Mark Mercer

One thing we should do to increase our physical safety is repeal our remaining laws against hate speech.

Isn’t that claim outlandish? It might seem obvious that if we want protect ourselves, we should instead police expression even more vigorously than we do now, so that violent people will be less likely to see or hear something that sets them off.

Well, of course, we know that by giving in to the heckler’s veto, we simply create more hecklers, and more raucous hecklers, at that. So maybe stricter laws against expression isn’t the answer. But how could having no anti-hate laws help us?

I don’t mean to argue here for repealing our laws against the expression of hate on the grounds that they are anti-democratic, or that they deform public discourse, or that they are contrary to the ideal of the moral autonomy of the individual, though I think each of those arguments is sound. I mean to explain how the laws we currently live under, mild though some think them (though Arthur Topham or David Ahenakew would disagree), encourage the offended to take up violence.

Those who lash out physically against people who (they feel) have ridiculed or offended them are lashing out because they believe they have suffered an injustice. My argument is that laws against the expression of hate endanger us because they affirm and encourage that belief.

That is to say, countries that have laws against hate speech proclaim through their laws that some targets of expression are, indeed, victims of injustice. As victims of injustice, they are entitled to restitution through the punishment of their assailants.

The police and the courts don’t always get things right, of course. Someone has defamed you by attacking your religion, and so you complain to the officials, but the officials decide that the speech that offended you didn’t cross the line. But it did, you think; or the line wasn’t properly placed. You believe that you are a victim of injustice, an injustice, moreover, that the state refuses to rectify.

How many times was Charlie Hebdo investigated for violating France’s laws against the expression of hate? At least twice, and both times acquitted. What’s left to do but attack it yourself?

If, on the other hand, Canadians were truly to embrace freedom of expression, and get rid of our laws that censor or suppress expression, we would thereby say to the world that being mocked or ridiculed or subjected to expressions of hate is not to suffer an injustice. That you have been insulted, offended, or upset by something someone said does not make you a victim, and you are not entitled to restitution or compensation.

Repealing our laws against the expression of hate would make us safer by removing from our culture official affirmation of the thought that a person’s hurt feelings merit official concern. Removing that thought would weaken the desire to take the law into one’s own hands when the state refuses to come to one’s aid.

My argument is speculative in that it contains a premise about cause and effect for which I cannot cite adequate evidence. According to that premise, removing laws that imply that one who has been offended or demeaned can thereby be a victim of injustice will result in fewer people thinking they are victims of injustice. If that premise is true, then that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was committed in France by Frenchmen isn’t entirely a coincidence, for France has stronger laws against the expression of hate than most other European countries and enforces them regularly.

But why think that that premise is true? Empirical evidence would be needed to settle the question. All I can say in defence of it right now is that, generally, legal culture affects the mores and attitudes of the individuals who make up a society.

For reasons of safety, then (along with all the other reasons), let us not accommodate even in the slightest demands that people be silenced, no matter what they say or how hurt people are by what they say. That would take offence out of the realm of law and politics, and that would (probably, maybe) lessen the chance that the aggrieved will style themselves victims and their violence justice.

Mark Mercer is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University,

Originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald, 9 January 2015 (under the headline “Hate speech laws—repeal them”),

Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University

This article originally appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald, 8 January 2015

Should abortion be a legal option only for women who have good reasons for terminating their pregnancies?

Bad reasons for terminating a pregnancy might include that the fetus is female, that the fetus has a small deformity, that the fetus has genetic markers for retinitis pigmentosa or for homosexuality, or that the child will be deaf. These are bad reasons because girls and women, people with deformities or handicaps, blind people, lesbians and gays, and deaf people can all lead full and wonderful lives.

Bad reasons might include the inconvenience of being pregnant right now or of being responsible for a child in the near future.

Good reasons for terminating a pregnancy, then, might include that the fetus is anencephalic or has markers for Tay-Sachs disease. They might also include that the pregnancy occurred because of rape or that continuing the pregnancy endangers the physical or mental health of the woman.

