Historical Context and the Principles at Issue
Three recent controversies have raised questions about the value and limits to free speech and academic freedom. The first involved the paintings of Canadian artist Amanda PL. She claims that her paintings were inspired by the work of the Anishnabe artist Norval Morisseau. She has been criticized by the Chippewa artist Jay Soule as coming close to committing an act of “cultural genocide.” The second concerns an editorial penned by now-former editor Hal Niedzviecki in Write magazine. He called for a “cultural appropriation prize” for the author best able to write characters not of their own culture. The third concerns a paper published in the journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia. The paper argued that there was an analogy to be drawn between trasnsexualism and transracialism: if people celebrate Caitlyn Jenner for changing sexes, then they should, by analogous reasoning, celebrate Rachel Dolezal, (a white woman who lived for years as a black woman), for wanting to change races. The article provoked an unprecedented public campaign that demanded the journal retract the article.
I will work through each of the criticisms in turn. However, before any useful light can be shed on the controversies, the historical context of the emergence of the principles of free speech and academic freedom need to examined. One of the most lamentable facts about public discourse in the age of Twitter is that even thoughtful people do not– indeed, cannot, because immediate comment is demanded– stop to think through the historical process through which contemporary political values have emerged. When we do stop and think things through historically, the political implications and limitations of the value in question become clear, and we are then better able to negotiate controversies and work out appropriate forms of response to controversial instances of their use.
On February 17th, 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome. His execution was ordered by the Pope because Bruno’s teachings: that matter itself could be understood as the active, self-forming principle of reality and that an all-powerful god would create a universe teeming with other forms of life were deemed heretical. One hundred and fifty years later the Enlightenment would confront the violent dogmatism of theological authority with the rational principle that disagreements be settled by the better argument. My point is not to compare critics of potentially offensive speech to the Inquisition, but to remind everyone that the right to free speech was (and should still be) a social value. It defended the right of individuals to question orthodoxy and repressive power. As such, it was a powerful tool in the struggle against all forms of oppression. It is not–as it is sometimes thought of today– a right to say whatever one wants and give offense just because one can. Rather, it was a right, in its origins, to explore alternatives and criticize; to expand the scope of human understanding; to protect the voices of the less powerful; to create a social space for the formerly voiceless to speak; and to catalyze non-violent forms of social and political change.
Academic freedom is a species of the genus free speech. It has no constitutional grounds but is protected only by convention and faculty collective agreements. In Canada its origins date to the firing of Harry Crowe. In 1958 the history professor was fired for criticizing the religious authorities who ran United College (today the University of Winnipeg). His firing spurred the formation of the Canadian Association of University Professors, whose core mission includes protection of academic freedom from threats inside of and outside of the academy. The only reason any critical voices are heard in universities anywhere today is because of the space academic freedom protects. Marxists, feminists, trans-activists, and critical race theorists would all be gone if academic freedom did not protect their right to criticize established structures of power, gender and racial norms, and anything else that can be made the object of critical scrutiny. Struggles around free speech, free expression, and academic freedom have often been led by the most marginalized and oppressed groups. Their struggles to give public expression to their realities and needs has radically transformed the cultural landscape of liberal-democratic-capitalist society for the better.
That free speech has been an important vehicle for the struggles of oppressed groups does not mean that it should never be limited. What principles should govern its limitation? If the basic social value of the right to free speech is that it allows for the expression of perspectives that would be silenced otherwise, then the basic limitation on free speech, expression, and academic freedom is the opposite: when one group’s free speech actively silences another group or explicitly targets them for destruction (as in anti-Semitic hate or racist hate speech that calls for the extermination of the demonized group) then the speech is no longer properly understood as falling under the category of free speech, but becomes an expression of oppressive ideology. Merely giving offense does not pass this test. To be offended is not to be silenced (if it were, no one would know that someone is offended, because the offended party would be unable to express their displeasure).
Cases in Point
I think that of the three cases, only the case of Amanda PL comes close to crossing the line towards forms of expression that are justly censured. However, even in this case I think the gallery was wrong to cancel the show. The case of Niedviecki is a case of misinterpreted satire that was then exploited by right-wing forces who have nothing to do with Niedviecki. The Hypatia case is a debacle of the highest order and a serious threat to academic freedom.
1. The artist at the centre of the controversy, Amanda PL, studied at Lakehead University and claims inspiration from Anishnabe artist Norval Morriseau. From what I have seen of her paintings, they would be better described as vastly inferior mimicry rather than works of art. The colours, the motifs, the enclosing of structures within coloured spheres all linked together with curving tendrils are obviously reminiscent of Morriseau and other Anishnabe artists. But as Soule points out, in PL’s case, it is all surface and no cultural-spiritual depth. Morriseau, according to Soule, was giving painterly expression to stories that PL did not know and whose spiritual depth she could not understand.
Soule is right to criticize her for cultural appropriation. Even though she acknowledges the source, the source is so obviously grounded in a cultural tradition that informed the work, and which has not become internationalized (in the way, say, that the blues or jazz have) that her mimicry is illegitimate. Cultural appropriation is different from being influenced and inspired by a foreign culture. Beckett wrote in French to make language seem strange, to force himself to think about the task of writing, but he lived in France and learned the language. Amanda PL has not served any sort of cultural apprenticeship amongst the Anishnabe, has not tried to get inside the culture to learn the stories or the connection between style and story. She has tried to advance her art career with derivative paintings that nevertheless look enough like admired Anishnabe work that it might sell.
