like a boy anymore. Since then, he’s been allowed to wear his girl stuff to school and in public—ponytail, pink backpack, sparkles, and all.

Warner describes himself as a girlish boy. Yet, according to his mother, he also once said that he got put into the wrong body by mistake.

These are two very different ways of thinking about Warner. Either might describe Warner accurately, but they need not both be true together. If he’s a girlish boy, then the idea of being in the wrong body goes fuzzy. What relevance could his anatomy have to his girlishness? A person can be girlish or boyish (or neither) whether male or female (or neither).

Girlishness and boyishness are matters of temperament and preference, and come in degrees. Now, in any large population, many more biological males will be boyish than girlish (not that the categories male and female are themselves well defined and always easy to apply). But even if correlations between biological category and sets of preference are strong, neither we as individuals nor our social institutions should take them as normative. A young female whose preferences are boyish would be miserable were she forced to act girlishly, and who wants to make a child miserable?

One of the experts Warner’s parents consulted characterised children like Warner as having a psychological “gender opposite to what their body tells them.” That’s to endorse the second description, the wrong-body one. I doubt that our bodies really have much to tell us about what shape our personalities should take. Just as plausible, if not indeed more likely, I’d say, is that Warner would like to be female because he envies girls. Warner saw repeatedly that girls, in the sense of physiological females, were free to express the preferences that he, Warner, shares with many of them. We often want to be what we envy.

Of course, a person might be physiologically male and want to be physiologically female, and not just so that he can be girlish without attracting attention. A person might have a penis but want to have a vulva instead, entirely for the sake of having a vulva. This might be true of Warner, or, in a few years, come to be true of him. But Warner at three years old or even five lacked the experience and hormones required to form such a sophisticated desire. (No five-year-old can really want to be a police officer.)

Warner’s parents say that as Warner enters adolescence, and with his consent, they will put him on puberty blockers until he’s old enough to decide whether to alter his anatomy, as far as surgery and medicine allow.

We certainly should be happy that science and technology can help us with our choices regarding fitting our bodies to our desires. But we should understand the risks involved. Puberty-blocking drugs can have harmful side-effects, psychological as well as physiological. And we all know that sometimes getting what we wanted isn’t all we thought it would be.

The ease with which experts and others speak about people, even young children, being in the wrong body indicates how wide-spread and deep-rooted is the idea that the genre into which our genitals fall (vulva or penis-and-scrotum) has an obvious and natural significance for our self-presentation, comportment, and sexuality. Yet there’s nothing obvious or natural about it at all. Girlish ways and vulvas might go together statistically, but there’s no reason to think girlish ways need a vulva, or even go better with one.

My point is that all of us would do ourselves, our children, our friends, and our neighbours a great service by keeping the categories male and female separate from our descriptions of people’s temperaments and preferences, especially when it comes to children. “Girlish” and “boyish” might be useful descriptions to have in our repertoire, but we can be up to no good if we propose that the first should imply a vulva, the second a penis. Best just to allow that some girls—Warner, for instance—have penises, while some boys have vulvas. Maybe that would reduce the desire for surgical intervention.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, NS B3H 3C3

Will deans and other academic administrators in Canada take advantage of their new-found ability to be candid about their universities? Or will they continue in their role as organization-men and -women?

They can be candid in public now because of the fallout of the attempt two weeks ago by the University of Saskatchewan to fire Robert Buckingham. Buckingham was Dean of the School of Public Health at U of S when he spoke out about the university’s restructuring plan and the threat to apply sanctions against administrators who criticized it.

U of S Provost Brett Fairbairn resigned for his role in the attempt to oust Buckingham, and now U of S president Illene Busch-Vishniac has been fired by the university’s board of governors. Buckingham was reinstated as a professor of public health, but not as dean of the school.

In light of the resignation and firing, presidents at other universities in Canada will certainly think twice before moving against a dean who publicly questions university policy.

Just about everyone agrees that a dean removed from his office for speaking out should retain his position as a professor. Opinion among professors and others, though, is divided on whether deans should enjoy the freedom to discuss publicly the policies and direction of their universities.

Some commentators say that deans should be as free as the professors, for the spirit of a university lies in open critical discussion. A dean may properly be removed for failing to carry out her duty, once that is settled by the Academic Senate or the Board of Governors, but not for arguing, even in public, that her duties should be different.

Other commentators fear that allowing deans to speak critically will make their institutions look divided and poorly run. That would harm fund raising and student recruitment. A university is a business, these commentators note. Deans need to be loyal to the process. They must speak candidly to their administrative colleagues in private, of course, but the university functions best when it presents to the world a single face.

Those of us who favour free-speaking deans think this fear is exaggerated. After all, universities are communities of scholars, researchers, artists, intellectuals, and teachers. Their mission isn’t to attract students, but to be worthy of the students admitted to them. The idea that a university must have a single direction leads to the abomination of the managed university, in which the collegial spirit of the university gets lost and its teaching mission deteriorates into training young adults for careers.

