In 2006 I accepted an invitation to receive an honorary doctor of science
degree from Ryerson University in Toronto. When that was announced a powerful
storm of protest erupted from the activist gay community and their supporters
across Canada, demanding that, because of my views on same-sex marriage the
University withdraw its offer of the degree. That, in turn, generated an even
bigger media storm across Canada, in defence of freedom of speech.
One element of this "perfect storm" was many people expressing to me their
deep concern about "what’s happening in our universities." One thing that is
happening is a growth in moral relativism. This can lead to a loss, on the part
of university students, of substantive values, certainly shared ones, or even
ethical nihilism, in the sense that ethics becomes nothing more than personal
Postmodernism is now de rigueur in the humanities and social sciences.
Postmodernists adopt a relativistic approach: there is no grounded truth; what
is ethical is simply a matter of personal judgement and preference. Moral
relativism means that values are all of equal worth and which take priority,
when they conflict, is merely a matter of each person’s perception and
preference. The result, paradoxically, is that "the equality of all values",
itself, becomes the supreme value.
This stance ultimately leads, at least in theory, to extreme or intense
tolerance as the "most equal" of equal values. But does that happen in practice?
That is where political correctness enters the picture. (I’m using this term
as shorthand to cover a variety of identity-based social movements and the
neo-liberal values that they espouse. I am not using it, as can sometimes
happen, to describe people or their views or values derogatorily, which is not
to say I agree with all of them.)
Political correctness excludes politically incorrect values from the "all
values are equal" stable. It shuts down non-politically correct people’s freedom
of speech. Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is, thereby,
labelled as intolerant, a bigot or hatemonger. The substance of arguments is not
addressed; rather people labelled as politically incorrect are attacked as being
intolerant and hateful simply for making those arguments.
Strategies for quelching debate
It is important to understand the strategy employed: speaking against
abortion or same-sex marriage is not characterised as speech; rather, it is
characterised as a sexist act or a discriminatory act against homosexuals,
respectively, and, therefore, as, in itself, a breach of human rights or even a
hate crime. Consequently, it is argued that protections of freedom of speech do
Another part of the same strategy is to reduce discourse to two possible
positions. One must be either pro-choice on abortion and for respect for women
and their rights, or pro-life and against respect for women and their rights.
The possibility of being pro-women and their rights and pro-life is eliminated.
The same approach is taken to same-sex marriage: One is against discrimination
on the basis of sexual orientation and for same-sex marriage, or against
same-sex marriage and for such discrimination. The option of being against such
discrimination and against same-sex marriage, as I am, is eliminated. That is
not accidental; it is central to the strategy that has been successful in Canada that resulted in having same-sex marriage legalised and maintaining the complete void with
respect to having any law governing abortion.
In short, political correctness is being used as a form of fundamentalism,
and fundamentalisms, especially "warring" fundamentalisms as manifested in the
battles between religious fundamentalists and neo-atheist fundamentalists such
as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, are a grave danger to
democracy. They vastly widen the divides between us, creating an unbridgeable
"us" and "them" when what we need is a "we".
Moral relativism and political correctness in practice
The issue that sparked the "Ryerson controversy", legalising same-sex
marriage, is an example of what "pure" moral relativism and intense tolerance,
as modified by political correctness, mean in practice.
While I abhor discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and agree
that same-sex marriage could be a powerful message of the wrongs of that, I
oppose same-sex marriage because of its impact on children’s rights. In choosing
between adults and children, I believe we should give priority to children. I
argue that children need and have a right to both a mother and a father,
preferably their own biological parents, unless the "best interests" of a
particular child require otherwise, as in many adoptions. Marriage limited to
the union of a man and a woman establishes that right; same-sex marriage
eliminates that right for all children (which is why I oppose the redefinition
of marriage), but support civil unions (which do not have that impact).
The Ryerson protestors sought to "deal" with me by labelling me. I was
described as guilty of a hate crime; the new Ernst Zundel (who, like him, should
be deported – they were grateful that I came from Australia and could be sent
back there); a neo-Nazi; and a member of the Klu Klux Klan. My views had no
place in the university, they claimed. This approach eliminated the need to deal
with the substance of my arguments. It sent a very powerful warning to all those
who might happen to share my views.
