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On the Recent Establishment of a Velvet Totalitarian Culture of Comfort on Canadian Campuses: Ringing the Bell Backwards


The politically-correct movement, now under mounting attack in American universities, is firmly entrenched and comfortably un-assailed in Canada.

A paper prepared for presentation to the Civitas National Conference, Toronto.


John J. Furedy

 Author Notes

Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto, Former President (1993-8) of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and Vice-president for International Affiliation, Foundation for the Advancement of Sexual Equity (FASE)

 Essay - 4/27/1999

For more than a decade it has been apparent that a movement that has been called "political correctness" (PC) in North America has been influencing the academic functioning of institutions of higher education. In an earlier paper on this subject (Furedy, 1993) [based on an oral presentation for the first annual conference of the Society for Academic Freedom and scholarship (SAFS), I suggested that an "iron curtain" of PC appeared to lowering on North American campuses. At that time, there had been a number of spectacular instances of PC in both Canada and USA, instances that were crude enough to attract considerable media attention. Since then, however, I think that developments on American and Canadian campuses have diverged significantly; it is time to focus specifically on the Canadian situation.

In America, I think it is fair to say that the forces of PC are now demonstrably under attack. With respect to SAFS's first principle, academic freedom, speech codes in major universities like Wisconsin are being dismantled, and faculty charged with meretricious accusations of sexual harassment are suing universities. Administrators who used to throw individual members of faculty to the wolves of "human rights" bureaucrats no longer feel free to act in ways that are contrary to the central mission of the university: the epistemological one of the search for truth, rather than the ideological one of making the environment "positive" or "comfortable" for specially privileged collectivities.

The use of the weapon of litigation has become even more apparent recently in American institutions with respect to SAFS's second basic principle, that merit should be the sole means by which the academic community (faculty and students) are evaluated.

Although "reverse" discrimination policies for the admission of students have been challenged as early as in the Bakke case (US Supreme Court, Bakke vs. U. of California, regarding admission into a medical school), recent legal activities challenging race- and sex-based admission-policy preferences have been galvanized by the passing of proposition 209 in California (which banned race- and sex-based preferences for all public institutions), and organizations like the Center for Individual Rights (CRI) have conducted a number of successful law suits against universities that practiced this sort of discriminatory "affirmative action" in their admission policies. Although, of course, the defence of "mending" affirmative action continues by both fair means and foul (an example of the latter is lying about the fact that race- and sex-based biases are employed), it is nevertheless a fair summary of the situation, as Michael Greve of CRI has recently suggested, that "At the citadels of diversity, realism is gaining ground" (Greve, 1999, p. B7). The bell rang clear on US campuses and summoned the vigilant to action.

The Canadian "citadels of diversity", or, "equity" are, in my view, much more secure, for here the bell is muffled, i.e., is rung backwards.

We hear little, it is true, of spectacular cases such as the 1993 suspension by the University of New Brunswick Administration of an individual mathematics professor (and also of the students in his classes, whose education was interrupted in mid term in what constitutes an attack on their academic freedom) on the grounds of his having written a conservative Muslim view of date rape as an opinion piece in a student paper, or the 1995 suspension by the University of British Columbia Administration of the entire Department of Political Science graduate studies program on the grounds of "pervasive sexism and racism" (on the basis of the report of a feminist lawyer who was unqualified to judge a graduate program, and who, in a document that was also shoddy even by legal professional standards, produced no systematic evidence for her charges) in a Salem-like, witch-hunt (Furedy, 1995) act of academic absurdity.

At the risk of self-serving speculation, I suggest that part of the reason for this was the realization, on the part of high-level administrators, that if they were stupid and spineless enough to surrender to the demands of campus PC's most radical exponents, SAFS would see to it that they would be penalized in terms of the sort of media attention that cannot but do harm to the prospects of an ambitious academic administrator looking for his or her next promotion.

