Thursday 20 November 2014

Free Speech on Campus

I was often frightened as an undergraduate; most of the time too frightened to wear my pro-life button on campus. I was certainly too frightened to apply to join the staff of the Varsity, the university newspaper which launched the careers of, for example, Stephanie Nolen and Naomi Klein. I remember walking into the office of the Varsity rather as Frodo crept into Mordor: longing to get something done there, but needing to steel myself against running away. The Varg printed my letters to the editor, but its loathing of pro-lifers was all too obvious.

I blamed myself very much for my cowardice; it took me a long time before I realized that keeping my mouth shut and my head down was the only way to survive an environment so opposed to the values I cherished most: Catholic Christianity, chastity and the right to life. If my core values had been anything else--anything else--I would have coped better. Before I joined the pro-life movement I was a devout Catholic, but my core value had been literature story-telling romance words. If I had stuck to the poetic sounds of words, and cared only about repeating them, in whatever fashion or form, I would have been fine.

When I was a child of 12 or so, my father took me to U of T to see a performance of Doctor Faustus. He regretted this treat, for it was an all-male cast and there was a homo-erotic tinge to the whole thing, but, innocent that I was, I didn't notice that. I thought the play was dramatic, deeply Christian and awesome, and Marlowe's cadences grabbed my imagination:

O Faustus lay that damnéd book aside and gaze not upon it lest thou lose thy soul and heap God's heavy wrath upon thy head!

Although technically Marlowe belongs to the Renaissance, I had fallen in love with mediaeval Christian drama, and I decided in the deepest part of my very undeveloped adolescent brain that I would go to U of T and join that magical mediaeval drama society. And despite other, subsequent, plans and wishes, that is exactly what I did.

Amusingly (now), I believed I could have it all: I imagined the University of Toronto to be a place where I could study beautiful things in beautiful surroundings as I advocated for the right to life of unborn children, promoted chastity and sought creative inspiration in the medieval drama society that so enthusiastically promoted the cultural artifacts of the medieval Catholic world.

Ha. It turned out I was the only believing Catholic in this medieval drama society. That said, I do not regret the experience for through it I met my dear friend Trish and some other very good people, and the host of liberal Protestants, atheists and gays was very nice to me, probably because I resembled a sleepy baby bunny. I was really very young.

Sadly I broke with this drama society over a "queer" production of a morality play by a famous (and gay) local director. It turned the tale upside down so that the principal Vice was a good chap at heart and the Christian Virtues who put an end to his shenanigans were dressed in Nazi uniforms with crosses where the swastikas would be. The costumes, which pronounced Catholicism=Nazism, were the last straw: I went.

I remember that the motherly costume mistress, whose lair of wonderful costumes and props I adored and rummaged through whenever I could, was very angry with me for leaving them temporarily in the lurch. But I couldn't have done anything else. How could any Catholic have participated in that? Meanwhile, it never--not once--in fact, I only thought of it now--occurred to me to organize a protest among the campus Christians, let alone try to get the play shut down.

And I write this today as a response to this very good article by the (atheist) columnist Brendan O'Neill about the lack of freedom of speech on British campuses. It has become de rigeur for certain students, presumptuously speaking for all students, to claim the right to feel comfortable on campuses and not have to hear ideas they disagree with--ever. 

They talk about "safe space", but I can tell you that I VERY RARELY felt "safe" or "comfortable" at the University of Toronto in the 1990s.  As a Roman Catholic, I was shocked, offended and frightened on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. I don't remember being shocked, offended or frightened by my polite, professional professors. I was mostly shocked, offended and frightened by groups enforcing Political Correctness and mocking Catholic icons. Now that I am over forty, the photograph of a banana balanced on a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary doesn't strike me as so horrible, but when I was 20--whew!

The one truly "safe space" for yours truly was my architecturally ugly Catholic college, and the dominant power of PC was doing its best to make it unsafe, too.

-- All the U of T orientation kits included condoms, so the St Michael's College student council spent hours taking them out of our kits--and a very good thing they did, too, for I wouldn't have lasted a day if they hadn't.