Was the Ryerson affair unique in our universities? I do not believe so. One
current, very worrying example is the suppression of pro-life groups and
pro-life speech on Canadian university campuses. Whatever our views on abortion,
we should all be worried about such developments. Pro-choice students are trying
to stop pro-life students from participating in the collective conversation on
abortion that should take place. In fact, they don’t want any conversation,
alleging that to question whether we should have any law on abortions is, in
Some people are going even further: they want to force students to act
against their conscience as a condition for graduating. The group "Medical
Students for Choice" would like to make performing an abortion a "required
procedure", that is, a student would have to competently perform an abortion in
order to graduate. Delivering a baby at term is not a required procedure. I do
not need to emphasise the dangers of this in universities, no matter how worthy
one’s motives in promoting a certain stance. The most fundamental precept on which a university is
founded is openness to ideas and knowledge from all sources.
The closing of the university mind
As well, over the last year or so, I have been dis-invited from three events.
That has never happened before in my nearly 30 years of speaking engagements.
And, probably uniquely, the withdrawals came from opposite ends of the values
spectrum. One withdrawal was because my views were seen as not being pro-life
and in another as not being pro-choice. Only a speech that would be preaching to
the converted was seen as acceptable.
In the other case, a diplomatic explanation was given, but my hunch is that
the university administrators, fund raisers, and public relations professionals
involved were frightened of facing protests for having invited me. No one knows
how many invitations are not issued because of fear of controversy. The
cumulative effect is a silencing: And such silence is golden in more than a
metaphorical sense -– potential donors are not offended.
Ryerson University received many calls from people saying they would never
donate to the university again, if they conferred the honorary degree on me. A
past Principal at McGill University received similar calls in relation to
another controversial issue on which I spoke publicly, demanding that I be fired
or they would never again donate.
Moreover, I was told that last semester law students at McGill had considered
asking other students not to enrol in any of my classes as a means of public
protest against my views on same-sex marriage, but changed their minds because
that might have "made them look bad", especially as law students who should be
defenders of rights such as free speech.
One of my classes was invaded by students, with TV cameras filming them, and
had to be abandoned as they carried out a mock same-sex marriage. I’ve received
very large amounts of hate mail, been the subject of an on-line protest petition
and needed security precautions when speaking in public, all because I believe
all children – including those who are gay as adults – need a mother and a
father which opposite-sex marriage gives them and same-sex marriage takes away.
And, if that is how I’m treated, imagine how students, or even junior
faculty, who hold views that are seen as not politically correct or, sometimes,
just too conservative, feel. They are fearful of speaking out and feel
What happened to shared values?
The further deep concern is that this conflict within our universities, and
dealing with it by shutting down freedom of speech, might be a micro example of
a much larger problem outside the universities. We might be at risk of
annihilating some of our most important shared values and that creates a
situation that threatens society itself. We can’t hold a society together in the
long-term without shared values, that is, without a societal-cultural paradigm:
the story about ourselves that supports our most important principles, values,
attitudes and beliefs, one that we tell each other and all buy into in order to
form the glue that holds us together. Tolerance alone, and especially unbalanced
by other important values, is nowhere near enough to found that story.
To ensure our story does not disintegrate and continues to be enriched, we
must engage in mutually respectful conversation. The public needs academics to
speak freely – and respectfully, openly, honestly, and without threat of
repercussions – about contentious but important societal problems. That requires
respect for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and
academic freedom – the latter of which is meant primarily for the benefit of the
public by allowing academics to feel they can speak the truth, as they see it,
to power. The Ryerson events were in breach of all those freedoms.
Our universities should be models for the larger society of crossing the
divides that separate us, not of widening them. In the broader context of our
contemporary multicultural, pluralistic democracies, we must engage in mutually
respectful conversation across those divides.
Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics
and Law at McGill University in Montreal. Her essay "Brave New Babies" will appear in MercatorNet later this month.