March 05, 2008

Freedom of speech (just watch what you say)

Typically in Ottawa, the only feature-length documentaries that get screened in theatres are major releases by Michael Moore or his Canadian counterparts such as Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent, The Corporation), or whatever Left-oriented fare the local repertory theatres decide to play. It is rare for anything from the Right to get any exposure at all here. So last year the Free Thinking Film Society was formed to bring balance to the nation's capital by bringing in a fewfilms representing conservative and libertarian viewpoints. On February 18, I attended a screening of Evan Coyne Maloney's documentary Indoctrinate U. with my Left-leaning friend Iain, in the auditorium of the National Library and Archives building, just up the street from Parliament Hill. I don't know the capacity of the auditorium, but it probably has at least 200 seats, and I estimate attendance at about 90% full.

Movie Review
Indoctrinate U.
Directed by Evan Coyne Maloney
On the Fence Films, 2007
90 minutes

The movie was introduced by local media personality John Robson, who gave a brief talk about fighting political correctness. His advice: Be firm, but do it with a smile.

Indoctrinate U. begins, more or less, with the case of Steve Hinkle: a California Polytechnic student who, in late 2002, entered the school's multicultural centre to post a flyer advertising a lecture by black author Mason Weaver. The contents of the flier comprised the usual time-and-place info, a picture of Weaver, and the name of his book: It's OK to Leave the Plantation. A group of black students holding a Bible study in the room saw the flier and, offended by the use of the word "plantation," called the police. As a result, the school charged him with disrupting a campus event. Despite the Bible study not being an officially scheduled event by a recognized campus club, Weaver flyer complying with campus posting policies, and Hinkle not actually disruptinging anyone (by taking offense, the Bible students had effectively disrupted themselves), Hinkle was found guilty of this trumped-up charge and ordered to prepare a written apology. Hinkle stood his ground and refused - and, with a little legal action of his own, compelled the school to expunge the ersatz "offense" from his record.

Meanwhile, at the University of Tennessee, a Sikh libertarian student journalist, Suhkmani Singh Khalsi, penned an editorial criticizing the "Issues Committee" (responsible for inviting guest lecturers to campus) for their political one-sidedness. Upon reading the article, one member of the Committee emailed the others: "If you see one of those ragheads, shoot him right in the f---ing face." Unfortunately for him, the Committee's token conservative member, who had just resigned but not yet been removed from the distribution list, saw the email as well, and made it public. For this blatant anti-religious bigotry (let alone the death threat), the offender was not disciplined. (A year earlier, by contrast, UT had suspended an entire fraternity because some of its members made the harmless, albeit unwise, decision to attend aHallowe'en party dressed as the Jackson Five, complete with black makeup.)

At a community college in Florida, a Christian fellowship was refused permission to host a screening of The Passion of the Christ on the grounds that it was an R-rated movie and there were underage students on campus. But another club was able to to stage a skit titled "F---ing for Jesus," about a teenage girl who masturbated to images of Jesus, in a campus theatre.

And so on and so on. In the 1960s, points out Maloney, students fought for, and won, the right to dissent on campuses. He was himself the progeny of two of these protesters, who taught him the importance of free speech and thinking for himself. Yet, at some point, campuses stopped being centres of diverse opinion and started to become organs of intellectual conformity, governed by stifling regulations and "speech codes." At some schools, satirical criticism of the affirmative-action admissions policy (by holding a bake sale with discounts for visible minorities) is verboten. One school bans the use of the terms "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," mandating instead non-gender-specific terms like "partner." Another university bans "inappropriately directed laughter." At another institute of higher education, all courses must address issues of race, gender, and class - even classes in decorative horticulture.

It's not just university officials that enforce this code: student unions and clubs get in on the action too. Piles of conservative school newspapers are routinely stolen fromnews boxes and destroyed. Anti-military activists vandalize ROTC offices and disrupt a job fair (at which the Army is but one invited employer) to the point that the whole thing has to be shut down. You no longer need to actively incite hatred to get in trouble with the authorities: someone merely feeling offended (and therefore "harassed") by you suffices. Ask Steve Hinkle.

Indoctrinate U. consists almost entirely of interviews with staff, students, and administrators at American institutes of higher learning: large and small, public and private. What they all have in common is an institutional culture that pays lip service to "diversity," as long as it is diversity of skin colour, culture, or sexual preference, but seem to work actively to stifle diversity of opinion. Frustrated by being stonewalled by officials who refuse to even acknowledge his requests for appointments, he attempts to meet with them in person, cameraman in tow. One extra-bureaucratic nincompoop, we discover, is the person responsible for scheduling the university president's appointments, and therefore the one guilty of not returning Maloney's calls. Asked if he could make the appointment on the spot, the pointy-haired drone refuses and instructs him to telephone - and instead of accepting the obvious absurdity of inviting the phone call but refusing to answer the phone when it comes, he instructs his secretary to call security. At another school, when Maloney wanders into the Women's Centre and asks directions to its masculine-oriented counterpart, they look at him like he is crazy. And when he tries to register a complaint at the "diversity office" about this obvious discrimination? "Call security."

Indeed, bureaucrats dealing with uncomfortable questions by calling the campus police turns into a bit of a running gag throughout I U.. Maloney, to his credit, takes Robson's advice and resists firmly but pleasantly: he is respectful of authority, leaves when asked, and never gets arrested. In fact, his dealings with the cops are always more cordial than with the people who call them. Rather than wring his hands and preach, Maloney just lets the absurdity inherent in the situations speak for itself. That, and the fast-paced editing, make this a light and optimistic documentary.

The audio quality (as well as video quality, to a lesser extent) is somewhat uneven, particularly during interview segments, where the subject's microphone could have been better placed. Many interviewees sound very hollow, as if the conversation was taking place in a big, empty room. Also, while Maloney points out the disconnect between the free-speech movement of the '60s and the stifled-speech movement of the 2000s, a reason why the free-speech mavens of yesterday are now the speech-code enforcers of today would have added considerable value to Maloney's presentation. Iain, a bit of a political science wonk, wanted to see more theory, but I don't know what that would have contributed.

I attended university from 1989 to 1997. I tend to think of myself as part of the last non-politically-correct class to enter the institute, because 1989 was not exactly a good year for political incorrectness on campus. At Wilfrid Laurier University, a traditional panty raid got out of hand (and was subsequently banned). At Queen's University, some male students' satirical response to the Canadian Federation of Students' "No Means No" campaign against date rape, in which they hung banners reading "No Means More Beer" and similar parody slogans, aroused the ire of feminists. And, of course, it was the year of the Montreal Massacre. So with respect to gender issues, at least, in hindsight it was possible to see which way the wind would be blowing in a little while. But while I was once marked down for using the generic "he" in a paper (a heinous act for which I remain stubbornly unrepentant), there really wasn't an attempt while I was on campus to formulate or enforce the kind of totalitarian speech codes we see in Indoctrinate U. - and to equate hurt feelings on my part with an act of harassment on your part was practically unthinkable. The idea of the university campus as a "safe space" where particular orthodoxies are left unchallenged (such as the morality of abortion, as we have seen on the campuses of Carleton, Lakehead, York, and other institutions in recent years) was non-existent.

Evan Coyne Maloney's film is a warning: if the student champions of free speech can become the adult commissars of approved speech, what more will we see on campuses when today's student governments, already little Stalinists, take over administering the universities? Welcome to the new Dark Ages.