The Age of Offence

The politics of outrage, and the crisis of free speech on campus
Ira Wells

Among those invested in the notion that higher education is currently collapsing before our eyes, fewer pieces of evidence are proffered more frequently (or more uncritically) than the modern university’s supposed tendency to nurture and promote 'offence taking' as a default attitude toward the world. Our universities, we are told, have discarded their traditional raison in order to become incubators of moral outrage. Administrators, having abandoned time-honoured liberal arts ideals, today quiver to the cheap thrill of indignation; professors, having given up on Shakespeare and the 'great books', now indoctrinate students in radical Marxist ideology and seek to cultivate a generation of 'social justice warriors'. Our campuses have become closed, ideologically insular places that are hostile to the freedom of speech and intolerant of dissent.

This opinion—broadcast by bilious media personalities who have never listened in on a faculty meeting, have no knowledge of universities’ academic priorities and have not set foot in an undergraduate lecture since Trudeau père occupied 24 Sussex—is, unsurprisingly, a grotesque parody of the complex, often internally conflicted reality of modern institutions of higher learning.

Yet this view, however exaggerated, is not entirely baseless. An increasingly sensitive and fine-grained vocabulary for registering and opposing forms of sexism, racism, ableism and religious intolerance has undeniably been developing within higher education. Recent events in Canadian universities suggest not only that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to offend, but that those who position themselves as 'offence takers' currently hold the balance of power at all levels of campus politics.

Just ask Andrew Potter, who has resigned from his role as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada over a column he wrote for Maclean’s criticizing the 'social malaise' that he argued currently festers in Quebec. The essay—which observed that Quebec has the largest underground economy in Canada, the lowest levels of measurable trust of any province, and residents with the smallest networks of family and friends—elicited the outrage and condemnation of officials including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who said Potter’s views were 'based on prejudices'. Less than 72 hours after the publication of the essay, the McGill Institute board of trustees thanked Potter for his 'various achievements' and confirmed that it had accepted his resignation.

It was the second fracas in a week to bubble up in the mainstream media involving a university and questions of free speech. Earlier in March, Danielle Robitaille, part of Jian Ghomeshi’s legal defence team, had abruptly cancelled a speaking engagement at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus. Robitaille had been invited by the Criminology Student Association to discuss the role of women in the legal profession. According to a group of student protesters, however, Robitaille’s speech posed psychologically harmful effects to victims of gender-based violence. 'We knew and witnessed impacts regarding sexual violence and individuals feeling triggered', said Sarah Scanlon, of Laurier’s Diversity and Equity Office. Robitaille withdrew from the event, citing concerns for her personal safety. This was the second time in recent memory that Laurier found itself in a very public debate over free speech on campus: last December, the administration famously defended the firing of a café operator who had posted a sardonic job ad calling for 'a new slave (full-time staff member) to boss (mentor) around Veritas Café'. The school explained that Laurier’s commitment to 'being an inclusive, welcoming and respectful community' justified the firing.

And the Laurier incidents recall for some a case at the University of Ottawa in 2015, where a free yoga class was cancelled by the Centre for Students with Disabilities due to concerns over 'cultural appropriation'. An official with the centre explained that, as yoga comes from cultures that 'have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga'.

These incidents differ in some important ways, and the conflict of perspectives evident would not surprise anyone familiar with universities. Intersecting fault lines of argument indicate the diversity of opinion that can flourish on campus, and any argument that posits 'the university' as a singular, monolithic entity betrays a basic ignorance of how these institutions operate.

Still, the cases offer a revealing index of current power dynamics in various contexts within higher education. Many students, administrators and student services organizations currently find it morally compelling or politically expedient to take the side of offence takers—particularly (though not exclusively) when those taking offence are members of racial, sexual or religious minorities. Taking offence, or aligning oneself with those who have, has emerged as a kind of credential, a way of claiming one’s place within a righteous inner circle. The firings and cancelled speaking invitations join news stories about suspensions, the barring of white students from 'safe spaces' and campus events, the refusal of mainstream stand-up comics such as Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock to perform on campuses—where, according to Rock, 'you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive'.

Although media coverage does its work of simplification and amplification, the fact remains that, in certain quarters within the academy, the threshold for causing (and taking) offence has never been lower. A bad joke can bring down a student government. The wrong word can get you fired. Practising yoga could make you complicit in histories of imperial rape. Simply showing one’s face in certain places could induce a micro trauma in students from vulnerable communities.

Of course, at the precise moment when some academics were finessing a new vocabulary of microaggression—calibrating their social microscopes to make increasingly fine-grained distinctions between subtle forms of offence—Donald Trump was presiding over the indiscriminate demolition of the norms of civic discourse and an unprecedented coarsening of the public sphere. In mirror opposition to what was happening on campus, Trump has perfected what we might call a politics of macroaggression.

Before the U.S. election, expert opinion assured us that Trump’s categorical smearing of entire nationalities and religions was bound to backfire. It was a simple matter of demography: the candidate’s spasms of vulgarity may have titillated his base, but they also irretrievably alienated vast swaths of the electorate, including women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Evangelical Christians and Reagan Democrats.

Well, we know how all that worked out. The basic dynamic has continued into his presidency: Trump continues to cast the 'fake news media', West Coast judges and political opponents as elites, while railing against the bad 'hombres' and 'dudes' that he intends to deport or incarcerate. When Trump goes low, his approval ratings go high.

As it turned out, the diverse coalition of Trump skeptics—the unlikely confederacy of GOP insiders, neoconservatives, public relations professionals and leftists who were so certain of Trump’s defeat—had all stumbled into committing some version of what literary critics once called the affective fallacy. They presumed that voters, confronted with Trump’s boundless vulgarity, would feel what they felt, hear what they heard: a churlish demagogue spewing loathsome nonsense. Instead, what many voters heard—and apparently continue to hear—is an authentic appeal for liberty from a corrupt authority. The more Trump goaded his opponents into denouncing his latest outrage, the more evidence he appeared to garner of an institutionalized elite creeping ever further into the sovereign terrain of the private self. The actual execution was closer to performance art than a coherent political strategy, and its stunning effectiveness derived from the perfect continuity of media and message. It was Marshall McLuhan as rewritten by Huckleberry Finn: vulgarity is freedom.

Read the full essay in the Canadian Literary Review.