Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University
Some jerk on the bus decides to entertain the crowd by rapping vulgarities at the top of his voice—and the passengers have to alert the driver? Didn’t the driver notice? And why did the passengers have to speak to the guy? Shouldn’t the driver have taken charge right away?
Those weren’t the first questions that came to mind when I read “Taking back the 95: Commuters stand up to harasser on OC Transpo bus” (24 April 2013, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/ottawa/Taking+back+Commuters+stand+harasser+Transpo/8287329/story.html), but they are important questions.
I would like to think that the person driving the bus I’m on knows how to respond appropriately to a disturbance (that is, by calling the police, should the instigator ignore her firm directive to sit and be quiet) without my having to prod her into action. Surely bus drivers are better trained to deal with annoying riders than we civilians are, especially with those who might turn violent.
My first question, though, on reading this story, was where was the harassment? Now clearly the man didn’t mind making the ride a little hell for everyone on the bus. He was obnoxious, and obnoxious, moreover, in a way that would make people fear for their safety. But I had to read the article twice to try to figure out why the headline tagged him a harasser, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it.
According to the story, a woman asked the man to stop, but he didn’t. She asked him again, and this time he started yelling more loudly. There are elements of harassment here, but not enough to justify the headline.
For behaviour to be harassing, it must be directed at a concrete individual, it must be persistent, and it must be meant as a means to gain an advantage. The behaviour here would not seem to qualify.
Perhaps the harassment is to be found in the content of his rap or his invective. The article tells us (though coyly) that he spoke the terms “bitch” and “nigger.” Perhaps he even addressed the people he yelled at using those terms. His choice of language certainly reveals something about his character, something in addition to that revealed by his loud singing and bad temper. I’d say his choice of language made him even more obnoxious. But since harassment is not simply high-grade vexation, we won’t find it in his foul words.
Does it matter that we call him a nuisance rather than a harasser? That we describe his actions as annoying, vexatious, and obnoxious rather than harassing?
I think it does. It enables us to focus on the problem at hand, and not confuse it with different problems. In our confusion, we are likely to fail to solve our problem, if we don’t indeed make all the problems worse.
The problem at hand is simply incivility. It is the unpleasant, annoying, or vexatious behaviour that too often disrupts our day and prevents us from enjoying the morning commute or the movie or the meeting—whatever we’re trying to enjoy (or endure). Our jerk on the bus is at the far end of incivility, but he’s on a continuum with litterers, movie-talkers, and the people who stroll three abreast on the narrow sidewalk.
Sociologists tell us that something happened in the nineteen-sixties, in the middle of the struggles for equality, self-expression, and self-affirmation from which we’ve all benefitted. What happened is that in many minds boorishness became tied to self assertion. No better way to proclaim that one is worth notice than by pissing people off. And so we get our guy on the bus.
How, then, are we to recover civility as a widespread personal virtue—and to recover it, of course, without retreating to a world of etiquette and social hierarchy? I wish I knew.
We should laud the efforts of Julie Lalonde, the director of Hollaback! Ottawa, to address harassment (and violence) on our streets and buses. But it seems that Lalonde, along with bus rider Randy Fisher, who is also quoted in “Taking back the 95,” have something different in mind. They appear to be attempting, rather, to extend the idea of the safe campus to the streets of the city.
The idea of the safe campus, familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to incidents and discussions at Carleton and Ottawa U over the last few years, is the idea of a campus on which people who belong to groups designated marginalized or vulnerable need not fear encountering images or ideas offensive to them. A woman who has had an abortion will not, on a safe campus, ever walk past a pro-life demonstration. Trans people will not overhear psychology students inquiring whether there’s a relation between sex-reassignment surgery and self-mutilation.
The safe campus is a place hostile to freedom of expression, as people free to say what they want might well say things that challenge aspects of one’s identity, and, if one is vulnerable, hearing such things can be emotionally painful or debilitating, as can any affront to one’s dignity.