-- There was a long-running battle between the college newspaper and the organizers of "the Homo Hop" to allow advertisements for "the Homo Hop" at Saint Mike's; the lamp posts around St Mike's were frequently festooned with such ads, and they were just as frequently torn down.

-- One of my atheist friends went to the University Ombudsperson to complain that a professor at Saint Mike's prayed aloud before class. (She had spoken to him about it, and he said he was sorry that it disturbed her, but he would continue to pray briefly before class. As a matter of fact, I knew this prof tolerably well, and he didn't pray before every class, but only on important feast days.)

-- In my last year, an underground paper appeared at Saint Mike's, mocking Catholicism and demanding change. To the great surprise of my mentor of the time,  a Catholic professor, I burst into tears. She was inclined to see the paper as an exercise of freedom of speech, but I saw it as just one more attack by the huge PC forces on the small Catholic minority.*

The forces of tolerance were  thus deeply intolerant of the existence of a Catholic college daring to uphold Catholicism there on the westernmost border of the St George Campus. And why? Because they thought they were the rebels fighting for justice and we were "the oppressor."  (Incidentally, since 2001 the college has l  given into the dominant campus ideology on several points.)

One of the insanities of the PC movement is that, no matter how rich and powerful it is, it strongly believes that it is the underdog and that anyone who disagrees with it is a tyrant who must be strongly resisted, even if that tyrant is a shy 19 year old girl wearing a button that reads "Save the Baby Humans" or a powerless foreign student at a Jesuit college who argues with a tenured Jesuit priest-professor's call to end compulsory Sunday Mass.

And this is one reason why I am so committed to freedom of speech. (I am not, incidentally, that interested in freedom of imagery--I would censor all kinds of photographs, drawings and cartoons in a heartbeat.) I know perfectly well that people who hate Catholic Christianity--or conservatives of any stripe--would love to shut us Catholic Christians--or conservatives--up forever, and the fewer concessions we make to these people, the more they long to shut us up.

*What did for SMC as a "safe zone" for gently brought up Catholic girls like me was not any outside pressure but the college itself with the hiring of a left-wing professor, Dr. Mark McGowan, a very charming, personable scholar whom I like very much, and I know has always liked me, too. (I was in one of the classes he taught in his first year at SMC.)  However, I was very disappointed by his administration's behaviour over the Kreeft Lecture Scandal of 2002-200, for it severely compromised freedom of speech for Roman Catholics who are, in fact, Roman Catholics at SMC. The Kreeft Scandal plunged SMC in an open state of civil war, and I am amused to see published in the link above many names of old friends and professors fighting for Catholicism at SMC.

I was at that lecture myself, by the way, and there were obviously hostile elements in the crowd before the visiting Professor Kreeft even opened his mouth. One young lad, well-attended by equally colourful friends, was clad in a rainbow coloured (pink, says Hilary, below) feather boa . Professor Kreeft was clearly very nervous (he wasn't, says Hilary, below). The lecture hall at Saint Michael's College was certainly not a "safe space" for him that day.


  1. When I started my PhD at U of E in 2005 I quickly learned that those students who loved to boast about their open mindedness and liberal attitudes had long lists of attitudes and beliefs they found unacceptable. What they didn't like they called bigoted. They shamed and silenced people who thought differently. American feminists were the worst - I have never seen such judgment and dislike of women. I was shocked at things they used to say. But I don't remember events being shut down with people threatening violence. Obviously things have become worse in the free world.

    These attitudes were developed well before these kids went to university. Indoctrination starts early. I have written this on your FB as a comment to the above linked article, and will repeat here: there is no way that the state (especially the British state) will be in charge of educating my children. I recently came to the realization that I should do it myself for several reasons, including to keep this fascism disguised as liberalism away from their impressionable young minds. The only hope that the western world has against this nonsense is to teach youngsters how to think critically and not be swayed by the ideological peer pressure.

  2. Apparently Catholic children in the UK are much more likely to remain Catholics as adults if they are not sent to Catholic schools. If it were my responsibility to find a school for a child, I would keep that firmly in mind. Edinburgh has some fine merchant schools, and I wouldn't dismiss them out of hand. If it were me, I would investigate them all personally, and encourage my children to make friends with children of other parents of traditional faith. I have more in common with my friend who is a Free Presbyterian than I have with many Catholics, for example.