But what has not been weakened at all, and has even been strengthened, are the more subtle forms of "equity" campus programs which have continued to go essentially unchallenged by most Canadian intellectuals. So every Canadian campus continues to have a speech code (though, of course, it is not called this), and sex- and race-based preferences are part of every campus's evaluation of faculty (in hiring and promotion) and students (in admission and grading). In my own university, whose administrators were never silly enough to perpetrate gross blunders of PC, the situation I described in Furedy (1993) has changed, if anything, in a direction of strengthening "equity" policies. So any attempt to cut back on budgets like the 1.5 million annual one for equity officers at the university level (aside from faculty- and student-level bureaucracies) at time when other, more obviously academic facilities are being cut back, is met with a chorus of outraged complaints from the campus media, and aside from a few recalcitrant voices, no one raises the question of whether any money at all should be spent by the university on these commisar-like, anti-academic functions.

Even a cursory glance at tenure-stream advertisements for positions in University Affairs indicates that all institutions have some race- and sex-based preferences in hiring. Another sign of Canadian times is that whereas the term "affirmative action" has been replaced in most of the American media by its true designation of race- and sex-based preferences, the terms like "employment equity", "equity issues" and "equity studies" continue to be accepted in their Orwellian sense by most Canadian intellectuals and media, as if by some word magic one were able to really justify policies that are fundamentally racist and sexist both in terms of principles and applications.

It is, then, my contention that, on Canadian campuses, "citadels" of velvet totalitarian cultures of comfort have indeed been established in a virtually unchallenged state, even though it is true that the spectacular cases of PC have declined. I have elaborated on this contention in several recent papers (e.g., Furedy, 1995, 1997a, b, c); in this short piece I would like to discuss only two topics: common features of totalitarian and velvet totalitarian systems, and distinctions relevant for the concept of academic freedom (for both faculty *and* students).

Five Common Features of Totalitarian and Velvet-Totalitarian Current-Canadian-Campus Situations

By a totalitarian situation I mean regimes like that of the Soviets and the Nazis. My reason for using the qualifier "velvet" is the recognition that a very importance difference between such regimes and velvet-totalitarian ones is the severity of punishment for transgressing prevailing ideology.

The concept of "comfort," as in the phrase "culture of comfort" is important in the comparison because, in the end, the criterion for what can and cannot be asserted, in both sorts of situations, is based on how comfortable any assertion is for the prevailing ideology.

The first common feature is the presence of uninterpretable laws. A totalitarian example of this is that in countries behind the former Iron Curtain there was no specification of what it mean to, for instance be a "crypto-capitalist," and therefore a punishable enemy of the people. The Canadian campus velvet totalitarian parallel is the presence of speech codes that are interpretable only by equity officers, whose judgements are made in terms of subjective comfort (who is "offended"?) rather than by the objective specification of what behaviour is contrary to the code.

The second common feature is the presence and power of unqualified pseudo-experts. The clearest totalitarian instance of this sort of office is the Soviet commissar. For example, commissars in the military had considerable veto powers, but had no expertise or qualifications in military matters. Canadian campus equity officers, who give advice on academic disciplinary issues like the nature of the curriculum, admission of students, or hiring of faculty, are commissar-like figures.

The third feature is freezing fear which inhibits discussion of controversial but fundamental issues. In totalitarian societies, the taboo is against the discussion of any real political issues. In Canadian academia, as I have detailed elsewhere (Furedy, 1997a, p. 337), in 1993 academics, when asked, declined to publicly even discuss, let alone defend, the concept of academic freedom when the context was an attack on academic freedom by PC forces.

More generally, even at an institution like mine which takes just pride in its international academic reputation, most faculty are reluctant to speak out publicly when a speech code is imposed the interpretation of which is left to "equity" officers who not only lack the doctoral-level qualifications that have become sine qua non of most members of the professoriate, but are also technically ignorant about the disciplines concerning which their expert rulings are meant to be sought. Again, when the same equity officers make pronouncements about curriculum content (e.g., is there enough attention paid to "minority" issues in undergraduate programs?) or tenure-stream hiring (has the physics department hired enough "non-white" faculty members?), most faculty members tamely keep their silence. Indeed, with respect to the hiring issue in our physics department, both the University of Toronto Faculty Association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUUT) have seen fit to accuse the physics department of at least "systemic" racism for failing to place a Chinese academic first in four tenure-stream competitions.