I worry that Hollaback! Ottawa is out to make the city safe rather than civil because Lalonde, as quoted in the article, says words like “offensive” and “intolerant” in the same breath that she says “harassment,” as though people are harassed by what offends them or betrays intolerance. Her target is talk that she characterizes as homophobic or misogynistic, and she wants it shut down just because it offends some people or betrays intolerance. I can’t help but conclude that it’s the content of speech that matters to her, not its obnoxious delivery.
It’s bad enough that provosts and deans police the content of expression on university campuses. Do we also want the police to police it on the streets?
An edited version appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Thursday 25 April 20103, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/op-ed/Harassment+mere+nuisance/8295937/story.html
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
At 8:20 pm Tuesday 2 April, just nine hours after it was erected, the free speech wall on display at Queen’s University was removed by university security guards. The guards were acting on orders from Arig Girgrah, the Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at Queen’s.
The wall had been erected that morning by Students for Liberty, a Queen’s group concerned to raise awareness of the condition of freedom of expression in Canada. A registered student society, Students for Liberty had earlier been granted permission to maintain the wall until 5 pm Friday 5 April.
Queen’s also confiscated the next wall Students for Liberty erected, on 4 April, this time on orders from Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison.
Well, what did Students for Liberty expect? That no one would write a slur on their wall? That it would remain free of vulgarity and obnoxious sentiments? That despite the discriminatory and harassing language that found its way onto it, the university would let the wall stand?
Just as the administration at Queen’s University sees to it that offensive graffiti is removed from the walls around campus, the administration acted responsibly in having the free-speech wall removed as soon as offensive remarks appeared on it. Or so the university and its supporters say.
For my part, I think that by removing the wall, Queen’s University demonstrated that it hasn’t a clue what a university is for.
But let’s begin with the argument that the university acted well—or, indeed, dutifully—in removing the wall once offensive remarks appeared on it.
According to statements made by Provost Harrison and others, and reported in The Journal, the student newspaper at Queen’s, the poster contained hate speech. The presence of hate speech creates an unpleasant public environment for everyone. Furthermore, hate speech causes the people to whom it is directed to feel unwelcomed, which, moreover, might well affect their studies. Finally, were the administration to tolerate hate speech on campus, those whom toward it is directed might become quiet and withdrawn.
In any case, as we know, hate propaganda is illegal in Canada, under Section 319 of the Criminal Code. It is also prohibited by Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA), which, recently, in the Whatcott case, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld as constitutional, despite the fact that it conflicts with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Queen’s might have run afoul of a human rights commission, at least, had it not quickly removed hate speech from its campus.
The first thing to note in response to these considerations is that whatever offensive remarks the poster contained, they were situated in the context of the free-speech wall. Though those who inscribed them might have meant them, the Students for Liberty didn’t, at least not necessarily. The wall was a piece of politics, or art, or theatre. Or it was an experiment, a piece of research.
For that reason, removing it against the will of those who erected it is nothing like erasing offensive graffiti. It is more like closing down a play or a peaceful demonstration or a science project, one that had already received a permit.
The argument that suppressing hate speech is permitted in Canada won’t wash, for no matter how hateful some of the contributions to the wall might have been, the wall itself wasn’t hate speech but the protected expression of the Students for Liberty.
By the way, does Queen’s distinguish between offensive graffiti and graffiti, and remove only the former? The comparison to offensive graffiti is beside the point, as the policy is against graffiti generally.
Still, if the wall contained offensive language, it might have offended people, and thereby made them feel unwanted or silenced them. Even if the wall itself, as a piece of theatre or an experiment, spoke no hate, its effects on campus were harmful and that is reason enough to remove it.
Here is where we come to the purpose of a university. One of the purposes of a university is to protect and nourish intellectual community. One of the marks of intellectual community is the commitment of its members to evaluate things dispassionately. (It is no paradox to say that intellectuals are passionately dispassionate.) To evaluate something dispassionately is to ask whether it is true or false, or good or bad, and to seek to gather, through observation, experiment, or critical discussion, the relevant evidence.
Members of an intellectual community are concerned to leave each other free to think and say and investigate what he or she wants, for the point of the whole thing is for each of us to hold our conclusions for our own reasons. Those reasons are always up for discussion, of course, but no one is to be required to hold any view.