    1. Interesting. I will look into all the options so we are prepared.

  3. Okay, but isn't the whole concept of freedom of speech fundamentally flawed... insofar as it is based on the principle of equality between truth and error?

    In North America especially, Catholics cling to freedom of speech as their last bulwark. This is probably because Catholic immigrants to the US fleeing Protestant regimes were so happy and grateful to be permitted the practice of their religion under law, that they became enthusiastic supporters of liberal democracy (the only system under which they had been permitted to worship freely). Sadly however defence of freedom of speech and freedom of religion leads to religious indifferentism, as pointed out by Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, para. 79. His condemnation is borne out by the recent statistic that only 12% of the 2.8 million self-described Catholics in NYC still attend Mass regularly.

    Catholics can't win by playing by the other team's rules, as Chris Ferrara pointed out in his book 'Liberty, the God that Failed'. It’s like fighting with a pig: you get dirty, and the pig likes it.

  4. It was a pink feather boa. The young man was one of a line of homosexuals in the front row who had come with the intention of disrupting as much as was Canadianly permissible. But Kreeft, as far as I recall the event, showed not the least sign of nervousness. Later, we took him out to St. Augustine's sem where he spent the rest of the weekend regaling us with fascinating and enlightening talks. In the car on the way, the mortified organisers of the event apologised profusely, but he was utterly un-flapped, dismissed it immediately as the usual sort of nonsense, and then told us funny stories of being a Boston baseball fan for the rest of the drive. He was the image of scholarly gentility for the rest of the conference weekend, and a hugely enjoyable presence. I recall, in fact, that he handled the hecklers with great aplomb when they stood up at the microphone to "ask" their "questions".

  5. Hmm. I think you afe right about it being pink. (And I thought I remembered them being front row left, but I wasn't sure.) But I did think Professor Kreeft did look uncomfortable.

  6. C'est la vie--that is a very interesting point. I will have to ponder that. Personally I think of it as a sort of safeguard, or a deal we make with everyone else--like everyone going about in public with their faces uncovered. (I think men and women should, by law, have uncovered faces in public places; in homes and inside places of worship, all can follow their covered-face bliss.)

  7. Yes, you see that’s the thing—it’s a deal, and when we make this deal, we are unwittingly compromising with liberalism (in the philosophical sense) that has set up personal rights and freedoms as superior to the rights of the truth and ultimately of God. I know this isn’t what you meant in your article, but the concept of a right to freedom of speech implies that the individual’s freedom to say what he likes takes precedence over his duty to limit his speech to the truth.

    Liberalism attempts to force us to use its vocabulary and its rules (freedom of speech, dignity of the person, rights of man) in our own defence, and it wins when we buy into its system—“the medium is the message…” It’s clever, because we think we need to use their vocabulary, to come in on their level, so that those affected by liberalism can access the truth. But unintentionally, we are still acting as if human rights and freedoms were the highest possible good.

    It might seem a minor point, but I think it’s fundamental to Catholicism, where the highest good is not the unhindered enjoyment of an unbridled will that brooks no restraint, but rather the deliberate submission of one’s will to God and of one’s intellect to the strictures of the Faith—a thing that liberalism abhors.

    At the end of the day, we should be free to speak the truth because it is true, not because we are free. Freedom should serve the truth and serve God; God and the truth are not the servants of freedom.

    1. C'est la Vie,

      I agree with what you say about making a deal with liberalism. We all think within its framework, we are saturated with it. That is the main problem for a modern Catholic: that we use their language and their thinking in order to engage with them. In the process of this 'conversation' many Catholics have accepted the liberal rhetoric as the standard that must be followed. There is no other language in the public sphere, and the same language has infiltrated the church.

      This is not what Seraphic's post is about, but my observation of how we think in the western world.

      I'm not sure how the freedom of speech can be defended - even though the concept is not perfect it is better than nothing since we need to organise society in some way - since the trend is to redefine the meaning of everything, including the meaning of the freedom of speech. It has become an empty word for many.

