The executive team of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) has penned an open letter demanding the university revoke a professor's emeritus status and calls for "an immediate, transparent, and student-centred overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom, enshrining the University’s commitment to inclusivity in teaching and research in policy."
The letter, co-signed by organizations including Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights and the The Anthropology Students Association, begins by asserting that "McGill University was built on a history of oppression, its existence made possible by profiting off of the labour of enslaved and marginalized peoples," and further claims that "[scholars] have abused their right of free speech and academic freedom to defend acts of rhetorical violence." The letter then criticized free speech as a concept of "whiteness" by citing critical race theorist David Gillborn.
Proponents of critical race theory believe the world to be nothing more than a series of competing groups vying for power over one another. While traditional definitions of violence exclude pure rhetoric and only encompass acts of physical harm, critical race theorists do not see any meaningful distinction between words and violence as both are used for the sole purpose of attaining power over other groups.
This explanation is also the reason why many adherents to critical race theory engage in acts of physical violence themselves, as physical violence is seen as a proportional reaction to "rhetorical violence." When violent anarchists such as Antifa employ their intimidation tactics against public speakers, the reason is because they see speech and violence to both be demonstrations of power with no moral distinction aside from the specific group interests they are advancing.
The article pointed to a recent case at the University of Ottawa, where a professor used a racial slur, specifically the N-word, during his lecture. The professor received an open letter of support signed by 34 academics who argued that "certain lectures, certain concepts, certain words will hurt some susceptibilities" but that this is important in a learning environment.
The SSMU's letter disparaged the support which the professor received, demanding that only certain types of people, with the approval of certain interest groups, should be allowed to use racial slurs in their teachings. Racial slurs, they suggest, "should only be allowed after robust equity training, serious consideration, and the input of students from the directly affected group."
"McGill University consistently prioritizes the protection of an extreme version of academic freedom over the safety and wellbeing of its students," the letter states, a position which would likely be lauded by proponents of free speech and academic freedom.
The student union suggested that "the solution is not and cannot be active listening and dialogue." They further argued that "[while] inclusiveness and academic freedom are both invaluable principles, they cannot always coexist."
The SSMU brings attention to a professor emeritus from McGill University, Dr. Philip Carl Salzman. They argued that McGill continuing to afford him emeritus status "illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues" by prioritizing "academic freedom, rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe."
The student union criticized Salzman for a variety of articles he published in the Middle East Forum and Minding The Campus, arguing for his dismissal for things ranging from government immigration policy to criticism of the vague term "social justice." Listing his alleged transgressions, the SSMU said that Salzman "[condemns] multiculturalism, immigration, gender parity, cultural equality, social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism."
They further assert that Salzman's "affiliation with McGill lends him credibility that would not otherwise be afforded if not for his status as a Professor Emeritus of a respected institution." They did not, however, offer any refutation to the ideas he promoted in the articles. Nevertheless, the final paragraph of the letter begins by stating "we, the undersigned, demand the removal of Professor Philip Carl Salzman’s Emeritus status."
The students also demanded restrictions on free speech on the principles of social justice, stating "we, furthermore, demand an immediate, transparent, and student-centred overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom, enshrining the University’s commitment to inclusivity in teaching and research in policy."
Responding to the petition, Dr. Salzman defended his views as "classically liberal." Noting the lack of substance in the petition's criticism of his views, Salzman said "I would welcome critiques of my articles through argument and evidence, and am prepared to defend my positions. But no attempt has been made by these students to challenge my articles with contrary arguments and contradictory evidence. Their view appears to be that diversity of opinion about important subjects is unacceptable."
"These students appear to believe that they are at McGill not to learn anthropology, but to teach anthropology," the professor continued. "Perhaps this is because anthropology, once a discipline fact- and evidence-based, has been overtaken by ideological moralism, and rather than seeking truth is now in the business of seeking and punishing ideological heretics. I rather doubt that the Holy Inquisition and Mao’s Cultural Revolution are fruitful models for an academic discipline."
The SSMU, meanwhile, has a long history of bigotry itself. Just three years ago, a Jewish student on the SSMU, Noah Lew, was subjected to coordinated action whereby he was voted out of office for his involvement with Jewish organizations. Lew was one of three Jewish members of the SSMU targeted by activists for alleged "layers of corruption" in their involvement in the student union. No non-Jewish students were targeted by the group.
"In that campaign, I was personally mentioned and my affiliation with Jewish organization was personally mentioned," Lew said of the incident. "I was therefore targeted for removal from office."
In 2019, three student leaders at McGill University were invited on a free trip to Israel. The SSMU censured the only Jewish student of the three, Jordan Wright, on the basis of "conflict of interest." The other two students who were invited, neither of whom were Jewish, were not censured.
"There have been a number of instances in the last few years where students have been targeted for their ethnic identity or religious affiliation," Wright told the Montreal Gazette. "Many of these instances have been focused on Jewish students."
Salzman alleges that his support for Israel was a factor in his targeting. "Certainly my support for Israel is part of the reason that I was targeted," he alleged. "But anti-Israelism and antisemitism is widespread among McGill students and professors generally."
"The McGill Daily is I believe an organ of the SSMU, and for years it has refused to publish any pro-Israel article, while publishing rafts of anti-Israel argument," Salzman continued. "Antisemitism just naturally follows, as documented empirically by various Jewish groups."
Whatever the motive of the SSMU is, Salzman has become another target of the toxic cancel culture which has pervaded university campuses across the English-speaking world. "Add Me to the List of Cancelled Professors," Salzman defiantly stated.
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