If a university’s administration is serious about protecting and nourishing intellectual community, it will not close a play or halt a demonstration, no matter how offensive the material in the play or demonstration is. It will, instead, try to explain to those who complain how they, as intellectuals, should respond to that material. The administration will encourage them to investigate what offends them and to respond to it thoughtfully, perhaps with a play or demonstration of their own.
That, then, is how the administration at Queen’s University should have responded to those who complained about what they believed to be hateful writing on the free-speech wall. Provost Harrison failed in his duty to help students, especially those from marginalized groups, to take their place among those able to think for themselves.
Indeed, he confirmed them in their vulnerability and in their need for the care of a paternalistic authority.
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
That the fetus you are carrying is female is certainly a terrible reason to have an abortion—but, good or bad, your reason is none of the government’s business. It’s simply not the place of our federal Parliament to voice an opinion on the merit of this or that reason behind a woman’s choice to have an abortion.
To make this point is not, of course, to applaud the refusal by the House affairs committee to allow MP Mark Warawa to bring M408 to the House of Commons. M408 would have had Parliament “condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selection pregnancy termination.” As Andrew Coyne has written in the Citizen, denying MPs the privilege to introduce motions and to speak in the House corrupts Parliament (“How mob rule muzzled Mark Warawa, and all other Canadian MPs,” 30 March). Less party discipline and more respect for the rules and traditions of parliament would serve Canadians well.
If Warawa wants to raise the matter of sex-selective abortion in the House of Commons, let him do so. It’s easy enough for MPs to vote against his motion and to explain why they did so.
It’s not for Parliament to voice an opinion on women’s reasons for having abortions, for human fetuses are neither in fact persons nor recognized as such in Canadian law. They are not persons for they have no interests; they lack the self-consciousness necessary for having interests, at least until late in the third trimester, and even then their level of self-consciousness compares unfavourably to that of adult rabbits and ducks. (If adult rabbits and ducks may be killed to serve the interests of persons, so may late-term human fetuses.)
Since they lack interests, human fetuses cannot be wronged. They cannot, therefore, be wronged by being discriminated against, not on grounds of sex, not on any grounds. Warawa’s motion, then, makes no sense. No fetus is wrongfully discriminated against when it is aborted on account of its being female, so sex-selective pregnancy termination involves no wrongful discrimination for parliament to condemn.
Now this is not to say that the fact that some women in Canada chose to abort fetuses because of their sex is no proper concern of civil society or even of the Canadian government. It may very well be a proper matter of concern for you and me, and perhaps our government eventually has some role to play. But no one, no doctor, no ultra-sound technician, no politician should seek to place any barrier between any pregnant woman and an abortion. If a woman asks the sex of her fetus and a professional knows, that professional is duty-bound to answer, whatever he or she fears the woman will do with that knowledge. A fetus cannot be wronged, but a patient or client denied information surely has been.
That a woman would have an abortion just because the fetus is female likely speaks to one or another social condition we should all be striving to change. The first is the belief that a daughter is less likely to fulfil one as a parent than a son is. This belief, in turn, might rest on such beliefs as that boys and men engage in more interesting pursuits than girls and women do, that they usually accomplish more of significance in life or gain more status, or that they relate to their parents in more satisfying ways.
The second is the desire to serve the tastes and aspirations of one’s husband or family by doing their will. A woman might abort a fetus because it is female not in the belief that raising a daughter would be unfulfilling, but because of her husband’s belief that it would.
What should concern us about sex-selective abortion, then, is not the abortion part, but either the beliefs and tastes behind the preference for a boy or the subservience of women to their husbands and families.
What to do? In the first case, I can think of nothing better than simply celebrating girls and women as people living rich and accomplished lives. We parents must make it known to others that we enjoy our daughters no less than we do our sons. Of course, all this requires that we work to remove whatever arrangements continue to prevent girls and women from living as they will.
In the second case, again the best approach is to lead by example. A society marked by companionate and supportive family relations will extend that mark into the consciousness of all its members. Equality within the family will recommend itself to others through its own merits, so long as it is there to be seen.