These would be good reasons, it seems, either because they take abortion to be a form of mercy killing (the case of anencephalic fetuses) or because they tip the scales in the balance between the rights of the pregnant woman and the rights of the fetus (the case of the woman’s health).

Those who advocate restricting abortion to cases of good reasons say that they are moderates in the abortion debate, that theirs is a nuanced position. They would not ban abortion, just restrict it, and the restrictions they propose are needed to protect the dignity of human life. They note that wanting to abort a fetus because, for instance, it is female expresses sexist attitudes towards girls and women. Sex-selective abortion, they say, is discriminatory, and discrimination on the basis of sex is in Canada properly illegal.

There is at least one large confusion within the good-reasons-only position on abortion, though. While some of what I’ve listed as the bad reasons for having an abortion involves discrimination, none involves wrongful discrimination. Wrongful discrimination against an individual harms that individual by unfairly preventing her from fulfilling her interests. Fetuses, though, lack interests. A fetus killed because it is female is not thereby discriminated against wrongfully.

The point is the same with regard to any feature of a fetus that serves as a woman’s reason to seek an abortion. Aborting a fetus because it bears a deformity or a marker is not to discriminate against a person bearing that deformity or a person with the condition marked for.

Well, doesn’t abortion in these cases at least express the attitude that certain kinds of people (girls, the handicapped) are not as worthy as others (boys, the able)? It may, but it needn’t. It probably often does express such an attitude in sex-selective abortion. In aborting fetuses because the child would be handicapped, though, it need express no attitude toward the handicapped other than that a handicapped person would have been better off had he not been handicapped. That attitude is in no way inconsistent with insisting that all people be able to live free from wrongful discrimination. Nor is it inconsistent with cherishing one’s disabled friends.

In any case, once we move from the question whether a fetus suffers an indignity in being aborted (it doesn’t) to whether certain abortions express sexist or homophobic attitudes (they might), we have moved from restrictions on abortion meant to protect specific individuals from wrongful treatment to restrictions on abortion as part of a general social policy of fostering tolerance and acceptance. Most of us will agree, I suspect, that no pregnant woman’s condition should be used through law to further any social goal, not even tolerance.

Abortion laws indifferent to the reasons women have to terminate their pregnancies are certainly preferable to good-reasons-only laws on practical grounds. A good-reasons-only policy would require panels of doctors, prying interviews, and a lot of time and expense. But good-reasons-only policies also fail on principled grounds.

Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

The Roman Catholic Church is not likely to alter its teachings on sex, birth control, abortion, or homosexuality any time soon, despite the sincere efforts of Pope Francis to foster change. This fact saddens many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But why should it? Why, that is, should anyone care what the Church teaches?

Catholics who see nothing wrong with same-sex intimacy or intrauterine devices are free to leave the Church, if they want. If they don’t want to leave it—if, for instance, they wish to be present to the miracle of transubstantiation, or they don’t want to upset their parents—then they can simply ignore the teachings they think false.

Since the priests cannot put anyone in jail, or fine them, or get them fired from their jobs, Catholics who would reject Church teachings have no reason to fear that rejecting them will land them in hot water. This is true not only for those who merely disagree with the Church, but also for those who actually live in ways the Church condemns.

So let the Church teach what it will about sex and the rest. It’s up to us to sort out for ourselves what to believe and what to value.

An objection to taking a “who cares?” attitude toward Church teachings is that the Church does, in fact, have authority in many people’s lives. True, the Church cannot have sinners jailed, at least not in secular nations, but nonetheless being called a sinner hurts and humiliates. That’s why we should care that the Church alter its teachings: so that it no longer hurts or humiliates those who have sex outside marriage, or use birth control, or are homosexual, or seek an abortion.

The fault here, though, is not with the Church, but with those who would let what the Church says bother them. If one doesn’t think birth control wrong, then one shouldn’t feel that by wearing a condom one has sinned. If one doesn’t feel one has sinned, then accusations that one has shouldn’t hurt. (Unjust criticism shouldn’t hurt; and the just sort should be welcomed.) The task isn’t to change the Church, but to overcome one’s vulnerability.

