McMaster University administrators in Canada have effectively banned a book they find immoral, and many students support the school’s oppressive decision.
“When we discovered this book and saw its contents,” admitted David Wilkinson, McMaster’s academic provost and vice president, “we took immediate and swift action to indicate a book with this kind of content in it is unacceptable.”
The book — which contains approximately 25 cheers that touch controversial topics such as rape and murder — is part of a long cultural tradition of rhymes with bawdy content. People enjoy singing about taboo subjects, mostly because they know the subjects are taboo. In other words, their participation in reading the book generally involves agreeing with the taboo themes, and disagreeing with a direct interpretation of the text. To read or sing such a book with others is a cultural bonding experience, encompassing their societal values.
But the university does not understand this. Instead, it has suspended students who have read the book, most of which are members of a group called the Redsuits. McMaster has also reprimanded the McMaster Engineering Society, the much larger body of which the Redsuits are a part.
The decision to suspend the group is not only inconsistent with free speech principles, but it shows that the university — as well as the students who support the book ban — is intolerant, exclusive, insensitive, ethnocentric, anti-intellectual, oppressive, moralistic, and power hungry.
They are intolerant and oppressive by condemning what they don’t approve of. They tolerate neither the book, nor the people who read it, and cheer their punishment.
They are exclusive because they preclude anyone who is part of a group that reads the book from fully participating in student life. They are morally exclusive of those who engage in expression they find immoral, singing words they denounce, for example.
They are insensitive, ethnocentric, and anti-intellectual by failing to show any understanding that some people have cultural norms other than their own; many cultures have long held traditions of using bawdy language. Again, such language is often meant to be ironic, in order to support more “wholesome” values. But even when it is sincere, such language is fully protected by free speech principles. It is not, in and of itself, harassing or discriminatory, even if some find it off-putting.
They are moralistic because they decide what is right or wrong. Even though a great university should be a marketplace of ideas where all expression deserves objective consideration, they prefer an environment that decides ahead of time, for everyone, regardless of any moral theory to the contrary, what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
They are power hungry because they abuse their institute-given authority to stamp out ideas they disapprove of, rather than encouraging the peaceful power of persuasion.
A lot has changed at McMaster since just one year ago, when the school was pretending to be a champion of free expression. In 2013, defending a professor’s personal opinion, the university claimed that it supported not only academic freedom, but also individual free speech. The school’s Statement on Academic Freedom reads:
McMaster University affirms the right of the academic community to engage in full and unrestricted consideration of any opinion. Beyond this commitment to teach and learn unhindered by non-academic constraints, the University strongly supports the exercise of free speech as a critical social good. . . . Because of our respect for individual freedom of speech . . .
Add hypocrisy to the list of charges against McMaster in 2014.
For these reasons, McMaster University, and the students who support the university’s choice to oppress others, have brought shame to the idea of a free university.