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Diversity, Academic Freedom, and Racism

As a writer and editor, I am concerned that words are used with precision. In the modern world, some words are often given specific overtones that go beyond their literal meaning. They become code words that are used in the same context so often that the people using them are no longer conscious of their literal meanings.

A case in point is the words used by professors at the University of Northern British Columbia in objecting to the appointment of former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore as chancellor of the university. They have opposed the appointment in order to safeguard “diversity” and “academic freedom.” They say that, in cutting funding to First Nations groups, the former federal Conservative government attacked a minority group and thus weakened diversity. They say that in silencing federal government scientists who might express opinions favouring environmentalist positions, the Conservative government attacked academic freedom.

“Diversity” as a code word is now used to defend the rights of certain minority groups (such as homosexuals, First Nations peoples, and certain other ethnic groups). The imprecision comes when the word is restricted to protecting only those specific groups. That’s is, “diversity” is rightly used in the context of protecting the rights of homosexuals, First Nations peoples, and minority ethnic groups to be included in Canadian society. However, “diversity” is not correctly used when trying to exclude another group (Conservatives) from participation in a university community. True diversity would mean welcoming both First Nations peoples and Conservatives.

Something similar happens with the use of the term “academic freedom.” Universities are understood to be places where all opinions and ideas can be freely advanced and discussed. Specifically, academic freedom is used to protect university professors from being fired for espousing unpopular opinions. That is why professors are granted “tenure,” so that they can research and speak freely without fear of being fired. As a code word, however, “academic freedom” is sometimes used to protect only certain ideas. These often include Marxist economics, women’s rights, and environmentalism. In recent years, universities have been far less welcoming of other “unpopular” opinions, including viewpoints opposing abortion and evolution.

In the specific case of James Moore, the term “academic freedom” has been used both too broadly and too narrowly. For instance, the Conservative government’s silencing of government scientists was not technically a violation of “academic freedom.” It may have been wrong and a violation of freedom, but these scientists were not technically part of the academy. Second, those who have opposed James Moore’s appointment have said that his views are in conflict with the University of Northern British Columbia’s decision to be a “green” university. James Moore’s views may be out of keeping with the views of the majority of the UNBC community. But his appointment cannot be opposed on the basis of “academic freedom.” Academic freedom would actually support the inclusion of James Moore’s “unpopular” opinions within the university community.

A third case of imprecise use of words arose in the midst of a campaign to rename a Vancouver skyscraper currently called “Trump Tower.” The campaign began after US presidential candidate Donald Trump advocated excluding Muslims from immigrating to the United States. At least one leader of the renaming campaign denounced Trump’s position as racist. This is a misuse of the term. Trump’s policy of excluding Hispanics from immigrating to the US is “racist.” His policy of excluding Muslims is not racism but “religious discrimination.”

As I mentioned, often the people misusing such terms have misused these terms so often that they are no longer aware that they are misusing them. Those who have called Trump’s most recent policy racist are guilty of their own form of prejudice. They assume that religion is simply a cultural practice of specific racial and ethnic groups. Thus, all Muslims are assumed to be Arabs and vice versa. All First Nations people are assumed to be adherents of Native spirituality (even though a majority of them claim to be Christians). Hispanics are assumed to be Roman Catholic. Religion is thus supposed to be a cultural characteristic as unchangeable as the pigment of one’s skin. This attitude is itself bordering on “religious discrimination.” It pressures people to retain the religion of their cultural or racial group. It also denies the importance of religion. In this view, religious practices are protected, along with other cultural trappings, as long as they don’t infringe on the shared commitment to secularism that is supposed to underlie modern society. But that denies the basic nature of religion. Religion is an idea, a belief, and, by its very nature, it cannot be confined. In theory, it deals with ultimate truths and values and thus refuses to be subordinated to culture or race. In practice, religion does, in fact, often cross racial and cultural barriers, with people changing their minds and converting from one belief to another. And that is precisely why religious freedom is a fundamental right.


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