In a recent, ironically entitled Globe and Mail opinion piece, “You can’t say that on campus,” Margaret Wente sets out to defend Acadia University’s Rick Mehta. Mehta has been at the centre of what Wente calls “the free-speech wars” and her chosen title is meant to imply that he should not be silenced.
In the process of making her argument for Mehta, Wente decided to string me up as an example of all that she believes to be wrong in contemporary academia. She writes about my years of research, publishing and teaching as a “brand of rubbish…depressingly common at our institutions of higher learning.”
Yet problematic in Wente’s apparent championing of free speech is her transparent desire to silence me. After moulding her caricature of me, she then adds a last dig to my scholarship alongside her call for free speech: “Students don’t need a safe space to protect them from… Prof. Mehta. They need responsible adults to protect them from the likes of Prof. Springer.”
I have received an onslaught of hate mail since Wente’s piece was published, including thinly veiled threats that indicate knowledge of where my office is located.
I believe Wente’s ire for me stems in part from her puzzlement with my research area of anarchist geography. Despite a long tradition dating back to the mid-19th century, when renowned Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin first advanced his concept of “Mutual Aid,” Wente is self-admittedly unaware of the field.
What likely put me in her sights was a recent diatribe about me by policy scholar Steven Hayward, published on the U.S. conservative blog Power Line. In his post, he takes aim at my provocatively titled article “Fuck Neoliberalism” published in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies. Wente was likely similarly unimpressed, and despite her professed ignorance, she opines: “What it has to do with geography of any sort is anybody’s guess.”
The free speech wars
Most Canadians are more than happy to support free speech, believing it to be the foundation of democracy. But this sentiment only reveals half the story. For speech to be free, it must be aligned to freedom itself.
The reason for this connection should be obvious, but it also requires that we acknowledge that speech is never just speech. It is always political, and the politics that arise from speech are inevitably enactive, meaning they have material consequence because they leave impressions on the world.
Words don’t simply float in the air like the fog of our breath on a cold winter’s day. They shape the way we think about the places we inhabit, and in this continually unfolding process of dialogue and expression, words form the basis upon which all action rests.
What the contemporary champions of free speech, like the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson, mean by “free speech” is speech without consequences, which is both dangerous and irresponsible. The history of the 20th century demonstrates with horrifying clarity how speech paves the way for action. I’m thinking specifically of the Holocaust, which was originally set in motion by anti-Semitic hate speech.
Are the memories of the contemporary free speech apostles really that short?
No freedom in violence
When speech is designed to silence the voices of others, one has to wonder just how dedicated to the principles of freedom the speaker actually is. When speech goes a step further and advocates harm against another individual or group, calls for their deaths or worse still is an appeal to genocide, we can clearly see the ruse that free speech has become.
In the current moment, what is most often being touted in the name of so-called “free speech” is in fact a thinly veiled excuse to promote hate speech. This deflection has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with curtailing it. Free speech is being actively abused in an attempt to give credibility to hateful ideas like racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, ableism and transphobia.
But we would do well to remember that there is no freedom in violence. This simple idea helps to explain why in Canada speech is only protected to the extent that it supports an ideal of substantive political equality. Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, freedom to engage in hate speech is not considered a form of free speech.
The fact that I make my living at a university seems to bother Wente, hence she advocates that economic violence befalls me by intimating that I shouldn’t have a job.
When I wrote “Fuck Neoliberalism” after 15 years of researching and publishing on the subject, I recognized that the polemical title would attract attention. However, as I state in the paper: “Why should we be more worried about using profanity than we are about the actual vile discourse of neoliberalism itself? I decided that I wanted to transgress, to upset, and to offend, precisely because we ought to be offended by neoliberalism. It is entirely upsetting, and therefore we should ultimately be seeking to transgress it.”
Neoliberalism interprets speech in the same way it does markets. That is: Freedom to do whatever you want, regardless of the social divisions, inequalities and violence that are wrought.
Calling neoliberalism to account is a process that requires an understanding of the similar patterns of violence that are unfolding in the different communities, cities and countries that have adopted it. It demands solidarity across space. It necessitates geographical knowledge.
We come full circle when we realize that it is at least in part owing to neoliberalism and its promotion of individualism as a fundamental virtue that helps to explain current thinking around free speech. The freedom of the individual speaker is upheld as the highest principle of concern, regardless of how exclusionary and violent the words, while the material repercussions enacted on those subjected to hate speech are problematically sidelined and dismissed.
Such lack of concern for the impact on the wider community is the height of narcissism and irresponsibility. As with free markets, it is primarily the already privileged who reap the benefits of a free speech discourse.
So long as the elite are free to speak their own truths and accumulate more privilege, the social ills that flow from their “freedom” are seen as irrelevant.
It is this unabashed selfishness that allows Rick Mehta to tweet “I don’t support the positions that Nazis take, but they are human beings too and I will treat them with respect as long as they do the same for me.”
I can’t help but think of Martin Niemöller’s words, “First they came …”, a quote permanently on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
For anarchist geography - we are all connected
Where geography, and particularly an anarchist approach to it, comes into play was succinctly captured by Kropotkin:
“Geography… must teach us, from our earliest childhood, that we are all brethren, whatever our nationality. In our time of wars, of national self-conceit, of national jealousies and hatreds ably nourished by people who pursue their own egotistic, personal or class interests, geography must be… a means of dissipating these prejudices and of creating other feelings more worthy of humanity.”
Part of dreaming beyond capitalism, and its current incarnation as neoliberalism, is to express our outrage for the inequalities it engenders and the uneven distribution of wealth it requires to function. Consequently, neoliberalism is undoubtedly a question for geographers.
So no, students don’t need protecting from me, as Wente claims. They are not the hapless victims of brainwashing leftist boogeymen, as she would have us believe. Students are fully autonomous people quite capable of formulating their own views and values. They don’t need paternalism and patronizing.
My role is not to tell students what to think, but to encourage their creativity and cultivate the terrain upon which they can realize their own freedom.
Education should be a step on the path towards leading happy and fulfilling lives. It should empower students with the courage to dream beyond the waking nightmare of the world they have inherited to envision a new geography of freedom. The dream is appreciated in words, and those words, like all words, become realized as action.