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Neil Seeman: May your opinions always be yours

Commentary

Your employer has as much right to your opinion as you have to his Bobby Hull rookie card. That doesn’t stop Generation Z from disclaiming—on social media, blog posts, and in journal articles—that “opinions expressed are solely my own and not those of my employer.” Herein lies the timorous caveat.

Upon delving into Google Scholar, a repository of peer-reviewed articles, I unearthed roughly 67,000 papers adorned with such disclaimers—a trend that gained fervor after 2009.

For ideas to flourish, we need to speak clearly on matters of ethics, politics, and morality. The ubiquity of disclaimers has me worried about the state of our freedom of speech, our grammar, and about human authenticity, too. Imagine Plato disclaiming in the presence of his teacher, Socrates: “I sense a contrast arising between your approach and that of the Sophists, who win arguments through logical fallacies for personal gain—and here I speak solely for myself, not for the Socratic circle, and not for Greece!”

Your opinions are always your own. We live in a world where our professional and personal lives can comingle. It’s always been thus. If you write something that leaves your clients or students wilting in fear—especially if your words cause grievous assault to an identifiable minority group—your employer has the right to reprimand you and maybe even sack you. Again, nothing new here.

What’s new is the expansionist march of meaningless disclaimers. Some modern disclaimers alert readers that all views expressed, no matter how repugnant or anodyne, do not represent the views of “present or past employers.” Meaningless, since the disclaimer can serve to disclaim—but not to disown. You own what you say, online and off. If you say something charming or witty or wise, yasher koach! If you rejoice in a heart emoji or a repost, you earned it. If you hurt someone, you must own your apology, too. 

While it’s sound advice for employees to exercise discretion and sensitivity when voicing controversial opinions aloud, the prevalence of these disclaimers online contributes to a chill on speech. The fear of professional repercussions or misinterpretation by employers or colleagues may lead people to temper authentic expression, compromising the principles of open discourse and intellectual diversity.

Authenticity is what employers and employees yearn for in each other; faux disclaimers are just that.

The language used in these disclaimers can be muddled with ambiguity. The phrase, “opinions expressed are solely my own,” falsely implies a clear demarcation between personal and professional viewpoints. It’s illogical in its construction, wrongly suggesting that others can lay claim to an individual’s thoughts or arguments. The word, “solely,” is redundant. Nor can we ever know if the opinions expressed have been proclaimed by others, with or without caveat; the disclaimer implies that you alone say this.

A 2014 U.S. tribunal decision (Kroger Company vs. Anita Granger) critiqued a firm’s policy requiring employees to always include a disclaimer of this nature. David I. Goldman, the administrative law judge in the case, conceded that companies have a legitimate interest in their employees not appearing to speak on their behalf “unless an employee is actively seeking to give the appearance of speaking on behalf of an employer.” In other words, the default position online should be as it is in physical interactions: if your neighbour, a schoolteacher, grumbles to you about the authoritarian remit of the teachers’ union to inject politics into the middle school curriculum, she’s expressing her view, not that of all educators.

To be sure, some people—politicians, union bosses, CEOs—are held to a higher standard when speaking publicly, since their jobs bestow on them stewardship toward voters, members, or shareholders. It’s their job, 24/7, and they’re generously compensated for being “always on.” And no disclaimer can or should absolve them from defaming anyone. If you work in the civil service or a job whose policies prohibit advocacy for a political party online, then your disclaimer won’t save you from transgression. 

What if we cast away the disclaimer, this timorous caveat? Discouraging such disclaimers might make us cherish free speech more, and revive friendlier and more robust exchange in the public square. 

Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to King Louis XIII of France, is said to have cautioned: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” 

Your enemies will try to hang you no matter what you disclaim or how vigorously you disclaim it. And if you keep mum on matters of morality about which you care deeply, then the loudest voices win. Free speech and the marketplace of ideas wither under a booming din of disclaimers. 

