In 1990, the year my book The Trouble With Canada was published and, to my surprise, became a best seller, I was invited by the Queen’s University Grad Students’ Law Society to participate in a public debate with Professor Sheila MacIntyre, then a prominent radical feminist law professor.
Whether or not Professor MacIntyre is “teaching” at Queen’s is an open question; because you cannot say someone is really teaching if she advances only her own preferences and biases in the readings and lectures she provides to her students.
When I was teaching at York University in the 1970s, some of the courses I taught included segments on ideological topics such as Marxism, Existentialism, Psychology, and so on. I always tried to present all sides of each question. But some of the students would protest, and on whatever the issue of the day may have been, would ask plaintively: “But Sir … What do you think?”
I always answered: “I am not telling you until after the course has ended. It’s my job to explain all sides as best I can. It is your job to think deeply about these things and then make up your own mind as to the best answer(s) to these questions.” This response always upset them a little. But by the end of the course, they could see why it was the best for their own intellectual development.
Now, back to my visit to Queen’s University, and my public debate with Sheila. I was quite unaware that a “reputation” had preceded my visit, and the campus was in an uproar. The student’s law group and I had a little meal. Then we walked across campus to the venue. It was crazy. The auditorium had a capacity of about 400 students, but was overflowing. Students were already sitting on the stairs between rows, and speakers had been added outside for an overflow crowd of another 300 or so.
On our approach we could hear a lot of shouting and saw student radicals marching around with posters. They formed a kind of gamut lining both sides of the sidewalk as we approached the entrance. I was a little shocked to see that they were waving large posters and handing out leaflets that had been produced, of all things, by “The Socialist International”, and what in the world were they protesting? Why, they were protesting and picketing … ME!
My goodness, this was a first, for they seemed very angry, and ready to brawl. The Posters were shouting: “PROTEST SPEECH BY WILLIAM GAIRDNER, Author of Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, and Anti-French Books!”, and so on. But, as I walked calmly along to the door, it was clear no one knew who I was, and so we proceeded to enter the hall as if we were just regular members of the audience. But I made sure to take one of those posters, for which I thanked a bespectacled and emotionally earnest young radical profusely as he handed it to me. It hangs on my study wall today, and still brings a big grin whenever I glance at it.
To make a long story short, Sheila spoke first, and defended her extremely ideological idea of what teaching the law ought to be (basically, legal brainwashing), deeply lamented the “oppression” of the underprivileged in quasi-marxist lingo, etc. and then … I got my chance to speak and rebut.
Two things were of note, I think. The first was that I began by berating her for berating everyone else, and for her hypocrisy, because it was she who was probably far more privileged than anyone else in that auditorium. After, all, I said, “You are being paid one of the highest faculty salaries in the university; you have tenure, and cannot be fired (even for failing to present your students will all sides of a question); and, when you retire, you are going to enjoy a pension most of the oppressed people you speak of could never dream of having. So for whom, in fact, are you speaking?” Needless to say, this triggered a massive silence in the auditorium. But the debate proceeded.
By the end, I decided to detonate the second bomb. I raised the notion of the “political correctness” that was then very recent, and had only been seen before in places like Maoist China and the Soviet Union, but which was already invading Canadian campuses. I stated that this was creating an intellectual and moral “chill” on our campuses that was silencing honest and frank intellectual debate and turning our universities into ideological fortresses. In the past, I said, “It was the university that brought free thinking to the world. But now it is the world that must bring freethinking to the university!”
Sheila shook her head a lot, implying this was the remark of an extremist.
Thus, she fell into my hands. There were about a dozen professors in the auditorium who had come to witness what they thought would be a victorious massacre by their feminist heroine. And I really didn’t want to embarrass them in public. But Sheila was so gratingly self-congratulatory and smug in her convictions, I had to drop the bomb.
I turned and spoke to all the students, instead of to her, and I asked them to raise their hands in answer the following question, to be as honest as they could, and not to be afraid of reprisal from their professors. “How many of you”, I asked, “have ever been afraid to speak your mind openly and honestly in a class at Queen’s University?”
About 40% of the students raised their hands. Just a few at first, while looking around to see who else would dare, then a veritable forest of hands went up. The professors in the room had the decency to blush and squirm a little.
Sheila fell silent. My last word in this debate, was … “Shame!
(This essay was first posted on Bill’s Blog at www.williamgairdner.ca)