The best state of affairs, I think, would be one in which presidents or boards of governors retain the right to dismiss deans and other academic administrators, but only use this power wisely—wisely, that is, from the point of view of sound academic principles. Certainly Buckingham’s firing was not wise, neither in its manner nor in its rationale. A university president committed to academic values would tolerate quite a bit of dissension among administrators, and if administrations were chosen well, there would, I suspect, be quite a bit of dissension to tolerate. If administrators were chosen well, that is, more of them would be independent-minded and courageous, and would be more inclined temperamentally to discuss policies and events at their institutions, than administrators currently are.

There’s certainly plenty for deans to discuss publicly. The sorry state of freedom of expression on campus, for one, and the trend toward career-oriented rather than academic learning, for another. Deans might also want to say something to take the wind out of current fads such as service learning and co-curricular transcripts. And the permission universities are granting businesses and government to set their priorities, and the movement of powers and privileges from departments and lower units to the dean’s office and higher units, the growth of oversight and control…. It sure would be useful to know what senior academic administrators really think about these matters.

These days, though, it’s hard to find a dean who will speak privately let alone publicly even to defend a university position. Professors who have questions simply get referred to the official documents that record decisions or policies, or at least they do at my university.

That deans fear for their positions if they speak out implies a weakness (I’d say a corruption) in the academic bodies on which they serve in ex officio positions (academic senate, for instance). Suppose your university has four deans and a vice-president academic. On any matter of interest to the president that is brought to a body on which these administrators sit, they will constitute a block of five votes: five votes for one mind. Ex officio members who fear for their position should they act independently are conduits for the administration’s priorities, and only for academic values if the latter happen to coincide with the former.

I doubt many deans will take advantage of their current freedom, partly because even though their jobs as professors might be safe, their position as deans isn’t entirely, at least not if they intend to seek reappointment. More significantly, though, the processes by which deans have been hired worked to identify administrative careerists who support the idea of the managed university, and not independent thinkers committed to ideals of higher education.

Professors in Canada were outraged not just by the treatment given Robert Buckingham (being fired as a professor, being escorted from campus and told not to come back), but also by the fact that he was dismissed as dean for publicly standing up for what he took to be sound academic values. I wonder: did this element also outrage the deans?

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
Halifax, NS B3H 3C3

Tallie Doyle says the Fisher Park Public School dress code is sexist. She might be right, but a non-sexist dress code is still a dress code. Better that the school has no dress code at all.

Doyle, a 14-year-old grade eight student at Fisher Park, in Ottawa, violated the school’s dress code last week by wearing a top whose spaghetti straps allowed her bra straps to show. Both spaghetti straps and glimpsable undergarments are forbidden by the code.

School officials typically appeal to one or another of three considerations when defending regulating what students wear. The first is that codes teach students how to dress in order to find and maintain a job. The second is that codes help to reduce distractions in the classroom. The third is that the codes promote the development of self-directness and self-respect within individual students.

Even if they do succeed in one or another of these tasks, dress codes are an infringement on students’ freedom of presentation, a core part of freedom of expression. More than that, though, they thwart the educative mission of the school by substituting coercive training for inquiry and discussion.

Certainly we want that schools teach children the norms of the world of work. We also want that schools help children to behave in ways that don’t interfere with whatever worthwhile projects people are pursuing. Yet, at the same time, we want that children, and adults as well, dress appropriately and behave well for their own good reasons—that is, because they themselves like to dress and behave as they do. In order to become the sort of people who enjoy dressing appropriately, children need education in taste and values. Learning to follow a dress code (or else), on the other hand, is learning to give in to other people’s reasons.

The third of the three considerations I listed is the idea that dress codes are for the children’s own benefit as they grow and mature into self-respecting young adults. If we prevent our children from dressing like sluts and punks, this line of argument goes, they are less likely to become sluts or punks, with the all the self-esteem problems that allegedly go with being a slut or punk.

Instead of having dress codes, schools should incorporate information and discussion about dress and comportment into their social studies and health courses. That is, dress and comportment, in all their fascination and importance, should be studied academically.

Students could inquire into and discuss critically what various modes of dress say and don’t say. They could ask why some people like to look tough and aggressive and why others enjoy looking sexy. They could investigate the effect that various styles have on people in the street, in the workplace, in the classroom, and why people would and would not want to create such effects.

These discussions would not be aimed at changing anyone’s behavior, of course. They would be aimed only, as education should be, at broadening students’ understanding and developing their critical facilities. Education, in the end, is for the sake of liberating minds from convention and received ideas, so that we can think for ourselves.

Nonetheless, discussion of dress would have the effect of changing behavior, as all education in taste does. One effect it would certainly have is to increase the range of students’ appreciation and tolerance. By having students take punkish or slutty ways seriously, they will inevitably come to bring the punk or slut experience into their own worlds. That accomplished, they will no longer be distracted or upset by their classmates’ apparel.

Originally published on the Ottawa Citizen tablet app for iPod