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Political Theory

H19(b) - Freedom of Thought and Expression

Date: Jun 6 | Time: 01:30pm to 03:00pm | Location: SWING 210

Chair/Président/Présidente : Jeremy Geddert (Assumption College)

Discussant/Commentateur/Commentatrice : Jeremy Geddert (Assumption College)

Free Speech, Ethical or Pragmatic? Marx’s Evasiveness on Civil Rights: Paul Gray (Brock University)
Abstract: A peculiar phenomenon is emerging on North American campuses. Although radical leftist have often been ardent supporters of freedoms of conscience, speech, and assembly, many are now appealing to university administrations to prevent far-right, white nationalist, and fascist speakers from holding events on campuses. Even when some radical leftists reject this strategy, they often affirm free speech on pragmatic, not ethical grounds. They argue that if anyone is likely to suffer under a lack of free speech, it will be those radical left movements who are, and who speak for, the exploited, the oppressed, and the excluded. They thereby cede discussion of the intrinsic ethical foundations of free speech. In light of this, it is illuminating to return to the thought of Marx. While a more consistent defender of free speech than many contemporary leftists, he is as evasive about questions of ethics. While the young Marx in 1842 speaks of the free press in terms of natural right, as the “positive existence of freedom” independent of any positive law, after he becomes a materialist and a communist in 1844, he usually affirms such freedoms in terms of the historical interests of the working class. Does Marx retain any of his youthful expressions of right or justice? How does Marx’s evasiveness on these questions relate to that of his theory of justice in general? Finally, how has Marx’s ambiguity on the intrinsic merits of free speech, along with other such freedoms, contributed to the paradoxes of contemporary radical left orientations?

Pathologizing Dissent on Campus: The Coddling of the American Mind and the Conceptual Elasticity of Harm: Dax D'Orazio (University of Alberta)
Abstract: The traditional understanding of the role of a university is to pursue both knowledge and truth. However, waves of influential interdisciplinary scholarship have rejected the idea that objective truth is either a possible or even desirable pursuit. At the vanguard of an intellectual counter-movement is Jonathan Haidt, who argues that the telos of the university is caught between two irreconcilable concepts: the pursuit of truth and the advocacy of social justice. In the recently published The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that the lack of ‘viewpoint diversity’ supposedly gripping American campuses is less about political lines ('left’ vs. ‘right’) but instead the generational differences that make contemporary cohorts of students particular (and potentially intolerant). Perhaps most controversially, Haidt and Lukianoff include an appendix outlining the practice and benefits of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, seemingly pathologizing the attempts to suppress forms of speech that might be considered harmful. In this paper, I argue that there is a more determinative factor at play in the object of Haidt and Lukianoff’s investigation, one that requires a firm grasp of political theory: the conceptual elasticity of harm. Engaging with a broad survey of theoretical conceptions of harm - including critical race theory, postcolonialism, feminism, and poststructuralism/postmodernism – I argue that epistemologies and methodologies of limiting harm catalyze these intellectual controversies. Lastly, I suggest that harm is largely an unreliable barometer for the (il)legitimacy of speech and/or research and, like the paradigm of objective truth, also open to legitimate critique.

Framing Cultural Appropriation: Is it a free speech issue?: Dianne Lalonde (Western University)
Abstract: Cultural appropriation is often framed in the media as an issue of free speech. Prominent Canadian columnists argue that cultural appropriation is important for artistic creativity and that restrictions on cultural appropriation are censorship. An example is the Appropriation Prize controversy and supposed censorship of Hal Niedzviecki. News media framing of cultural appropriation as a free speech issue carries significant weight because cultural appropriation is a relatively new phenomenon and people do not yet have a strong understanding of it. This framing of cultural appropriation in terms of free speech is, however, limited in scope. Currently, the free speech frame exclusively focuses on those supporting cultural appropriation and arguing that it is not harmful, but it ignores how those sharing the potential harmfulness of cultural appropriation are silenced. The fact that many of those arguing against cultural appropriation are from marginalized groups serves to further contextualize the issue. The silencing that occurs with the existing free speech frame includes three main processes: (1) epistemic injustice, (2) epistemic ignorance, and (3) epistemic exploitation. These processes together threaten free speech as they undermine inclusive democratic deliberation about cultural appropriation.