Perhaps that’s easier said than done. Nonetheless, to be vulnerable to unjust criticism is to labour under a serious, and seriously debilitating, misapprehension. It’s to hold that there are authorities in matters of morals. Without that belief, a person called a sinner would recognize that whether she actually is one is simply another hypothesis to investigate (or ignore). Her own judgement on the matter should be the judgement that guides her behaviour and feelings.

There are no authorities on matters of morals. Authorities on Church doctrine exist, of course, just as authorities on snails and the Renaissance do; but whether Church doctrine on right and wrong is correct (whether snails are tasty; whether Renaissance art is moving) is not a matter on which any pronouncement is authoritative. We must always find our own good reasons for rejecting or accepting any contention about how to live.

Mark Mercer, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary’s University

What would be the point of punishing, by expelling or through other sanctions, the dentistry students involved in the misogynistic Facebook postings?

From what those who advocate punishment are saying, I count four different answers. First, the point of punishing them is retribution. The students acted wrongly and deserve official sanctions. Second, they have shown themselves by their actions to be unfit to join the profession of dentistry. Third, punishing them will serve to reduce the likelihood of other students making misogynistic remarks, and that will, in turn, make dentistry school more hospitable to women students. Fourth, the point of punishing them is to rehabilitate the school of dentistry, to help it to reclaim its reputation as a place that treats women students well.

1) About retribution: Not all wrongs we commit are wrongs we should be punished for. In a free society, we should not be punished for our opinions, emotions, or values, or for expressing our opinions, emotions, and values. Our opinions might be false and our values unsound, and our expressing them disturbing or hurtful, but respect for each other requires that we apply no pressures other than argument and evidence to try to change opinions or values.

Canadian society, though, as many commentators have pointed out, is not a free society. We have laws against the expression of hate, and our defamation laws are strong and punitive. Too bad for us, I say. But even those who don’t mind punishing people for the content of their public expression should be uneasy when it comes to going after posters in the relative privacy of Facebook, I would think. Or is it only behind the locked doors of our houses that we can say what we want without worry?

But the case we’re considering is not a matter of law, one might respond. The school of dentistry is not a government agency and should be free to settle matters in its own house as it wants. Well, we don’t live in a free society even if the government isn’t involved in censoring and suppressing opinion, so long as other powerful institutions are taking up the slack. Moreover, consider that the school of dentistry is part of Dalhousie University. A university is a place of intellectual community, or should be, and intellectual community is sustained only if members of that community are free from institutional pressures to believe and value this way or that. Of course we want that we and others believe truly and value soundly, but we also want that we believe truly and value soundly for our own good reasons, not out of fear or hope of reward.

That, I think, is the main reason why the students should not be punished or even face the threat of being punished. Since they are university students, they are members of an intellectual community, and such a community is destroyed when members are directed to have certain beliefs and values, rather than allowed, through investigation and critical discussion, to come to their own beliefs and values.

2) About gatekeeping: The school of dentistry is part of a university, yes, but, one might add, it is also a professional school, training students to assume a position within a profession. As such, the school of dentistry has a responsibility to ensure that only people fit to join that profession are invited to do so.

This is a strong argument for expelling the students. It would be even stronger were there some good reason for thinking students involved in misogynistic expression would put their patients at risk of harm were they ever to have patients. (Is there any evidence to support that worry?)

One response is, again, that powerful institutions, such as schools of dentistry, should in a free society have great regard for freedom of expression. Another response is that because it is part of a university, the school of dentistry is a place of education rather than training and, thereby, should not be playing any official gatekeeping role at all. That role should be left exclusively to professional societies.

Maybe schools of dentistry shouldn’t be part of universities. Maybe their associations with universities should be much looser than they are, and their ties to professional bodies tighter. In any case, they cannot be both academic institutions of education and training centres that keep watch on the gates. If a school of dentistry wants to be a gatekeeper, it shouldn’t be housed within a university.

