Faulty reasoning in column on free speech in academic world

Rick Zemanek’s April 11 column The academic world vs. free speech is a welcome expression of free speech, not for the viewpoints that it apparently supports but for its demonstration of partisan reasoning and rhetorical posturing, both of which represent the purported facts for particular ends.

Rick Zemanek’s April 11 column The academic world vs. free speech is a welcome expression of free speech, not for the viewpoints that it apparently supports but for its demonstration of partisan reasoning and rhetorical posturing, both of which represent the purported facts for particular ends.

Such an article is an apparent but ultimately limited opportunity to begin debate and analysis through an examination of Zemanek’s argument, rhetoric, and examples that essentially attempt to discredit the value of post-secondary education as mere training in the jingoism of professional correctness.

The title of his piece sets the tone: it is an adversarial relationship between the “academic world” and “free speech.” To call the academy a “world” is to set it off as its own entity, distinct or disconnected from what I assume he means to be the “real” world. This is the old and incorrect stereotype of the ivory tower. “Free speech,” of course, sounds very good, and few people in democratic societies would oppose such a principle, although there are good reasons to make exceptions to the principle as in cases of hate speech.

The underlying primary source of evidence to discredit the post-secondary system is the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) that gave most Canadian institutions a failing grade on freedom. If you are unfamiliar with it as I was, JCCF is a private, Calgary-based organization that conducted its own study of the education system mandated, apparently, by nobody but itself.

In its own report, it describes its motivating agenda for research: the JCCF believes that Canadian freedom is “eroded by governments and by government-funded and government-created entities like Canada’s public universities, and human rights commissions.” The institute clearly outlines its initial disagreement with the university and government systems, and, therefore, it is not surprising that it finds the systems to be broken. In research, this is called confirmation bias.

The two examples of “free speech walls” that Zemanek provides are also telling because the JCCF initiates and supports these walls, a fact Zemanek quietly omits. The first instance from Carlton University has a gay rights student advocate tearing down an apparently pro-gay display. Zemanek leaves the contradiction alone, merely inviting the reader to “Figure that one out,” thereby implying the irrationality of a pro-gay argument. The second instance is from Queen’s University, where campus security removed a display that allegedly contained hate speech. The university provost would not repeat the allegedly offending words, a position which understandably raised the ire of the JCCF.

Zemanek suggests that university students have adopted an “it’s my way or no way” approach to issues, a direction perpetuated by rigid and biased universities. Like his title, the structure of the argument is purely divisive. In fact, there is no room for debate. There is no discussion of the public good that universities contribute to Canada; it is almost entirely absent. Like confirmation bias, there is no examination of alternative viewpoints. How or where is the university system to defend itself?

I am neither supporting nor excusing the universities’ actions. More facts are needed to make a judgment. Moreover, what alternatives to the university system might the JCCF suggest?

It is sadly ironic that this column that amounts to a condemnation of the post-secondary system is published right after the Alberta government has made massive cuts to higher education in the province.

When questioned about the cuts, Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said, in a familiar manner, “But this is the reality, this is non-negotiable.”

Meanwhile, educators and academics across the province try to get their voices heard despite this divisive and categorical decision-making process. Attacking post-secondary education is not an effective or productive way to foster critical thinking and open debate, despite the apparent and acknowledged flaws in the system.

In response to Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel’s criticism of Lukaszuk’s cuts, the minister responded with a similar yet meaningless and ineffective rhetorical approach: “I don’t know who pissed into [Mandel’s] corn flakes, and you can quote me on that.”

I am quoting you, Lukaszuk, and in case you are still wondering who did it, you did.

Roger Davis

Red Deer

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves after holding a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, May 7, 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Health care providers, advocates cry foul over stalled action on pharmacare

Expert panel appointed by the Liberals recommended public pharmacare system

People line up at walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine in Montreal, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. A new Leger poll suggests Canadian confidence in COVID-19 vaccines is holding firm despite swirling confusion and concern about the safety of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Vaccine confidence in Canada holds steady despite AstraZeneca safety concerns: poll

More than eight in 10 Canadian said they are either vaccinated already or plan to be

A passenger walks the halls at Montreal Trudeau Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. The federal government has picked a path for hundreds of millions of dollars in airport funding first announced back in November. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Federal government unlocks $740 million in airport relief

Nearly $500 million is bound for large airports

École Secondaire Notre Dame High School Grade 12 students Lily Forsyth (left) and Allyne Simonot helped design the “Big Smile” burger. Throughout May, for every Big Smile burger sold $2 will be donated to the Smiles Thru Lindsey Foundation. (Photo contributed)
Red Deer students design burger to raise funds for mental health awareness

Cilantro and Chive donating $2 from every Big Smile burger to Smiles Thru Lindsey Foundation

Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Hoglander (36) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during first-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Monday May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Hoglander scores twice as Vancouver Canucks dump slumping Winnipeg Jets 3-1

Edmonton Oilers' Dominik Kahun (21) celebrates with teammate Connor McDavid (97) after scoring the third goal against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen (34) during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Canadiens clinch playoff spot with single point, fall to McDavid and Oilers in OT

Rory McIlroy tees off on the fourth hole during the fourth round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at Quail Hollow on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

McIlroy ends 18 months without winning at Quail Hollow

Canada , left to right, lead Briane Meilleur, third Val Sweeting, skip Kerri Einarson, and second Shannon Birchard discuss strategy against Sweden in a qualification game at the Women's World Curling Championship in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 8, 2021. Both of Canada's teams were shut out of the medals, marking the first time ever that Canada did not reach the podium at either the men's or women's worlds in the same season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Bubble Wrap: Fresh questions for Canada after medal shutout at curling worlds

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Oilers plan to keep playing McDavid, Draisaitl as NHL regular season winds down

Canada's Tyler Ardron, right, tries to block the kick by Italy's Callum Braley during the Rugby World Cup Pool B match in Fukuoka, western Japan, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Kyodo News via AP
Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

Canadian men to face Wales and England in July rugby test matches

John Velazquez, right, rides Medina Spirit ahead of Florent Geroux aboard Mandaloun to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Darron Cummings
Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Casse believes colleague Baffert deserves “due process” folowing positive test

Canada forward Liam Millar (23) moves the ball past Bermuda defender Eusebio Blankendal (2) during the second half of a World Cup 2022 Group B qualifying soccer match Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Raoux
Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Canadian men to play next two World Cup qualifying matches in the U.S.

Most Read