The fourth feature is status-defined ethics. In a totalitarian society, acts of torture, murder, and theft are permissible provided the agent is a member of the secret police and the victim is, say, a "Zionist conspirator" (in a Nazi dictatorship). The current velvet totalitarian parallel is the apparent belief that it is all right to stereotype, say, Anglo-Saxon white males, but not non-Anglo-Saxon, non-white, non-males. Or, to take a more recent example at my own university, in a letter to the University of Toronto Bulletin (MacPherson, 1998) an Emeritus Professor of English, Jay Macpherson, took it on herself to publicly smear the entire department of physics with the charge of racial discrimination, because it did not place a Chinese applicant first in four tenure-stream competitions. Not content with noting that the physics department was overwhelmingly "white", Prof. Macpherson also added: "it's an overwhelmingly male department: these things often go together". I was the only one (Furedy, 1999) who took issue with quasi-libelous accusation made against the physics department. My other colleagues, presumably because of the status of the accuser and accused, were studiously silent--imagine what would have happened had I accused the women's studies program of sexism on the grounds that both its faculty and students were "overwhelmingly female".

The fifth feature is demonization of dissidents. So, dissidents against communist totalitarian regimes are described as greedy capitalist pigs, and, as in the case of demons, their power to perpetrate evil is exaggerated. The current velvet totalitarian Canadian parallel has been to ascribe "racist" motives to organizations like SAFS which oppose so-called equity policies, and are considered as conspiracies to preserve the power and privileges of "white-male" (sometimes the terms "homophobic" and "ageing" are also bundled in for good measure) professoriate. Needless to say the "racist" epithet is quite effective in producing self censorship for many individual Canadian faculty members, even if they are tenured.

Four Fundamental Distinctions Relevant to the Concept of Academic Freedom

The essence of academic freedom is the right of all members of the academic community (faculty and students) to be evaluated in terms of academic performance, and not at all in terms either of adherence to some prevailing ideology, or membership of some designated group or groups (as, for example, a "woman of colour").

The four distinctions that I discuss briefly below (for a more detailed treatment, see Furedy, 1995 and 1998) are all distinctions that are clear in principle, even though they may be difficult to apply in practice, since instances may fall into the "gray area" category. The difficulty of application does not invalidate the basic distinction, as is seen in a sound legal system, where the distinction between murder and justifiable homicide is clear in principle, but may be quite difficult to apply certain specific instances.

The first distinction is between opinions and acts. It is only opinions (whether expressed privately or publicly) that are protected by academic freedom, or by any other freedom-of-speech principle. To use the common example, shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre (when the shouter knows there is no fire) is an act rather than as an opinion. On the other hand, a professor of sociology who discusses parental-success differences between categories of hetero- and homosexual couples is putting forward an opinion on a discipline-related topic, no matter how "offensive" or "uncomfortable" his or her opinion may be for some members of the class.

The second distinction is between evaluating opinions and evaluating acts. Opinions are assertions about the world, while performance refers to activities of individual people. All evaluations (including the two sorts considered here) are subject to error, so it is not error-free evaluation but only fair evaluation that is required. The fair evaluation of opinions is the central task of the academic community, and consists of bringing logic and evidence to bear on that opinion. The evaluation of opinion becomes unfair as soon as the level of comfort generated by an opinion begins to play a part in the evaluation. This has occurred and continues to occur on Canadian campuses in the evaluation of opinions about such topics as group race differences in intelligence and group behavioural differences between hetero- and homosexuals in such skills as parenting.

Evaluating acts entails comparisons of academic performance among individual members of the academic community. These evaluations involve grading students and rewarding faculty with tenure, promotion, and "merit" salary increments. The most common unfairness in faculty grading of students occurs when a professor devalues the work of a student not because of inferior performance, but because the student's opinions does not concur with that of the professor. The university, in such a case, is functioning as an indoctrinational rather than as an educational institution.