3) About making the school friendly to women: The threat of sanctions for getting caught making misogynistic remarks might well reduce the number of misogynistic postings on Facebook, and that would make for a more pleasant environment. And, yet, that more pleasant environment would be a result not of changed attitudes but of enforced manners. Manners cannot be enforced at a university, I argued above, without compromising that university’s status as a place of education. Here, though, I want to make the additional point that we’re aiming much too low if our goal is merely to create the façade of respect and good will toward women. Let’s be more ambitious, and try to create the real thing.

To create a place in which all students respect and help each other, we need candidly to discuss the attitudes people have that demean others and that lead to hurtful behaviours such as misogynistic postings. Punishment doesn’t change attitudes, but discussion can and often does. If the school of dentistry is to become a place in fact friendly to women, then it has to uncover through critical discussion alone the basic attitudes that make the school hostile, and attempt to change those attitudes through showing them to be pinched, narrow, and debilitating.

4) About restoring the reputation of the school: If the school of dentistry wants to have the reputation of both being friendly to women and being a place of education, it cannot resort to punishment in service of the former, for then it loses the latter. And because threats of punishment create, at best, merely the appearance of friendliness, the school will not gain a reputation for being friendly to women by policing bad behaviours. Its reputation will, rather, be that of a school where misogyny lingers just under the surface.

A fifth reason I’ve heard for punishing the students is, with the first, retribution, but the wrong to be made right by punishment in this case isn’t the expressing of false or obnoxious beliefs or values. The wrong, rather, is the violent assault on the women who were mentioned in the postings.

Yet posting something on Facebook cannot be an act of violence, even if it hurts and even if it harms.

Haligonian Barb Stegemann has been in the media a lot lately talking about her initiative to save the world one perfume bottle at a time by encouraging farmers to produce perfume ingredients for her company The 7 Virtues.

Having recently expanded into Rwanda, Stegemann emphasizes that, although she runs a for-profit business, not a charity, her efforts represent unequivocal progress for Rwandans. Members of the media appear uninterested in asking whether this is actually the case.

Though I fully support assisting people plagued by violence, I find Stegemann’s approach typical of situations when uninformed Western interests enter low-income countries like Rwanda.

According to Stegemann, for example, the country’s leadership is “extraordinary.” Yet a multitude of recent scholarship on Rwanda paints a dramatically different picture.

The current regime is authoritarian at best, dictatorial at worst. Predications about Rwanda’s political future range from quite cautious to downright pessimistic. One scholar sees worrisome similarities between the current leadership and those who ruled the country when violence erupted in the 1990s.

The country’s rural poor tend to view their government and its commitment to unity and reconciliation with suspicion. There is far too little sharing of political power, and economic resources are being concentrated in fewer hands.

Also according to Stegeman, Rwanda’s women have become pivotal in the political process. And this is exactly what the still male-dominated leadership wants outsiders to believe.

In reality, Rwandan women have worked hard and achieved some gains, including increased respect from family and community members, but there has been little in the way of improvement regarding formal political participation.

Women have better representation in government, but given the authoritarian nature of the state, they appear to have very limited power in these new roles. The legislative gains that Stegemann purports have been few.

And because most women who took such positions had previously been leading women’s civil society organizations, these once relatively powerful pro-women groups are now less effective.

The still male-dominated government, moreover, regularly uses the façade of a pro-women movement to gain support both internally and abroad to further its agenda of heavy-handed, elite-focused development as it harasses the media, suppresses dissent and crushes political opposition.

Stegemann appears to have big plans in Rwanada. During a recent interview, she explained that when she goes to “nations with serious war and strife,” her goal is to “shine a light on them and empower them.” A tall order, to be sure.

The anthropological perspective highlights that such an undertaking should be based on in-depth knowledge of a country. So, if her vision is more than marketing-speak, then Stegemann needs to know a lot more about Rwanda before deciding whether to play a role in shaping its future.

There is already reason to think that Stegemann has failed to recognize one major pitfall. Rwanada is a food-deficit country. It has great difficulty feeding itself, which is why chronic childhood malnutrition remains at 43 percent.

