In the preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell takes aim at a form of censorship that is not institutionalized, but rather self-imposed. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,” he says, “is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” Typically when Orwell’s name is brought up in discussion about censorship and free speech, it is not in reference to this piece, but instead to 1984, with its Big Brother and Ministry of Truth.
This shouldn’t be that surprising, as the preface was initially only published in a Ukrainian translation meant for counter-revolutionaries fleeing Stalin and was not rediscovered in the English-speaking world for many years. It is a shame, though, as this work raises important questions pertinent to contemporary debates about intellectual diversity and free speech on university campuses — U of T included — that may otherwise be glossed over. Namely, what more insidious forms can censorship take, and what is our duty to ideas we find reprehensible?
These questions are important to ask because, in terms of traditional censorship, we are largely not at risk here at U of T. Formal bans on thought and expression in the style of 1984 are rightfully abhorred and thus a non-issue. In its 2014 Campus Freedom Index, an annual report intended to “measure the state of free speech at Canada’s universities,” the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms awarded the University of Toronto an “A” for official policies protecting freedom of expression.
Weighing into this assessment was a policy drafted by the Governing Council propounding that rights of freedom of speech and academic freedom “are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.” Institutionally then, free speech is safe; however, we should ask, as Orwell reminds us to, what these guarantees are worth if we are already policing ourselves? What good is the protection of disturbing questions when no one is asking them? Recent events on campus suggest a troubling trend in which concerns like these are ignored in order to maintain the comfort of an unchallenged consensus.
An event that illustrates a laudable example of free speech and disturbing evidence for the opposite trend took place on February 27, when the St. George campus hosted a lecture entitled “WWI 100th Anniversary: Human Suffering in Eastern Anatolia.” The event featured two speakers, University of Louisville professor Justin McCarthy and lawyer Bruce Fein. Many, including the Armenian Youth Federation of Canada (AYF) and U of T’s Armenian Students Association (ASA), hold these speakers to be deniers of the Armenian genocide. The Armenian Weekly reports that: “Protesters allowed the speakers to deliver their opening remarks. However, when it became apparent that the speakers would deny and misconstrue the facts of the Armenian Genocide, the group stood up and turned their backs to the podium as a silent protest against genocide denial.”
This was an act of protest entirely permissible under the university’s guidelines for what constitutes disruption of an event, and was commendable in that it clearly expressed that the protesters found the contents of the speech loathsome, without unduly interfering with or silencing the speakers.
In contrast, events surrounding the lecture demonstrated a concerning desire among many to ban the lecture outright — a refusal to allow the expression of an unwelcome idea on a university campus. Preceding the lecture, a petition was circulated on the AYF website demanding that the university not allow the lecture to take place. Similarly, a statement by the ASA following the lecture stressed that the “University of Toronto should not provide podiums to those who are looking to legitimize their denial of the first genocide of the 20th century.”
However one feels about the contents of the lecture, these strategies should be disconcerting. The motion to ban the expression of an idea on campus sets a dangerous precedent and effectively says that you are comfortable offloading your critical judgment to someone else. To consider some idea, even the most hateful, entirely forbidden from expression is, as Orwell warns, simply “to exchange one orthodoxy for another.” The enemy is not the pernicious idea, but rather, as he puts it, “the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”
What follows from this is that the expression of truly unpopular ideas is in most need of institutional protection, liable as it is to self-imposed censure. It is not through edict that ideas become anathema to thinking people. Rather, as John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, “If it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” In the same respect, controversy surrounding the Armenian genocide is not resolved by stifling even the most odious of speakers, especially on a university campus. George Orwell ended his preface to Animal Farm with a quote from philosopher and dissident Rosa Luxemburg, which behooves reflection in a discussion of free expression: “Freedom for the other fellow.” While freedom of expression includes the freedom to speak, the freedom to write, and the freedom to protest that which you find abhorrent, it must necessarily also include the freedom to offend, and the freedom to be wrong.
Will Hall is a third-year student at Trinity College studying political science and American studies.