That said, I cannot agree with Soule that the work counts as cultural genocide. The United Nations defines genocide as:
Genocide is defined in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about itsphysical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
2. The Niedzviecki controversy overlaps with the Amanda PL problem because it to concerns the matter of who speaks for First Nations, Inuit, and Metis. From my perspective it seems much less serious a violation of their voices than the Amanda PL case. Niedzviecki was clearly being satirical when he called for the creation of a cultural appropriation prize. The main thrust of his editorial was not about cultural appropriation but the importance of imagination to literature. Literature is not just recounting stories, it is the invention of literary worlds. Invention forces authors to go beyond their own private experiences to create worlds that do not exist in material reality. Dostoyevsky did not have to murder a miserly slumlord in order to explore the psychology of guilt and the ethics of redemption in Crime and Punishment. If we limit art to mere description and representation, we destroy art, whose truth is the invention of worlds and not the accurate description and proportional representation of real members of this one.
Part of that invention has to be the imaginative occupation of perspectives different from one’s own. If not, every work of literature would be nothing but monologue (but maybe even not that, since we are not transparent to ourselves but have different sides). All writing therefore takes us beyond what the self has directly experienced. That was the main philosophical and artistic point he was making, but it got lost completely in the critique of an obviously satirical call for cultural appropriation and the cultural appropriation prize.
In humourous utterance, intent matters. Niedzviecki intended to provoke, no doubt, but to provoke thought about the role of imaginative transposition, not to support cultural appropriation. Now, I say this as white male philosopher not aware, from the inside, of what it feels like to suffer deprivation of voice. I am sure my history influences my reading. At the same time, I am not saying that Niedzwiecki is beyond criticism, but only that reasoned criticism takes time: our world demands instant response, and instant responses are rarely wise. A more productive conversation and critique might have been had had a moment’s reflection on context and intentions preceded the calls for retraction and resignation. These do little to solve the deeper problems of First Nation’s and Inuit and Metis lives, but they do engage/enrage the right wing (like former national Post publisher Ken Whyte) who did intend to harm and humiliate by offering to fund the prize.
Niedzwiecki’s comments might have hurt the feelings of members of vulnerable cultures, but they were included in an edition of Write! given over to First Nation’s writers. Clearly, in terms of actions, Niedzviecki was their ally, not their enemy. All satire, all humour, runs the risk of giving offence to someone. Do we really want a world without satire? A world where everyone has to triple guess themselves before they speak lest some ears take offence? I’ll book my ticket for Mars — I’ll take a room in the Don Rickles suite, please– if jokes, satire, hyperbole, farce, and laughter are forbidden on earth.
Again, the principle is: fight back with the weapons that attack you (although in this case I do not see an attack). If someone makes fun of you, make fun in turn. It is better to laugh at each other than to destroy each other.
3. The cases of Amanda PL and Niedzwiecki at least raise important questions about cultural appropriation. Hopefully these questions will generate on-going dialogue that explores the crucial issue: how can members of dominant groups speak responsibly when exploring problems stemming from histories of cultural oppression, and how can members of historically oppressed groups criticize that history as forcefully as they need to, without in effect silencing satirical voices. The Hypatia affair has no such virtues.
The signatories to the letter demanding the retraction of the Tuvel piece are in open violation of the norms of academic freedom, and really over a paper that is eminently reasonable, whether or not one agrees with her conclusion. The paper proceeds from the principle that thought must:
hold open a space for real intellectual curiosity, for investigations that deepen our understanding of how identity claims and processes function, rather than rushing to offer well-formed opinions based on what we already think we know” (Stryker 2015, quoted in Tuvel, p. 264)
The paper unfolds according to this logic of respectful inquiry and is sensitive to the ethical and political complexities involved. Others may disagree: they should do so and respond, but there is nothing in the paper that would warrant its retraction.
If we conspire to undermine academic freedom in the way proposed by the signatories of the letter we will all suffer. I subscribe to the American Association of University Professors’ electronic bulletin. Almost everyday it relates a horror story of a professor fired for running afoul of administrations or governments. Turkey is in the midst of a purge which has seen thousands of academics lose their jobs. The Turkish government’s position is clear: academics serve at the pleasure of the President. Anyone who criticizes his line forfeits their job.
We cannot mince words here: the principle that underlies the demand to retract the Tuvel piece is identical: conform your thought to a reigning orthodoxy (or some self-elected group’s definition of orthodoxy) or be placed on the Index. That Hypatia is a path-breaking journal of feminist philosophy makes the demand all the more disgraceful. Hypatia would not exist unless feminist scholars had successfully contested academic orthodoxy. Academic freedom was a vital principle in that struggle.
Philosophers, as philosophers, simply cannot call for any other to be silenced. Ever. Philosophy responds to untruth with better argument, always, everywhere, in all cases, or it is not philosophy. Not every political problem can be resolved by argument, but when we are active as philosophers, whatever our identity, we argue, we do not silence. If people’s sensibilities and anxieties make it impossible for them to hear certain arguments, then philosophy is not for them. “The study of philosophy is much hindered,” Hegel wrote, “by the conceit that will not argue,” a conceit which “relies on truths which are taken for granted and which it sees no need to re-examine.” The truth in philosophy is always contested: argument is the means of contestation: no limits, no hurt feelings allowed. Philosophers listen, think, criticize, accept criticism, re-think, revise, and re-argue, forever if need be.
The actual criticisms articulated in the letter may very well be sound. They should be developed into a rebuttal and published, perhaps with a response from Tuvel. Maybe a special issue of Hypatia could be devoted to the controversy. But the demand to retract smacks of the worst sort of moralistic Maoism. Shall we have re-education camps next (or maybe just mandatory training)? Thinkers who want to be taken seriously as philosophers have to speak out against this reactionary and repressive politics in the most forceful terms.