Originally published under the title “How Cultural Relativism on Campus Has Chilled Freedom of Expression.”
My seminar students at McGill University told me that you can’t say anything at this university without being accused of being sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, fascist, or racist, and then being threatened with punitive measures. They felt silenced by the oppressive atmosphere of political correctness. Nothing significant — sex, religion, relationships, public policy, race, immigration, or multiculturalism — could be discussed. Only the acceptable opinions could be expressed without nasty repercussions.
It is generally held today in the West, if not elsewhere, that diversity is a good thing. Diversity in origin, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual preference is now regarded as not only desirable, but mandatory. Universities strive to increase their physical diversity. The currently accepted theory in Western academia is that physical diversity reflects diversity of experience and thus an enriching diversity of viewpoint.
McGill’s committee on diversity proposed that we no longer define excellence as intellectual achievement, but as diversity. Their view is that a university populated by folks of different colours or having different sexual preferences is by virtue of this diversity “excellent.”
However, among this excellent diversity, what is not encouraged or accepted is diversity of opinion. Only politically correct views are welcome. On the very first day in last year’s seminar, students challenged my assignment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel on the grounds that “she is a controversial figure.” These students felt that university was not a place to explore controversial issues, but only to repeat what everyone agrees with. Several students dropped out of the seminar saying that they disagreed with Ali’s politics. They were apparently unable to tolerate ideas with which they disagreed.
Ali is a critic of Islam. To my students that is a violation of strict cultural and ethical relativism, which dictates that criticism of other cultures and religions is unacceptable. That Ali was an insider who had grown up in a Somali Muslim family, gone to Islamic schools, lived in Islamic communities and countries, and had at one time been rigorously observant, cut no ice with my students. Although they themselves were largely ignorant about Islam, they insisted they would not accept Ali’s account as authoritative. Many of the students, notwithstanding their unfamiliarity with Islam, made an effort to defend it. What they were really defending, of course, was political correctness — in this case, upholding relativism by rejecting criticism of a foreign culture.
Ali’s criticism of Islam focuses on the treatment of women, their second-class status (receiving one-half of a male share of inheritance, and their court testimony worth half that of a male), the forced marriages, polygamy, the requirement of obedience to men, doctrine-justified beatings of wives, and so on. One might have thought that these concerns would be of interest to women — and cultural anthropology these days is dominated by women. The sex ratio in my classes is usually around seven females for every male; in last year’s seminar, there were 21 women and four men. The ratio of female to male professors also increases from year to year. Almost all would identify as feminists. My female colleagues are militant feminists who prefer to hire other female feminists. But their feminism stops at our borders. They, like the stalwarts who man the national feminist organizations, would never criticize other cultures for their treatment of women, and certainly not Islam. Cultural and ethical relativism trumps even feminism.
Blocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from visiting Concordia University in 2002, shouting down Ishmael Khaldi, Israel’s first Bedouin diplomat who spoke last year at the University of Windsor, the abuse of pro-Israel students at York University — these are par for the course at institutions infamous for Israel Apartheid Week. Canadian departments of Middle Eastern Studies and university speaker panels on the Middle East commonly represent only the Arab and Palestinian narratives, excluding any neutral or pro-Israel speakers.
No less than Infidel did, I shocked my students with my views of anthropology and of the world. My students repeatedly told me that they had never heard opinions such as mine at university. I was told that I was “out of the mainstream.” This did not surprise or frighten me; I have been an anthropologist for over 50 years, have long been a tenured full professor, and have observed closely the development of my field. Classic liberal political views such as mine are unusual among the many Marxists and fellow travellers in the social sciences and humanities.
Anthropologists have always tended to be left-leaning in their politics; some of the early founders identified as communists, as do some contemporary Canadian anthropologists. In the 1970s, Marxist anthropology became the hot new trend, camouflaged after the fall of the USSR by labels such as critical anthropology, political economy, political ecology, and postcolonialism. University students in anthropology in Canada, the US, and in Europe have been consistently taught, and take for granted, that the West, capitalism, and globalization are evil, and that purity and goodness lie only in other cultures. Students from my seminar independently told me that capitalism needs to be replaced, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of millions murdered in the last attempt to do so.
The dominant leftist political stance in anthropology and beyond has been facilitated by the turn away from scientific methods and goals in favour of subjectivity, on the one hand, and political engagement, on the other. As there can be no objective truth, but only many subjective truths, postmodernists argue, there can be no authoritative knowledge; thus the only worthwhile activity is political engagement on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. The question is no longer whether some understanding is true or false, but whether you are on the right or wrong side. One “right side” for my students was multiculturalism; people should no longer be considered as individuals, but as members of categories, and treated as such. Any disagreement about treating individuals as members of categories made you “sexist” or “racist.”
In the minds of my students and colleagues, none of these matters could be legitimately debated. They weren’t matters of logic or fact, but of whose side you were on. They had never heard John Stuart Mill’s argument that a position that has never been defended against others is untested and feeble. They know what is correct, and any other view is heresy.
Philip Carl Salzman is a professor of anthropology at McGill University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.