A primary cause of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa is the use of productive farmland to grow non-food crops for export—the exact model Stegemann utilizes. As she explained in a recent CTV interview, Rwandans are better off producing patchouli for her than potatoes to feed themselves.

A bottle of “Patchouli of Rwanda,” furthermore, sells for $70 at Hudson’s Bay. What percentage of that likely ends up in the hands of Rwandan farmers?

I welcome a correction from Stegemann on this, but if I’m correct, anthropologists call this wealth extraction. Only the wage remains in Rwanda, which is meager compared to the global market value of what is being taken out of the country.

In short, the media’s adoration of Stegemann needs a little counterbalance. My hope is that readers will understand that good intentions are simply not enough when Western entrepreneurs take their ideals abroad.


Rylan Higgins is an assistant professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.


Mark Mercer
Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University

All sorts of institutions get called universities these days, so the question isn’t whether an institution called Saint Mary’s University will survive. The question is whether it will remain a true university.

A true university is one committed to liberal education. An institution committed to liberal education will be marked by wide academic freedom for professors and wide freedom of expression and freedom of association on campus generally. At institutions of liberal education, students and professors congregate so that they might think for themselves. That’s why academic freedom and the civil liberties are necessary, for, without them, thinking can be molded by pressures to fit in and fears of punishment.

Saint Mary’s commitment to liberal education has been shaky for about a decade, but the Action Team on sexualized violence, formed to implement the recommendations of the President’s Council, threatens to dissolve that commitment altogether.

The President’s Council was appointed last year after the rape chant incident that occurred during orientation week. Its twenty-two recommendations combine a scant few worthy ideas and initiatives with many more draconian proposals for oversight and control of what happens on campus. The Action Team, as was made clear at a public presentation 27 August, is keen to remodel Saint Mary’s according to the most intrusive and repressive of the Council’s recommendations.

Safety, inclusiveness, and respect are the three core values the Action Team hopes to serve. Yes, we want our university to be safe and inclusive, and for people to treat each other respectfully. So how has the Action Team gone wrong?

Keep in mind that no evidence has surfaced that Saint Mary’s has a problem regarding sexualized violence. The rape chant incident was not itself an instance of sexualized violence, and little data exist that speak to the prevalence of sexual assault or rape on campus or by members of the Saint Mary’s community.

The Action Team intends to increase our awareness of sexualized violence by conducting climate surveys. But climate surveys gather perceptions and fears, not data regarding sexual assault itself. The Action Team, then, would remake Saint Mary’s culture on the basis of irrelevant and misleading data.

As far as we know, Saint Mary’s has no safety problem to address. In any case, if it did, it’s the police or security experts that the university should turn to, not a president’s council.

What about inclusiveness? Again, no evidence exists that people are being ignored or shunned because of discrimination based on prejudice. Saint Mary’s appears already to be a warm, welcoming, encouraging place for students.

When we come to what the Action Team wants to do to foster respect, we come to what is most distressing about the future of liberal education at Saint Mary’s.

The Action Team seeks to train people in the behaviours and, indeed, attitudes it prefers. It will require students to complete an online programme about consent. Forcing them to do this, when it is outside their academic programmes, is inconsistent with respecting their freedom to choose extra-curricular activities for themselves. Just as bad is that these programmes are not about inquiry and discussion, but about parroting the preferred correct responses.

The Action Team proposes also to write and implement a university-wide code of conduct. Codes of conduct, though, enforce behaviours with rewards and punishments. They do not promote unforced respect for others as fellow students and academics.

Now behind all this, of course, is the university’s desire that students do not engage in rape chants. No one wants to hear another rape chant, but we should want that we don’t hear one simply because no cares to participate in one. That is, we would like it that people were not callous about rape and suffering, and were not clueless about what their leaders are encouraging them to do. But we would also like that they acquire their attitudes for their own good reasons, not because they forced into them (or into pretending they have them).

Here we have the basic irony in the Action Team’s approach to respect. The Team would treat us, students and professors alike, disrespectfully—in order that we conform to its policy of respect.

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