Commentary | Our freedom of speech does not stop at mention of apartheid

Queen's Uni. rector Day should not be punished for standing up to Ignatieff

On March 9, Queen’s University Student Rector Nick Day responded in a letter to Michael Ignatieff’s recent comments regarding Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). Specifically, the letter was aimed at challenging Ignatieff’s statements about the event, namely that it “is a dangerous cocktail of ignorance and intolerance,” and that the event “targets Jewish and Israeli students for abuse on our university campuses … the organizers and supports of Israeli Apartheid Week tarnish our freedom of speech.” In response, Day said, “If I ever used the influence of my office and the power of my public voice, as you have, to insulate from criticism the perpetrator of a mass-slaughter, I would have a very difficult time sleeping at night.”

According to many students at Queen’s, Day went too far, and a number of Facebook groups have emerged in opposition to the fact that he claims to hold these views on behalf of the 20,000 graduate and undergraduate students of Queen’s. In addition, he has also been criticized for earlier statements made this past Remembrance Day, in which he took the opportunity to speak on a diverse range of civil rights topics which many felt were neither germane nor respectful.

The thing that strikes one immediately is the sophistry of the demand Day resign, or be impeached, and I would like to take the opportunity here to both come out in support of Day and to criticize his detractors. Their argument goes like this: Day claims to speak on behalf of all Queen’s students in professing his (controversial) opinion, but he in fact does not, and should therefore be removed. Is it actually possible to speak on behalf of all the students of Queen’s, or of any university? If you cannot speak on behalf of someone without their consent, then Day would have to have the implicit or explicit consent of 20,000 people in order to make any kind of utterance. It’s clear that nobody could reasonably expect this of him. We could say that he needed a certain percentage of the student body’s support in order to speak, but that raises a host of problems: what percentage? Who determines how to calculate this percentage? Must he have consent for everything he says, or just some of the things? Et cetera, et cetera. Day is either free to speak his mind as Student Rector or he isn’t: the middle ground is intractably mired. What this impossible-to-fulfill demand reveals is the hidden premise of the above argument: that Day spoke about something he wasn’t supposed to speak about and, what’s worse, in a way he wasn’t supposed to.

A simple test will suffice to show that this is true. Suppose Day had taken the opportunity instead to speak prescriptively “on behalf” of the Queen’s student body about something relatively uncontroversial, say, that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. Although he would have used his position to present an opinion of his own (the detractors’ main issue), we would not expect it to cause uproar at a large Canadian research university, the kind of which we see reflected in such Facebook groups as “Get Your Head Out of Your Rector! Remove Nick Day as Queen’s Rector.”

The simple fact seems to be that the students of Queen’s feel unduly threatened by Day’s (in my view) courageous statements in response to Ignatieff’s, and are using the thinnest pretense of policy to veil their discomfort. What is it exactly that is causing them so much concern in regards to Day’s comments? The word “apartheid,” is my guess. The word is instantly recognizable as a signifier of state racism in South Africa, and is both a familiar buzzword and a damning indictment. The word comes from the Dutch “apart” + “heid” (-hood), literally, aparthood, and refers to a “policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. To see whether the word applies to the situation in Israel, one need only take a look at the facts: evidence of systemic discrimination against Arab Israelis and Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank and the occupied territories is overwhelming. The “aparthood” of the occupied Palestinians could not be declared more succinctly than in the erection of the eight-metre tall concrete wall that separates them from their occupiers.

So, a week in protest of this obvious case of apartheid should be supported, insofar as one is against apartheid wherever it occurs. Ignatieff’s statements regarding the event (IAW) come off in this light exactly as Day reports them: “deeply unethical,” and betraying “a deep lack of intellectual integrity” on Ignatieff’s part. Day should be applauded for having the courage to speak boldly on a topic about which many lack the courage to speak at all. After all, then, it seems that the outraged students’ real gripe is with the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state by IAW. They have the right to voice their opinion, however un-, mis-, or malinformed – but it is “deeply unethical” of them to deny Day, and the students who elected him, theirs.

Mathew Powes is a U1 Philosophy student. He can be reached at mathew.powes@mail.mcgill.ca.


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