This sort of politicization of the academic function can also occur at the faculty level. In one case a Canadian professor who argued for group race differences was evaluated by a departmental committee for a merit increase. For evaluating other faculty, the committee merely counted publications in high-quality journals, in the case of this individual, the committee read his papers and based their merit evaluation (which was extremely negative) on their personal opinions of his work. The adoption of different criteria of evaluation for different individuals based on one's opinion of their work is unfair. The lack of fairness would be evident even to someone without a high-school diploma.

The fact that all members of this evaluation committee held doctorates is an alarming testament to the spread of PC on Canadian influences, and it is hardly reassuring that it took letters of protest from 100 international scholars (many of whom disagreed with the professor's opinions about race differences, but were convinced of the competence of his academic performance) to overturn the committee's foolish decision (see Furedy, 1997a, pp. 339-40).

The third fundamental distinction is between academic freedom and power. All members of the academic community should have the same freedom to hold and argue for opinions, so that academic freedom, like justice, should be equal and indivisible. However, there should be a hierarchy of academic power regarding such academic decisions as the nature of the curriculum, areas of concentration in the discipline, definition of the discipline, evaluation of both student and faculty academic performance, and decisions on admission (of students) and hiring (of faculty). Academic power of this sort should, ideally, be proportional to expertise in the discipline. It follows from this principle that students should have total academic freedom, but limited academic power. It also follows that the commissar-like equity officers should have no academic power, in contrast to their actual power on all Canadian campuses in the academic decisions I have listed above.

The set of distinctions I would like to note are the related ones of symmetrical versus asymmetrical power relations, and issue- versus person-directed opinions. Asymmetrical power relations are often considered to hold only between faculty and students, but may hold between students as well as between faculty: they hold whenever one party has some evaluative power over the other party, and that evaluation has important consequences. As I have argued elsewhere (Furedy, 1995), the presence of an asymmetrical context places additional constrains on the academic freedom of the superior party. In essence, the constraint is that the superior party must ensure that her or his opinions are stated in an issue- rather than in a person-directed way. These distinctions are quite orthogonal distinctions such as that between a "chilly" and "non-chilly" climate, or that between an "offensive" and a "sensitive" treatment of a subject. Yet the equity officers who retain control over what is "acceptable" and "unacceptable" modes of teaching in the current Canadian university continue to operate in the culture-of-comfort rather than academic mode, and their influence continues to extend into more and more areas of Canadian academic functioning, even though the spectacular cases of PC to which the media pay attention have largely disappeared from the Canadian campus. With respect to these more subtle but nevertheless significant PC influences, we are still ringing the bell backwards.


Fekete, J.J. (1994). Moral Panic: Biopolitics Rising. Montreal-Toronto: Robert Davies Publishing.

Furedy, J.J. (1993). "Is an iron curtain of political correctness being erected in North American universities?" Special Issues, Fraser Forum Critical Issues III, 49-59.

Furedy, J.J. (1995). "Academic freedom, opinions, and acts: The Voltaire-Mills perspective applied to current Canadian cases". University of New Brunswick Law Review, No. 44, 131-4.

Furedy, J.J. (1997a). "Academic freedom versus the velvet totalitarian culture of comfort on current Canadian campuses: Some fundamental terms and distinctions". Interchange, No. 28, 331-50.

Furedy, J.J. (1997b). "Velvet totalitarianism on Canadian campuses: Subverting effects on the teaching of, and research in, psychology". Canadian Psychology, No. 38, 204-211.

Furedy, J.J. (1997c). "From ad hominem to ad res commentary: On some confusions regarding the effects of political correctness on Canadian campuses". Ibid., 255-6.

Furedy, J.J. (1998). "Academic freedom versus power in the academic faculty-and-student community: A pre-Socratic, conflict-of-ideas perspective on enquiry". At conference on "Academic Issues in Canadian Institutions of Higher Education: Focus On Fundamentals", June, Toronto.

Granatstein, J.L. (1994). "Academic freefall: whatever happened to free speech?" Newsletter, Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, No. 7, 1-8.

Greve, M.S. (1999). "The Demise of Race-Based Admissions Policies". The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19, B6-B7.

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