Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Has the university become intolerant and close-minded?

This article by prestigious McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville is worth reading. (H/T Commenter ECM) She is one of the leading defenders of traditional marriage in Canada. She is a moderate social conservative. Here is a brief summary of her case against same-sex marriage. Her short article in the journal Academic Matters is about the intolerance of the leftist university elites against their opponents.

Here is the abstract:

In this edited excerpt from her Research and Society Lecture to the 2008 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, ethicist Margaret Somerville argues that universities are becoming forums of intolerance. Keeping the university as an intellectually open and respectful place is critical, she says, to finding the “shared ethics” essential to maintaining healthy, pluralistic democracies.

And here is an excerpt in which she discusses the impact of moral relativism on moral disagreements:

That is where political correctness enters the picture. It excludes politically incorrect values from the “all values are equal” stable. The intense moral relativists will tolerate all values except those they deem to be politically incorrect—which just happen to be the ones that conflict with their values.

Political correctness operates by shutting down non-politically correct people’s freedom of speech. Anyone who challenges the politically correct stance is, thereby, automatically labeled as intolerant, a bigot, or hatemonger. The substance of their arguments against a politically correct stance is not addressed; rather people labeled as politically incorrect are, themselves, attacked as being intolerant and hateful simply for making those arguments. This derogatorily -label-the-person-and-dismiss-them-on-the-basis-of-that-label approach is intentionally used as a strategy to suppress strong arguments against any politically correct stance and, also, to avoid dealing with the substance of these arguments.

It is important to understand the strategy employed: speaking against same-sex marriage, for example, is not characterized as speech; rather, it is characterized as a discriminatory act against homosexuals and, therefore, a breach of human rights or even a hate crime. Consequently, it is argued that protections of freedom of speech do not apply.

She illustrates with some examples:

We need to look at what “pure” moral relativism and intense tolerance, as modified by political correctness, mean in practice. So let ‘s look at the suppression of pro-life groups and pro-life speech on Canadian university campuses. Whatever one’s views on abortion, we should all be worried about such developments. Pro-choice students are trying to stop pro-life students from participating in the collective conversation on abortion that should take place. In fact, they don’t want any conversation, alleging that to question whether we should have any law on abortion is, in itself, unacceptable.

In some instances some people are going even further: they want to force physicians to act against their conscience under threat of being in breach of human rights or subject to professional disciplinary procedures for refusing to do so. The Ontario Human Rights Commission recently advised the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario to this effect.

Political correctness is being used to try to impose certain views and even actions that breach rights to freedom of conscience; to shut down free speech; and to contravene academic freedom. I do not need to emphasize the dangers of this in universities. The most fundamental precept on which a university is founded is openness to ideas and knowledge from all sources.

She spends the rest of the paper arguing for a system of “shared ethics” that grounds open, respectful debate between disagreeing parties. I hope this catches on before secular-left moves from censorship to outright violence, against those who would dare to disagree with them.

A short bio of Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor in the Faculty of Law and a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and is the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In 2004, she received the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science and in 2006 delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures.

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