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Mar 5 , 2018


Unpacking Acadia's problem child

by Guy Pothier
Unpacking Acadia's problem child
When we think about suppression of free speech, we usually assume orthodoxy vs. heresy; arbitrary authority vs. dissent; prudery and hypocrisy vs. candor.
Today, attempts to curb speech are more likely from contending blocs in what we can loosely call the culture wars, gender wars and identity wars.
We see that in controversies about the U of T psych professor Jordan Peterson, the Waterloo University teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, and now the Acadia psych prof Rick Mehta.
Peterson became notorious for stridently refusing to use gender neutral pronouns proposed by and for trans people. Peterson seems to have been less interested in making a point than in looking for confrontation. Advocates for trans people may have become overly aroused by a debate about language usage. These have a way of provoking far more heat than light when it comes to understanding how language functions and how it changes over time.
What should raise far more questions about Peterson is his larger intellectual profile. He has established himself as some kind of academic guru, writing at least two books that by many accounts are a kind of intellectual synthesis of just about everything. He is an admirer of Carl Gustav Jung, at best a dubious intellectual influence. For me, that is a red flag.
He also aspires to be a kind of Oprahlike guide to young men who feel culturally displaced and psychologically confused. Just what the world needs: more catering to male self-pity. Another red flag.
Shepherd, a TA in the Waterloo U communications department, decided to use videos of Peterson’s statements on gender neutral pronouns in one of her seminars. This would seem to be an entirely acceptable use of very relevant, current materials for class discussion. Shepherd found herself answering to her faculty, who quickly realized there was no academic infraction involved. Yet, some critics faulted her for not explicitly labelling Peterson’s statements as bigoted against trans people.
Wasn’t it enough for Shepherd to show these videos in a situation where they were clearly being seen as a subject for critical examination and scrutiny? And now, complaints against Acadia psychology prof Rick Mehta. Acadia has hired Dal law school emeritus prof Wayne MacKay, an expert on constitutional and education law, and for a time president of Mount Allison, to investigate.
Mehta has taught in the Acadia psychology department for 14 years. He does not have a long list of academic publications. His specialty, according to his website, is some kind of decision theory. The website is not especially helpful in explaining this.
A more recent academic interest is what he considers lack of viewpoint diversity in Canadian psychology departments. This is academic jargon for political correctness and left wing conformity.
So Mehta may have found a way to combine his academic work with his provocateur, flame-thrower instincts. Not perhaps the best prescription for serious, disinterested academic work.
One ground for complaint against Mehta is statements sharply critical of the truth and reconciliation process for aboriginals. Mehta sees this almost exclusively as a way for natives to extract compensation from the Canadian people and enrich an industry of consultants and advocates.
Such arguments are certainly not original. Mehta seems to make these with a conspicuous lack of subtlety and nuance, which I would have thought to be conservative or anti-PC virtues.
One Halifax-based complainant, Jessica Durling, has said that derogatory comments about traditionally maligned or marginalized identifiable groups can constitute hate speech. The Criminal Code of Canada defines hate speech as an offence, but derogatory comments in themselves do not approach the legal definition.
In questions of academic free speech, we should distinguish three issues: 
l Using your classroom as a pulpit or platform for personal views on controversial subjects. That, and disrespectful attitudes towards his students, over whom he has some professional obligations, appear to be an issue with Mehta.
l Using your scholarship or scholarly publications to support your personal views when the evidence does not warrant such a claim. That may be more uncertain with Mehta on the basis of what we currently know.
l Expressing controversial or even abhorrent views outside an academic or scholarly setting and unrelated to academic specialty. This should not normally be an issue. But how would we cope with an academic in whatever discipline who espoused holocaust denial?
Matthew Sears teaches classics and ancient history at UNB, with a fairly lengthy list of scholarly publications. Recently in the Globe and Mail, he described how he, once a classical liberal free speech absolutist, underwent a 180 degree conversion experience (he calls it a paradigm shift, after the philosopher Thomas Kuhn) while teaching in a liberal arts college in Indiana. While there, he encountered raw white racism. (A question for Sears: had he never encountered racism in his native Maritimes?)
I spent several years in grad school in the American Midwest. At times it was disorienting, but it didn’t totally transform my worldview.
In his article, Sears argues that statements critical of marginalized groups may amount to forcing them to debate their very existence.
He has argued that Mehta should face “consequences” for his views. This has become a very common demand in current free speech controversies. In practice, this seems to mean that people who cannot be prosecuted or fired for offensive views should at least have to face social rebuke, ostracism, ridicule, and denial of platforms to express offensive views.
There was a time when it was cultural conservatives and traditionalists who insisted on extra legal consequences for bad or offensive behaviour. They would argue that the mere existence of laws or their vigorous, consistent enforcement was not sufficient to keep a fallen, fallible humanity within bounds. To paraphrase a term from environmental debates: society has the right to withdraw its social licence for bad behaviour.
Now it is liberals or people on the left who are more inclined to seek to arouse and mobilize societal disapproval to advance moral agendas. And who seek to mobilize that societal disapproval against statements, discourse and arguments, more than bad behaviour.
On two counts therefore, a significant role reversal between cultural conservatives and liberals.

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