Zachary Patterson: University ‘decolonization’ is a threat to academic freedom

Commentary

Across the country, the “decolonization” of curricula, and indeed universities themselves, is being advocated as necessary and adopted with seemingly little resistance. The most recent high-profile example of this is Concordia University, which released a five-year strategic decolonization implementation plan. Its priorities, among others, are to “critically evaluate and decentre Eurocentric knowledge systems across all academic programs university-wide.” Moreover, this is to be achieved by “cultivating a ‘collective critical consciousness.’”

Universities receive large amounts of public money. Unlike private sector companies, political parties, or non-governmental organizations, they are funded to provide society with a neutral and disinterested perspective on the world and how it functions.

Academic freedom enables universities to fulfill this role and their missions as truth-seeking institutions. It does so by protecting professors from universities interfering in their scholarly activities. It’s necessary because it frees professors to openly pursue, teach, analyze, and debate important questions, even those that might challenge the status quo. 

This allows for the rejection of wrong ideas while strengthening our understanding of truthful ideas. It has been an important ingredient to the secret sauce that has contributed to the incredible advances in knowledge since at least the Enlightenment.

Academic freedom is most commonly associated with the right of professors to express themselves without suffering repercussions from their universities on topics considered to be controversial. In this respect, it is epitomized by the well-known “Chicago Principles.”

Equally important for academic freedom is the political neutrality of universities. This is essential not only because universities are publicly funded, but because non-neutrality itself impinges on academic freedom. In fact, the University of Chicago also articulated this important principle in its Kalven Report.

When universities take political positions or support political causes, they implicitly and, often explicitly, interfere in the teaching, research, and commentary functions of those who work there. If you were a professor and your university took a public position on a topic, would you feel more or less free to teach, comment on, or pursue research that comes to different conclusions than those of your university?

Some argue that universities have a right and even an obligation to influence teaching and research through training on the use of new equipment and technologies, or perhaps best practices. This may be true if done neutrally. But what if the university insists on promoting political ideologies in teaching and research?

This question is central to discussions around “decolonization.” While many things could be said about the notion of decolonization and the Concordia implementation plan, it’s difficult to argue they are politically neutral.

The first sign giving the game away is the word “critical.” This is not “critical” as in critical thinking that we expect to be at the centre of a university education. No, critical here refers to “Critical Social Justice.” It’s a mix of neo-Marxist “critical theory” and postmodern theory. Its aims are variously to disrupt and subvert society with no less a goal than overthrowing Western Civilization.

If that doesn’t seem political enough, the term “critical consciousness” comes directly from the influential neo-Marxist educational theorist Paulo Freire. Freire believed that education was an inherently political act and that it should be undertaken to cultivate the critical (i.e. neo-Marxist) consciousness of students with the aim of turning them into revolutionaries.

People take part in a protest next to the James McGill statue in Montreal, Saturday, August 1, 2020, where they called on the university to take down the statue. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The term “decolonization” draws on the same “critical” roots as Freire through well-known post-colonial theorists like Edward Said and, most relevant here, Frantz Fanon. Fanon was a Marxist decolonial theorist. Among other things, he is known for having justified and defended the use of violence and terrorism in conflict against “colonizers.” If he was not the intellectual inspiration for Hamas on October 7th, he is for many sympathizers of Hamas on university campuses across Canada.

As such, Concordia’s decolonization plan (as well as other decolonization initiatives at universities across the country), with its reach “across all academic programs university-wide,” seeks to advocate for, and directly impose, a radical political ideology onto university teaching and curriculum. It also implicitly imposes the ideology on research and public commentary. But these activities are exactly what academic freedom is intended to protect—even from universities themselves.

Such interference is antithetical to the entire mission of the university as a dispassionate, rational, truth-seeking institution. And besides violating academic freedom, these initiatives betray the public’s trust. Moreover, the vast majority of the Canadian public appears to disagree with the ideology inherent in these initiatives.

Since universities function and are funded at the pleasure of the public, they should refrain from undermining their core functions through the imposition of radical ideologies on faculty and students—unless, that is, they seek to be defunded.