What Ann Coulter And Others Are Saying About Ann Coulter
As a kind of follow-up to my previous post on Ann Coulter’s non-speech at the University of Ottawa, I thought I’d highlight a few nuggets from the vast rockslide of commentary that her adventures in Canada seem to have triggered.
Parts of the conversation are wearily predictable. Ezra Levant suggests that the “abusive student culture” that supposedly led to the cancellation of Coulter’s appearance is part of a general problem with censorship and lack of respect for ideological diversity on Canadian campuses. At the other end of the spectrum on attitudes to free speech, Susan Cole insists that Coulter’s “extremely toxic ideas” have no place on a university campus, and defends the idea of shouting down voices she happens to disagree with. I couldn’t help detecting a certain whiff of intellectual fascism.
Other viewpoints are more interesting. Kelly McParland compares Ann Coulter to George Galloway, as I did in my original post, and notes that both Coulter and Galloway got plenty of attention and publicity out of the controversies surrounding their respective visits to Canada. The clear implication is that media frenzies over such marginal figures are little more than a waste of everyone’s time, although the process “keeps us [McParland is presumably speaking for the entire tribe of pundits] off the streets”. South of the border, someone called Mark Warren writes from a similar perspective, and complains that Canadians “have exalted Ann Coulter, of all people” by making her into a free-speech martyr. He wryly begs us not to invite David Duke to speak in Canada next, although I have to admit that might be kind of interesting.
Ian Hunter, a professor emeritus at Western, harrumphs that universities these days are merely “finishing schools in political correctness”, which I suspect and fervently hope is an exaggeration. I doubt things have gone that far downhill since I was a student at UVic and U of T in the nineties, and I remember political correctness as an annoying if sometimes pervasive buzz in the background rather than a centrepiece of the curriculum. Then again, I was studying biology and the earth sciences, so perhaps Hunter has a point with respect to the humanities.
Ann Coulter herself serves up a column that represents an unsurprising hash of the almost endearingly childish (“University of Ottawa, average student IQ: 0”), the simply rude (“How about sending a letter to all Muslim speakers advising them to please bathe once a week while in Canada? Would that constitute a hate crime?”) and the admittedly rather cutting (“At least the students didn’t waste 7 ½ hours on something silly, like their studies”). Apparently it took a group of students 7 ½ hours to draft a statement condemning her appearance at the University of Ottawa because she was “a hateful woman”.
My favourite bit of commentary, though, is a post from the reliably provocative American blogger Razib. Unlike a discouraging number of Americans, and not a few Canadians, he acknowledges that his local values may not be universal imperatives:
American absolutist stances on free speech are not shared by most Western societies, so demanding total free speech is quixotic and culturally tone deaf. Granted, Europe or Canada are not barbaric like China or Muslim societies when it comes to speech, so that communication about this issue is possible.
Razib makes it clear that he is using “barbaric” to simply mean “fundamentally different” from America, not necessarily inferior. Recognising the existence and legitimacy of such differences, he goes on to argue that America should cherish its unique commitment to free speech without trying to impose it on others:
Though seriously, I’m expressing a very cultural biased viewpoint here, an American one, and I’m of conscious of this. I really don’t see a point in castigating Canadians for being Canadians, they’re not China or Syria, but neither are they the United States. Even the British have insane libel laws which stifle speech operationally, though there’s a chance that the law might be tightened up. We alone should be the City upon a Hill where the blasphemers and peddlers of bigotry can take refuge, because we’re already the last best and only hope.
Quite frankly, I wish more Americans would take this attitude. Of course a large constituency for near-absolute free speech exists in Canada anyway, but it’s simply irritating when Americans indulge in cross-border pontification on the subject without stopping to acknowledge that the debate in Canada is underpinned by different premises and cultural assumptions. It’s intriguing to hear American perspectives, in much the same way that it might be intriguing to hear Chinese or Syrian ones, but our southern neighbours should understand that the battle against Susan Cole and other Canadian apologists for the buzzing tyranny of political correctness is not really theirs to fight.
UPDATE (March 26): Commentary continues to appear, and I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to a particularly nice defence of free debate and intellectual openness by University of Ottawa philosopher Graeme Hunter.