Commentary | Mendelson misunderstands free expression

T he discussion we’ve seen so far regarding the “Echoes of the Holocaust” event needs some clarification. In particular, I’d like to examine Morton Mendelson’s response to the SSMU censure, and question the idea that our duty to protect free expression is relevant to how we deal with events of this nature.

SSMU’s pre-emptive censure of the event, issued on the grounds that it seemed likely to violate the rules governing the activity of student clubs, was a good reason to cancel it, and the case to cancel became obvious and compelling once police were called and charges threatened against protesters. In short: it would have been prudent to cancel the event before it happened, and even more so once it was disrupted, and we need to appeal to some strong opposing principle if we wish to do otherwise.

The principle Mendelson invokes is that, as a university, we should wherever possible advance and protect the expression of ideas, even when it seems prudent not to.

My argument is that Professor Mendelson’s appeal to the freedom of speech requires him to construe that principle in broader terms than are justified. In particular, his argument takes for granted that the principle should apply not only to the verbal statement of ideas, but also to the presentation of those ideas in any form. To the contrary, we must draw a hard distinction between ideas and the means used to advance those ideas. A test case such as “Echoes of the Holocaust” makes it very clear that while expression deserves the University’s protection, not all means of expression do. In a serious and fundamental way, the event was a political act and had little to do with ideas.

The reason why Jose Ruba’s presentation should be treated as a menace has to do with its form more than its content. For the following I refer you to Ruba’s organization, the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR). At issue are CCBR’s characteristic devices: pictures of gory fetuses, graphic abortion videos, and testimonials from women who regret their abortions. These are not the tools of argument; they are the arsenal of one who wishes to appeal to the emotions.

CCBR’s web site makes quite clear that its approach centres on the use of provocative images because they are “effective” in the “moral persuasion” of an audience. Small wonder: it’s hard to imagine a person who wouldn’t feel revulsion and sympathy at the sight of a bloodied human figure. But does that instinctive reaction really have any value in the market of ideas? Need we treat the pornography of revulsion as “evidence” relevant to the abortion question?
Worst of all are the Holocaust-themed advertisements – and ads are what they are – for which there is no possible justification. It is morally repugnant to use pictures of Holocaust victims for any political purpose. Full stop. There is hardly a more emotionally explosive tactic available, and Choose Life must have been aware of that.

What I’m getting at is that “Echoes of the Holocaust” was not interested in examining or criticizing the validity of abortion. Rather, it was purely interested in eliciting the conviction that abortion is wrong, and it relied on unreasoned and deliberately provocative means to do so. That’s what I mean when I call the event a political act: persuasion is the goal, and ideas are irrelevant.

Choose Life had every opportunity to make this event a civil discussion of abortion. They were warned against using CCBR’s methods, and instead of presenting bare arguments, they chose to be provocative at considerable cost to themselves. If ideas were really the issue, would this event have taken the ugly form it did? Would any protester have risked a criminal record to shout down a reasonable debate?
By all means, let somebody make the case that abortion is the spiritual cousin of Auschwitz, and let the court of educated opinion put it in the bin with every other half-baked cultural critique. But let’s not suppose that we have a duty to stand for disgusting propaganda in the service of that idea.

I even submit that the principle to protect freedom of speech requires us to actively combat those who attempt to substitute images and emotional appeals for words and reasoned debate. Why should we tolerate sensationalism, let alone accord it our highest reverence?
Mendelson has made clear that his office intends to treat repugnant political acts as if they were critical ideas, deserving the University’s protection. I fear this situation is shameful and unworthy of McGill as a place of higher learning. What will you do to address it, Deputy Provost?

Stuart Wright is a U3 History student. Write him at wright.stw@gmail.com.


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