A number of Queen’s professors have released an official written statement, entitled “An Open Letter in Response to Principal Daniel Woolf’s February 20, 2018 Statement, ‘Informed Respectful Debate is Central to Academia.’” The statement expresses their concerns regarding the lecture event featuring Jordan Peterson on March 5.
In a Feb. 20 blog post, Principal Woolf defended the lecture despite criticism from students and faculty. “Expressing one’s affront to an idea or position is completely acceptable in an academic environment … blanket calls for censorship, however, are intellectually lazy and are anathema to scholarly pursuits,” he wrote.
Open letter officially made public by professors
Featuring approximately 130 signatures from faculty, students, and alumni, the letter was officially sent to Principal Woolf on Feb. 28. It communicates these professors’ belief that the ‘free speech’ defence Principal Woolf utilized in his blog post regarding the Liberty Lecture series event fails to “adequately [capture] the complexity of the nature of the issues at stake.”
“You [in reference to Woolf] could have used this moment not just to proclaim the importance of free speech, but to acknowledge the objections to the speaker’s views, the bases for these objections, and the costs borne by those who are harmed by this speech,” the statement reads.
“You fail to recognize that the ‘debates’ to which you refer take place within the context of a rising tide of white supremacy and hate. As a leader of this university, the lesson we would have liked you to focus on is the history of exclusion of and hatred towards equity-seeking groups,” the letter continues.
Politics Professor Elanor MacDonald addressed this original draft in an interview with The Journal and clarified it wasn’t meant to be made public until Principal Woolf had a chance to respond; the final version was agreed upon by the 130 signed professors. The official version sent to Woolf hasn’t circulated on social media as of this article being published.
“What we can say for sure is that Jordan Peterson, and therefore the media, got hold of a copy of the earlier and inaccurate version,” MacDonald said. Peterson tweeted the draft letter on Feb. 24.
Principal Woolf addresses original draft of letter at Senate
Principal Woolf addressed the initial draft of the letter at a Feb. 27 Senate meeting.
“I do not accept the notion that one can support freedom of speech, or academic freedom and simultaneously deny the speaker a platform … this removes the opportunity for those who disagree to challenge those views,” Woolf said to members in attendance.
Woolf argued a diverse curriculum can’t exist without diversity in thought and opinion. He also said the idea that silencing views for the sake of improving diversity and inclusivity conflates the two.
“Actions and not words, will improve Queen’s record on inclusivity and diversity,” Woolf asserted.
As a member of Senate, MacDonald was able to respond to Woolf on behalf of the professors signed to the statement. She told Woolf, “[t]hat letter does not actually call for you to stop the event. It doesn’t call for censorship of the event. It calls for you to have made a different response than the response you have made … it’s not hard to find an argument that supports free speech.”
“What we look to you as the leader for the university, is to acknowledge the harm that speech can also do,” she continued. “We need to think about free speech, but we also need to think about costly speech. We need to know that when we say that speech should be free, that certain individuals bare the cost of that speech more than others and we need to acknowledge who they are.”
MacDonald clarifies purpose of statement
In an interview with The Journal, MacDonald said Woolf’s continued emphasis on free speech doesn’t address the main point of the professors’ statement. She said their argument is that Principal Woolf has defended free speech without acknowledging the consequences this expression will have for marginalized groups on campus.
“I’m not taking issue with free speech. But we also need to know, as I said at the meeting, that the Principal understands that the effect of that free speech goes against what many of the recent stated missions of the University are,” she commented.
Jordan Peterson is known for criticizing Bill C-16, which in 2016 added gender identity and expression to the Human Rights Act as protected grounds. Peterson has argued against being required to use non-binary gender pronouns, and more broadly, has voiced objections to political correctness as a whole.
“A lot of people who may have views that are much more extremist than [Peterson] would ever entertain, people who have used Peterson’s [rhetoric] and support Peterson, because they think it should then be possible to use racial slurs, to make sexist remarks, to not take into consideration the effects of their speech as something that can be harmful for marginalized groups,” MacDonald told The Journal. “Peterson has been part of creating this climate, his words have been used to create [it].”
MacDonald believes the University must do better to act as an ally to marginalized groups on campus. She also said it’s important to avoid framing justice-seeking groups as solely victims, or as groups primarily requiring care and protection in response. She described this mentality as paternalistic and a poor “framing of the discourse.”
“Being an ally doesn’t mean being protective, it doesn’t mean these people need comfort, it means showing up at an event, it means listening to people,” MacDonald said, “It means responding to people’s concerns, but not presenting them or thinking of them as people who are victims or uncomfortable.”
The Journal contacted Principal Woolf for comment on the official open letter. Woolf wrote via email, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the Open Letter prior to responding first to the authors of it. I will be pleased to offer comments once I have provided an official response.”
The article has been updated to reflect that the letter has been signed by faculty, students, and alumni.
The Journal regrets the error
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