    2. This is quite beautiful: "At the end of the day, we should be free to speak the truth because it is true, not because we are free. Freedom should serve the truth and serve God; God and the truth are not the servants of freedom."

      That's very well explained--thank you! I suppose, then, that the argument is "I have the duty to speak the truth."

  8. It is true that compromising with liberalism needs to be handled with care in order that we do no deceive either ourselves or others that its principles - freedom of speech etc. – are the highest goal of human society. Liberalism is itself a compromise and was never intended to be an ideal. It really began with the official acceptance of competing and mutually exclusive visions of Christianity within states throughout Europe at the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the series of treaties that ended the 30 Years' War. One provision of this Peace was that, while a ruler's faith would determine the established religion of the state, all states would make provision for followers of the non-established faith, with public hours of worship set aside and freedom to practice in private. It was no longer treason to be of a different faith than one's monarch. The Church was part of the treaty negotiations and accepted the terms of the peace, although later Popes were doubtful about them.

    The compromises of liberalism may be easier to accept if you see them as a way to bring an end to an otherwise endless series of wars and persecutions. I would also add that you can think of these compromises as a method of accommodating without entirely giving way to man's fallen nature. Of course, one strange result of unchecked liberalism in the public sphere is the growth of anti-liberalism among the “progressives,” which is what Seraphic’s piece is about and which is growing in power. Today it is progressives who say things like “error has no rights,” which has led me, in some online arguments, to tell them that they sound like Pius IX - not that they would know who that is, or recognise the connection.


    1. Thanks to everyone for their insightful (and very kind, Seraphic!) responses.

      Clio, your point about liberalism starting out as a compromise made at the time of the Reformation to prevent persecution is extremely interesting. But the Reformation itself was founded to a large extent on the thought of Martin Luther, who was (I believe) the first major liberal philosopher, with his doctrine of private interpretation (the individual is freed from the authority of the Church to interpret Scripture according to his own lights) which results in subjectivism (what’s true for you is not necessarily true for me).

      Liberalism as a formal goal in itself came into being under the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Montesquieu, etc.) and its principles were first politically codified in the American Constitution (Bill of Rights) and subsequently in 1789 during the French Revolution (Declaration des droits de l'homme).

      Your point about necessary compromise to prevent total chaos—which Expat Housewife mentioned as well—is certainly valid in the prudential realm, but compromise can’t rightly extend to principle. So for example, a government might decide that in the best interests of the common good at a given time, it will not forbid the press to publish articles in favour of, say, euthanasia. But it cannot grant the press a right to publish such articles, since in themselves they are false and promote wrongdoing.

  9. Martin Luther is not generally considered to be the first liberal philosopher. That title is usually granted to - wait for it - Niccolo Machiavelli, for reasons that are not strictly relevant here. Luther, however, would never have qualified as a liberal in any sense of the term, although you could call him an inadvertent, founding father of liberalism. To him it was the authority of "scripture" that was important, and not the authority of conscience. Of course, once he had broken with the Church, he made it possible for any and every interpretation of scripture to stand. That was not his intention, however, and he was often appalled at the results of his rebellion. I think - my memory may be incorrect - that he even went so far as to regret encouraging the literate but otherwise uneducated to read the Bible independently, because it led to such extraordinary interpretations of its texts.


    1. So glad you mentioned Machiavelli as the source of liberal ideology. Have been wondering about this connection as well. I believe the roots are definitely there.

  10. That's awfully interesting about Machiavelli--I shall have to look up his liberal qualifications; I never thought of him that way.

  11. Ladies, you are adding much intellectual tone to my blog. (Thank heavens!) :-D

  12. It appears that I may have overstated Machiavelli's liberal credentials. He came to be regarded as a liberal, so I understand, because he was the first political philosopher to suggest that rulers ought to adopt strategies that worked - that produced the desired results - without considering classical ideals of virtue. He was, in short, the first open "consequentialist" trying to establish a philosophy of public virtue without dispensing with the concept of virtue altogether.



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