Why are these projects only for civil society, though, and not also the government? After all, our government has taken a leading role in trying to reform behaviour in connection with smoking and diet and bullying, to name just three.
Well, it’s not clear that each example is of a proper concern of government. Laws and policies that restrict smoking in the interest of the health, comfort, or property of those who live, work, or play with smokers have their place, but laws or policies that target smokers for their own good don’t. Whatever role the government takes in addressing the reality of sex-selective abortions, it must not be at the expense of civil liberties or a woman’s freedom to choose.
My point is that there’s nothing in sex-selective abortion to bother us but the attitudes towards raising a daughter that that practice expresses. But those attitudes are the private business of individual people. That puts them beyond the proper reach of government. It doesn’t put them beyond the reach of you and me, though.
Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, Wednesday 3 April 2013
Tom Flanagan had no reason to apologize
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
The current furor over remarks made by University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan reminds us again how very important academic freedom is to the life of our nation. Unfortunately, it also reminds us how shallow the commitment to it is of even our universities.
Flanagan, in response to a question during a presentation at the University of Lethbridge Wednesday evening, restated his doubt that those who view child pornography should go to prison. For this, he was dismissed as a commentator on the CBC program Power and Politics, he was dumped by Alberta’s Wild Rose party, and the president of the University of Calgary, speaking in her role as president, asserted that “Child pornography is not a victimless crime” (not something Flanagan denied, by the way).
Strangely, Flanagan later apologized “to all who were offended by my statement.” “Strangely,” because he had nothing to apologize for. He was doing what a professor should be doing—raising and commenting on a matter of public concern—and for that he deserves to be commended.
In Canada, people who are convicted of viewing child pornography often go to jail. It is entirely in the public interest, then, to ask whether they should go to jail. It is entirely in the public interest, moreover, for people with opinions on the matter to state those opinions. How else will we inquire into the matter? If anything is a matter of public importance requiring investigation and debate, matters of punishment and incarceration are.
The true job of a professor is to raise questions and to foster inquiry into them. I say the “true” job, because in many universities the professor’s actual job is becoming more and more that of the instructor who simply leads her charges to competence in some established field. Science instructors train young people to be scientists so that they may take their place in an industrial laboratory, business instructors train young people to take their place in the world of business. A true professor, on the other hand, liberates her students from authority and convention so that they can investigate the world for themselves and come to their own conclusions about it.
To ask whether people convicted of viewing child pornography should be sent to jail is to raise a fundamental question that requires us to investigate what, precisely, is the harm caused by viewing child pornography, whether it is a harm that merits punishment, whether punishing it diminishes us in some way, and whether prison rather than some other penalty serves the goals of punishment and deterrence. A true professor teaches her charges to respond to these questions with evidence and calm deliberation, and that is not an easy thing to do.
Those who think Professor Flanagan mistaken in suspecting that viewing child pornography shouldn’t be punished with jail time should thank him for raising the question, for now they have an excellent opportunity to explain why jail is appropriate. So far as I can tell, though, they seem more interested in attacking Flanagan rather than in answering him. “I’m disgusted,” no matter how strongly stated, is not an argument.
Academic freedom is, in part, the freedom to raise offensive questions and to state disgusting answers without thereby putting one’s career or livelihood in jeopardy. Those who enjoy academic freedom, then, can enquire boldly without having to be personally courageous. But why is it so important to Canadian society that some people, at least, enjoy this freedom?
Well, people on the CBC had better not raise certain issues or float certain ideas, or they will lose their venue. If you work at a bank or at a clothing store, even (sadly) if you teach at a high school, you put your job at risk if you even raise certain questions. Without academic freedom, then, there would be few if any venues for the free and fearless investigations many of us wish to make, and on which the prosperity and nobility of a society depends.
Those upset that Flanagan would express his leanings toward an unpopular position prefer a nation of enforced conformity in views and values, whether the views are true or false or the values sound or unsound.
If I had my way, educators at all levels would enjoy academic freedom. It would be written into their contracts, just as it is for university professors. Journalists would enjoy it, too. Even bank tellers (why not?). But the tide is turning the other way. The task right now, unfortunately, isn’t to extend to others the freedom to raise questions and to offer opinions without putting their jobs at risk. The task, rather, is to protect academic freedom at home.
