Define Your Terms, by Beth Herst

Today’s post is about the encampment at The University of Toronto. It is by my spouse Beth Herst, who is also my co-author in studies of narrative and politics, in particular the book we are writing on films and series about politics in the US, England, and Canada. This post represents her views, though it should be clear from my own posts that I am in agreement with her.

Define Your Terms, by Beth Herst

I am a graduate of the University of Toronto. I am proud to be. It was, and continues to be, an excellent research and teaching institution. It is home to outstanding and dedicated scholars and instructors. Two facts that are all but lost in the current noise.

 I am grateful to U of T for the grounding it gave me in my chosen field. I am even more grateful for the intellectual principles it instilled in me. It taught me that if academic freedom is the foundation of a university, that freedom brings responsibilities with it. Scholarly integrity. Analytic rigour. Careful vetting of sources. Vigilance against the insidiousness of bias. Refusal to sacrifice facts in the service of ideology. It also taught me the single most important rule of scholarly argument: define your terms.

The public communications of the U of T administration have repeatedly cited commitment to the principle of academic freedom (and, to a lesser extent, freedom of opinion) as guiding its negotiations with the protest encampment that has annexed much of its front campus. An annexation that is in direct and deliberate violation of the university’s regulations concerning the use of this common space.

A Dissent-Free Zone

In the name of academic freedom, the administration has allowed the encampment to create a dissent-free zone in which only those subscribing to the protesters’ preferred ideological tenets are welcome. “Outsiders” who seek to engage in dialogue with encampers are discouraged from doing so. These “outsiders” include, but are not limited to, students and faculty who are not willing to pledge themselves to the movement. They may hold opposing views, or they may simply be seeking to understand what precisely the protesters are advocating and the facts upon which they are basing their demands and claims.

Anecdotal accounts, and media reporting, suggest that the encampers’ refusal to engage has at times been accompanied by verbal attacks and deliberate physical intimidation, as mentioned in Professor Ramy Elitzur’s recent op-ed in The National Post.

One Person’s Freedom …

“Academic freedom” clearly means very different things to the different constituencies affected by the U of T protest encampment. To the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), the professional association representing tenured and non-tenured teaching staff, it means the right to blanket immunity for the members of the association who have encouraged, enabled, and participated in the encampment in defiance of the university’s regulations, providing intellectual cover for its categorical positions, its eliminationist slogans, and its stigmatizing denunciations.

To the encampers, academic freedom appears to mean a license to vilify anyone who does not share their world view or accept the ideological articles of faith that shape it, as well as freedom from the need to educate themselves regarding issues far too serious to be reduced to catchy slogans and Instagram posts.

To the university administration, commitment to academic freedom has taken the form of affording an extraordinary platform, and tacit legitimation, for the political ideology of one segment of the university community (and the non-university affiliated protesters who have joined them), at the expense of everyone else. A platform it is has not noticeably provided to other protest groups.

For those Jewish students and teaching staff that oppose the encampment’s positions, academic freedom should mean freedom from vilification, moral denunciation, peer ostracism, isolation, propagandizing, and threat. It should also mean freedom from being told they must, in the name of academic freedom, accept a constant barrage of hateful, exclusionary rhetoric, when no other minority group within the university community would be, or has been, asked to do so.

For the many others at the University of Toronto who simply want to reclaim the campus for its stated purposes, academic freedom means an academic environment in which they can learn, teach, research, work, and socialize free from the daily political and media circus and all the toxicity it has created, free from the need to choose sides and prove their ideological bona fides.

Wasting an Opportunity, Laying Waste to a Principle

If, as the encampment began to form, the university had stipulated that it would create a “space of debate” for the various campus groups engaged by the current tragic conflict in Gaza, it could have honored the most important principle of academic freedom: unfettered inquiry.

It could have encouraged appropriately qualified faculty to educate all parties on the complexities of the geopolitical history of the region, the factors and actors at play regionally and globally in the current conflict, the principles of international law and the laws of warfare being invoked by all sides and the thorny expert debates around their meaning and application.

It could have modeled and encouraged rigorous and difficult questioning of biases and uncomfortable discussions of moral dilemmas that have no easy or clear resolutions. It could have facilitated respectful interaction between groups with equally deeply felt yet opposing emotional and political allegiances, between dissenting schools of thought, and between competing interpretive frameworks and historical narratives.

It could have done this without in any way minimizing the enormity of the human tragedy unfolding, yet again, in the region.

The university did none of this, wasting the opportunity to lead, and to teach, by example.

The Occupy for Palestine encampment at U of T has taken the university’s common space hostage. Its participants appear to believe that the self-evident – to them — moral rightness of their position licenses their vilification and exclusion of those who dissent. That their zealotry justifies the imposition of their views on an entire community of which they are only one, admittedly very loud and disruptive, part.

These students and their faculty abettors and enablers justify their occupation in the name of academic freedom. By doing so, they, and the university administration that continues to appease them, lay waste to the principle both claim to be defending.

The University of Toronto is better than this.

One response to “Define Your Terms, by Beth Herst”

  1. Tom Lobel Avatar
    Tom Lobel

    Unfortunately U of T is not better than this.

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