• Jacqueline Leighton

Resolve in the face of the (woke) crowd

As a researcher, professor, and libertarian, I embrace the responsibility I have at the university. I feel privileged to work within an environment that is committed to the production of knowledge and freedom of expression - the University. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I aspired to be in the Academy. The university is supposed to be a beacon of openness, understanding but also challenge and present discomforting ideas and ways of doing things. Disruption of thought is a necessary ingredient for innovation. And although we are observing much intellectual unrest right now, this unrest is necessary for progress to occur. However, I do think that professors and the academy as a whole need to re-examine and re-commit to the values of upholding critical, open thinking and instruction. Consequently, I have chosen to highlight the following video of the month: You are not alone. This video is the one featured on the Counterweight site. Counterweight is an organization that I learned about via one of Steven Pinker's Tweets. Steven Pinker and many other esteemed researchers and thought-leaders are affiliated with Counterweight - for example, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Llana Redstone and John McWhorter.

So exactly what is Counterweight and why am I highlighting it? First, the best place to learn about Counterweight is to simply read about it for yourself. You can learn about it here. I have decided to focus on it because many universities, including the one I work at, have started to become oppressive in the ideas and speech that are tolerated. I think it is fair to say that open, public discussion is increasingly being curtailed. Anecdotally, I have had several students tell me that certain perspectives for discussion are not welcomed in some courses. This tends to occur in classrooms with professors who espouse strongly left political leanings and do not encourage diversity in the perspective of discussions. Second, I have also observed some administrators recommend under the veil of "equity, diversity and inclusion" for certain phrases and words to be avoided - such as "all you guys." Interestingly, Brandeis University was recently featured in the news for creating an "Oppressive Words" list. Consider the words that were on that list - picnic, crazy, lame, prostitute. In another example, I was in a meeting where I needed to repeatedly disagree with a senior administrator because she was trying to suggest that a request I had made was 'disrespectful' only because she did not agree with the direct wording I had used. Disrespect is in the eye of the beholder and some tend to see it everywhere.

The problem with all these seemingly benign measures to control our language is that it muddies our thinking. Consider that clear and critical thinking requires being honest in how we organize our perceptions. Words are designed to represent what we see. Efforts of others to control and homogenize our words, and therefore our thoughts, impedes the tools we have developed to perceive, understand, organize and reason about the events before us in our own way. It also creates fear that we will use the "wrong" words and that by extension our words betray preconceived notions, feelings and ideas that, in fact, we do not. Bear in mind that we are not talking about hateful words or speech, which are typically defined as expressing intense dislike or encouraging violence toward some group or individual based on race, religion, sex, and/or sexual orientation. We are definitely not talking about hateful words that are designed to generate psychological or physical violence. However, what we need to recognize is that people can take offence for ideas and discussions that are not hateful but with which they simply disagree. For example, as a woman I might be "offended" by the objectification of women in media but this does not mean that the media is engaging in anything wrong. I just don't like it. But just because I disagree and hold different values in how women should be portrayed does not mean that what the media is doing should be curtailed. In a free society, we have to be prepared to meet up with people who hold different thoughts, ways of expressing themselves, and yes even values.

The third reason I am highlighting Counterweight is because we need to become sensitized to how people subtly attempt to manipulate our thinking by shaming our use of words. As professors we need to stand up to administrators who are trying to undermine the core functions of the university. Also, we need to assure that students are aware that their perspectives and the diversity of thought is as important as diversity of anything else at the university. Luckily for us, the courts in Alberta have come down in favour of openness of thought. Consider the case UAlberta Pro-Life v. Governors of the University of Alberta. The court of appeal of Alberta held that "the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to how universities regulate their students’ expression on campus."

As I go back to another wonderful academic year, I will make sure that students know that their freedom of expression is encouraged and protected.

Some of the words that student’s shouldn’t be using at Brandeis University. NY Post graphic