The University of Calgary does not have a good reputation for freedom of expression on campus. The U of C has, in the past, had anti-abortion demonstrators removed and has punished students who criticized teachers. Now, instead of defending Flanagan’s prerogative to raise questions and offer opinions, as it should, the U of C is giving Flanagan the cold shoulder. Even worse, it is, through its president, expressing an opinion on the matter Flanagan raised. That’s bad, because the university is not expressing that opinion as a move in a debate. Quite the contrary. It is expressing an opinion in order to close debate.
Originally published in the Ottaw Citizen, Friday 1 March 2013
CCEPA Workshop: January 14th, 2013.
CCEPA Research Fellow Dr. David Stuewe’ s Case-Study development, examining the “Ethical Use of the Commons”, brought together a variety of political, business, academic, and community members to explore the events involved in what is now commonly known in Halifax as the “Halifax Common concert scandal”.[i]
At CCEPA’s beautiful facilities on the Northwest Arm (630 Franklyn Street, Halifax), Dr. Stuewe introduced his group’s Case Study of the Common scandal which will be made available for use by business and public administration students at Dalhousie and Saint Mary’s as well as at other universities and schools.
Participants in the workshop were divided into groups; with each group given questions guiding them to think about the types of conversations that might have been going on at the time of the scandal by the major players involved: the Mayor, Councilors, public servants, HRM CAO, business interests including the concert promoter and the Trade Centre, as well as the general public.
The goal of the workshop was to explore a fundamental ethical question: “what makes good people do bad things?”
The workshop was not about placing blame. Dr. Stuewe’s goal is to have students understand the deeper structural issues inherent in any public (government) / private (business) relationship, and to have them consider how to prevent boundaries from being overstepped in the future.
It was acknowledged that we now live in a world were there will be increasing opportunities for business-government co-sponsored governance, and so, how do we insure the best possible outcomes will be identified, and followed through with transparency.
The groups, after some discussion, were then brought back together to de-brief.
Haligonians take great pride in the Common, the oldest city park in Canada. The Common is a 250 acre piece of land granted to the town of Halifax by King George III in 1763. Now divided into North and South Common, the sprawling fields of grass sit just off the downtown core, and are widely used by recreationalists, strollers, and as a pedestrian pass-through.
Halifax Council decided in 2006 that the Common would be a good place to hold large-scale summer musical concerts.
It was commonly felt at the workshop that at the time of the concert announcements, Halifax felt inferior to Moncton’s large-scale concert events. When City Council first announced it was getting into the concert business, there was a great sense of pride amongst mainstream Halifax. Everyone agreed; it would be good for everyone.
The Mayor’s political career was potentially on the hook if the concerts failed to make money, as he had generated a lot of buzz for the project. That buzz had led to a great sense of excitement, and after that, no one wanted to burst the bubble.
Everyone, it seemed, was wearing rose-colored glasses.
The concerts, however, became a major money losing project – with the mayor acting independently to transfer public money to the concert promoter to cover his losses.
The workshop participants were directed to explore beyond “blaming” or “naming names”, and the discussions illuminated ideas more profound than small-scale malfeasance with bigger, structural questions emerging:
Once financial suspicions were raised, how did the “silo culture of silence” prevent the flow of information?
These are all questions which lead to other questions, none of which are easy to address.
Governance is not easy. But when structures are put in place that are transparent and democratic, ethical behavior becomes one step closer to realization.
Dr. Stuewe will now take the information gathered from the workshop and incorporate it into his on-going development of the case study.
[i] (For a great backgrounder see The Coast Magazine’s article (December 5th, 2011), “How Halifax’s concert scandal played out”: http://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/how-halifaxs-concert-scandal-played-out/Content?oid=2786283)
What does diversity mean?
How do we live our practical, everyday lives, if we want to live together, side-by-side, in a community that believes in diversity?
Not every-one believes in diversity. Some people are quite hostile to the idea. Many people like their communities to be homogenous, conformist, and of that Canadian social model commonly known as “suburban”.
