Context, freedom & diversity in a stratified community

Endorsement of Chicago Principles on Queen’s campus neglects the aspects of campus culture that vary school to school

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Free speech isn’t a neutral or isolated topic. 

As such, a discussion about freedom of speech must be contextualized with a community’s histories and culture. 

In an op-ed published in The Journal a couple weeks ago, entitled “Queen’s needs freedom of speech”, the author made the assertion that to address the lack of freedom of speech on campus, Queen’s should adopt the Chicago Principles; a set of guidelines on free expression developed by the University of Chicago.

Policies concerning these topics don’t emerge from a social and political void but rather from the stratified society in which we live. 

Such stratification is manifested in our socio-economic status, as well as our cultural and political identities. Some groups inherently have more access to social, cultural and economic capital than others. 

As George Orwell famously wrote in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” We aren’t attempting a philosophical argument on the concept of free speech but challenging the Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) assertion to bring the Chicago Principles to the Queen’s community.

Returning to George Orwell’s quote, he captures the current social and political climate well — especially at Queen’s. 

It’s easy for those privileged to exist largely in the mainstream culture to forget that we live in a time of polarization, where rising white supremacy, Islamophobia, the politics of fear, curdling transphobic legal discussions, and sexual and gender inequalities abound. 

Canada and Queen’s is home to pernicious discourses that flaunt equality, while simultaneously harbouring the marginalization of difference.

This is a troubling argument, particularly given Queen’s history and current culture. 

The imposition of a universalist model of free speech over a socially, economically, and politically stratified community demonstrates a lack of awareness of the issues surrounding that community. 

Though we’re all bound by a law that draws the limits of free speech and expression at hate crimes and genocide, such a model is unable to account for other forms of oppression via micro-aggressions, subtle exclusion practices, and targeted harassment. 

This omission of the role of social stratification is compounded through the use of freedom of speech arguments to shield and defend bigotry. 

The SSFS have also been advocating for a change.org petition seeking to persuade the University to adopt the Chicago Principles, in which they write that they are “concerned about the potential suppression of viewpoint diversity at Queen’s.” We heartily agree, given Queen’s ongoing culture of whiteness that the University itself has studied in-depth as exemplified by the recent uproar over the ‘racism party,’ viewpoint suppression is clearly a real problem on campus. 

Focusing the discussion on universalist policies that ensure free speech is a red herring and demonstrates a lack of awareness of the campus and institutional culture that are the real problem. 

As Samuel Farber wrote in an analysis of free speech on North American campuses, “democratic education encourages respectful but sharp debate instead of obscuring the sordid nature of racism and exploitation with fashionable buzzwords.” Universities aren’t safe spaces as the very notion of exposure to knowledge is meant to be uncomfortable. 

However, a learning environment must be an accountable space. 

Nonetheless, we hold that organized protest against a speaker on campus should not be conflated with an assault on freedom of speech. 

The controversial protests against the UC Berkeley Milo Yiannopoulos talk must be contextualized within an atmosphere of free speech: save for a few destructive activists, protestors were exercising their right to oppose an overtly hateful speaker. As Faber asserts in the wake of Yiannopoulos’ cancelled talk, free speech policy “requires that the protesting students exercise their free speech rights with massive picketing and heckling while respecting the principles of free speech, stopping short of a forceful suppression of the event.” 

To return to the SSFS’ concerns, we argue that the best way to remedy viewpoint suppression at Queen’s is to focus on ensuring a diversity of viewpoints and individuals on campus. 

Yes, free speech is a value that is vitally important to the health of the University, but so is the fostering and implementation of policies and practices that promote diversity of viewpoints across the institution. 

This diversity must also extend down into the student body itself, promoting a vibrant and dynamic community of people from all socio-economic backgrounds and cultures. It may also mean that free speech must be balanced against these needs when set within the historical and cultural context of Queen’s experience and current state of affairs. 

Instead of taking on the Chicago Principles, Queen’s should seek to forge its own principles of free speech and expression that are balanced against the problems of the culture that is specific to our campus. 

This is a topic that should be considered along with the Principal’s implementation committee exploring racism, diversity, and inclusion in the Queen’s community. 

Kyle Curlew is a  second-year MA students in Sociology. Korey Pasch is a sixth-year PhD student in Political Studies.

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