– Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
It’s a small case, really, at a college you may not even have heard of, and involving not a mass movement of PC screwballs but, really, just one benighted individual. And yet it seems to say so much.
The place: Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. In an effort to prove “that campus free speech was alive and well,” members of a group called Carleton Students for Liberty put up a “Free Speech Wall” – basically a wooden plank covered with paper – in a heavily trafficked location and invited students to pick up one of the felt markers available at the site and scribble an opinion. “What we wanted to promote was competition of ideas, rather than ‘if I disagree with you I’ve got to censor you,’” Ian CoKehyeng, founder of the student group, told the National Post.
It didn’t last long. Within hours, the wall had been torn down by a student, Arun Smith, who called it “another in a series of acts of violence” against gay rights and insisted that “not every opinion is valid.” It was not immediately clear what Smith was objecting to, exactly. He called himself an anti-homophobic activist, but the only explicit references to homosexuality on the wall were positive ones – though there was one thumbs-up for “traditional marriage.” Smith, a seventh-year undergraduate with a major in human rights and a minor in sexuality, explained on his action on Twitter by saying that free speech is an “illusory concept” and that “not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression.” He also posted on Facebook a staggeringly self-important and self-dramatizing open letter. Headlined “President Runte, I Tore Down that Wall” (Roseann Runte is president of Carleton), and addressed to “the Carleton community,” it began as follows:
This evening, acting alone, and in an act of forceful resistance, I removed the Carleton Students for Liberty’s “free speech wall” from the Unicentre Galleria. I take full and sole responsibility for this action, I understand that there will likely be consequences, and I am prepared for the imposition of those consequences, however unjust they might be.
Smith went on to characterize his action as a “response to injustice” and a rejection of “buzzwords like ‘free speech’.” Instead of the “free speech wall,” which he considered an “act…of violence,” Smith called for “safe(r) spaces,” and explained that “there can be no safe(r) spaces where there is potential for…the expression of hatred.” Describing “the area around where the ‘wall’ stood” as “a war zone,” he said that “we are at war, in a war for our own survival, where to exist, we resist, and to resist, we exist.” Much of his open letter was pseudo-poetic and enigmatic, as was his closing flourish:
The time for platitudes is at its dusk, and the time for solidarity with our words and our actions is at its dawn. It is with this sentiment in mind that I take responsibility.
Obviously this is a guy who has mixed up the campus of Carleton College with pre-revolutionary Cuba and himself with Che Guevara. Or something like that. Yet Smith (or, as he styles himself on Facebook, Arün Séamus Surinder Smith) is no lone nut. “DIRECT ACTION GETS THE GOODS!” wrote an admiring friend on his Facebook page. “Great day to do it also good sir. Kudos and respect,” wrote another. A third: “Solidarity, my friend.” A fourth: “Woohoo!!! Students for Liberty sounds like some heinous shit, way to go!!! Solidarity and love and hugs forever!!!” A fifth: “H-core. Well played my friend.” A sixth: “this is pretty epic! I’m gonna share this! lots of respect.”
I dwell on this silly young man’s actions because they’re such a spectacular example of what happens when you marinate too long in what passes, on North American campuses these days, for higher education in the humanities and social sciences. Consider this: Smith is gay. In his lifetime, same-sex marriage has become the law in Canada. Changes that would have been unimaginable to gays a half-century ago have taken place, and none of them would have occurred except for the open exchange of ideas. You would think that Smith, who at the end of his open letter identifies himself as, among other things, the coordinator of the “Challenge Homophobia and Transphobia Campaign,” would understand the vital role of free speech in these achievements and would, accordingly, cherish and defend this freedom for everyone, including his ideological opponents.
But no. Smith has been brainwashed into the academic victimhood mentality; he’s learned from postmodern guiding lights like Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon that speech can be violence and violence can be speech, and that to be a proper student is to be a revolutionary; and he knows that, for a member of an approved victim group, any action against members of officially recognized oppressor groups is a bold act of resistance. He imagines himself a victim; and yet when you’re capable of saying that “not every opinion is valid” and of tearing down a wall on which other people have written their opinions, you’re speaking not the victim’s but the tyrant’s language.
As for his being bold, the facts are as follows. In today’s academy, writing or saying something that somebody, somewhere, might construe, however unreasonably, as racist or sexist can get a student expelled and destroy his reputation for life. But if you tear down a publicly posted statement that you regards as antigay, you’re home free. And Smith knows this. Even as he fancies himself a victim, he also knows on some level that, on campus, as a member of an approved victim group, he enjoys a certain power. He feels that power. (You can see it in the cocky grin and mind-blowingly obnoxious attitude he displayed last Wednesday in a TV interview with Ezra Levant.) And he’s as prepared as any dictator to use that power to crush ideas he doesn’t like. Regrettably, this escapade has probably guaranteed that when this fool finally graduates, plenty of his ideological soulmates will be standing in line to offer him jobs in which he’ll be able to do just that.
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