So what will diversity mean for Maritimers? What will it look like?
A recent presentation by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs (CCEPA) “Is There Room at the Inn? Religious Celebrations and Secular Settings”, examined the contentious diversity issue of religious practice in public spaces.
The evening brought forth questions like: Should St. Mary’s University, a secular, multicultural university be allowed to display the nativity scene on the campus grounds during the Christmas, or “holiday” season? Should Muslim prayer space be made available in government buildings? Should municipal council meetings continue to be opened with Christian prayer? Is there a war on Christmas?
This is where real diversity hits the streets. Flowery sentiments of equality and equity aside, the real question is how are we going to live with each other and our different religious viewpoints, in the day-to-day sense?
In a small city like Halifax, it seems both sides of the debate are insecure and mistrusting of each other. One side, the larger side, is just realizing that it is shrinking in size and power and hasn’t yet come to terms with what to do; and the other side is still so small, it can’t help feel that the dominant culture of religion is being shoved down their throats.
There are almost a million East Asians in Toronto. Because of their numbers, they are much more secure in their sense of community, and so might not care if City Hall places a nativity scene on government property. While at the same time, City Hall long ago moved on from an overt Christian notion of Christmas and created a fantastical Festival of Lights, which lights up the skating rink in front of Nathan Phillip Square.
For many, Christian and Muslim alike, watching kids and new immigrants first skate at Nathan Phillip Square, with people laughing and slipping on the ice, under the lights with the snow falling, is a beautiful Toronto holiday image. It doesn’t matter if you are from Brazil, or Scotland. It’s simply a wonderful thing.
But it is quite another thing to open government proceedings with Christian Prayer, or at a university convocation.
CCEPA’s panel discussion consisted of Kevin Cox, a United Church Minister and former Journalist; Rev. Dr. Wendell Eisner, Professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s University; Rabbi David Ellis of the Atlantic Jewish Council; and Dr. Mark Mercer, from the Philosophy Department at Saint Mary’s.
In one sense, there was the obvious immediate notion that there was no one on the panel who represented the thoughts and interests of any culture outside the last two-hundred years of Judea-Christian-philosophical thought. But in another sense, it was as much a discussion about religious practice in secular spaces as it was about diversity, that it did not matter which religions or philosophers were in attendance. The panel was wrestling with the more fundamental question that is still unresolved in many parts of Canada: should we separate religion from politics?
Professor Mercer was the only atheist on the panel, and the only one to strongly contest the idea that it is okay to mix politics and religion, noting that the nativity scene was a ridiculous notion for a secular university like Saint Mary’s to be engaged in.
Kevin Cox tried to argue that the nativity scene was, in fact, an inter-faith image that everyone should simply embrace. (His idea being that the nativity scene was evocative of peace and bliss – ideas consistent with all religions.)
Rabbi Ellis stressed that more inter-religious education is needed. We all need to take more time to learn about other people, and other cultures, and other belief systems. Knowledge, he argued, is the key to understanding diversity. Rabbi Ellis would later also argue, that rather than eliminate religious observances from secular spaces, there should be a fullness of celebration of all religious holidays in secular spaces.
Professor Mercer wanted people to think about the celebratory principles of the North American holiday season – family, children, community, sharing – and see that these are the fundamental principles we should focus on sharing with our neighbours, whoever they may be. Secular Humanism is no less joyful than any other idea of community belief. Mercer argued that removing religion from the holiday season makes the season that much richer, for everyone can participate if they desire to.
Mr. Cox countered that without Christ, the holiday would be banal and boring.
Everyone agreed that all religious observers – no matter their particular religious views – should be free from hassle to observe as they wish. That this idea of freedom was a fundamental principle of “being Canadian”. All the panelists agreed that there needs to be more discussion about the role of religion and politics in mainstream society.
Religion, politics, and diversity, are going to be large and awkward discussions Canadians are going to increasingly encounter over the next couple of decades as more and more people from outside of Europe immigrate to Canada.
Halifax has been white and Christian for centuries. How it will face this challenge of religion and diversity will determine its own fortunes for the century to come.