Freedom online, sanctioned on campus

Frederick Douglass, Jonathan Swift and Winston Churchill all expressed themselves in ways that offended their opponents, but history judges they were justified. (Wikimedia Commons images)

How freedom of speech is defined and defended on university campuses deserves a rethink. The latest controversy erupted on – you guessed it – social media.

In June, at Dalhousie University, the student union passed a controversial motion to not celebrate Canada 150 on campus, arguing it is an example of oppressive colonialism. I don’t agree, and neither did critics. In response to them, Masuma Khan, an executive member of the student union, posted the following on Facebook, according to the Globe and Mail (her post has since been deleted): “At this point, f*** you all.” She signed off with the hashtags #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass and #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis.

I don’t like or endorse how Khan chose to express herself. It was disrespectful and vulgar. But I defend her freedom of speech.

It concerns me that the university – in response to one formal complaint and several informal ones – thought it must intervene and effectively compromise any such freedom. It informally invited Ms. Khan to attend some training on “coalition building” and then write “a reflection” on what she learned. Why? Because her post was “not the kind of respectful and constructive dialogue” that Dalhousie expects of all its students. Khan refused. Dalhousie then said it would convene a formal hearing whose panel could order Khan to do the training.

Freedom of speech exists to protect points of view that are unpopular, and by extension, which offend our sensibilities.

True, free speech has never been absolute. You can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre, and get away with it. You’ll get arrested for disturbing the peace. You can’t defame someone with a good reputation, either, or practice hate speech.

But university policies have gone much further. Dal’s vice-provost said as much in a statement: the university is open to diverse points of view, expressed and explored through “meaningful, thoughtful, constructive and respectful dialogue.” That sounds principled and fair-minded and common-sense. And it is, as an ideal. But as grounds for sanctions, it’s a blunt instrument. It erodes freedom by confining the expression to certain subjective criteria. It does this in an environment that should place more value on the clash of ideas than on politeness or, frankly, feelings.

We actually owe a debt to offensive speech. Some of the late greats of literature and of history were incredibly disrespectful of the powers that be. Swift slammed the British for starving the Irish. Churchill demeaned the appeasers to their faces. Their language was not vulgar but it was so demeaning that it left their opponents spluttering in rage. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously said, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who…want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” Were he alive in the age of social media, Douglass would no doubt roar, and I would want him free to roar, even if it gave offense.

People do not have a right to never be offended. And if they are offended, they have their own defence. If the offender is not harassing you, or advocating violence, or using racist language, then debate the point. Counter-argue. Affirm and express what you believe – as freely as did the person whose views you oppose.

facebook Freedom of speech on campus: do you actually have a right to never be offended? Join the conversation.

twitter icon Let’s free freedom of speech from the shackles of sanctions because “you offended me.” #freerspeechoncampus


Help wanted: a Twitter role model

Matt GallowayMatt Galloway (@mattgallowaycbc), who hosts Toronto’s CBC Radio One morning show, has nearly 55,000 followers on Twitter. (Photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Here’s an excerpt from my draft novel, The Berlin Plot:

He had learned to write and report, first as a bad mimic, then a competent one. Eventually he found his own voice. He now had steady work.

He had a gift for phrasing and a storehouse of analogies. He could deliver a blow in print with timing and impact, just like he had in the boxing ring. He had no ambition to belong to any cause. His integrity, talent and stubbornness kept him a man apart. Always the ringside seat, no longer in the ring, and to hell with the ringleaders: Mark Halton was beholden to no man.

I’ve shared that because it expresses a point I’ve been reflecting on about social media.

The point? Mimicry has its merits.

Why have I been reflecting on that? Because I need a Twitter role model. I haven’t found someone who uses it the way I’d like to use it.

Mimicry has a bad name, I know. It’s not a good end stage. It’s not original enough or engaging enough to be. It seems sort of…lazy…or at best, lacking in confidence. I’m neither. I’m just very busy, and only now paying attention to Twitter. I’ve got to catch up, and precious little time to waste following, say, any Kardashian or the Tweeter-in-Chief.

Besides, mimicry has been given a bad rap. Art students study artists, then paint or sculpt. Writers read voraciously, then write. We learn how to walk and talk and skate and a million other things by…watching, learning, then trying on our own. Mimicry, in other words.

Mimicry seems to me to be a good stage to go through to learn to create content. The value we place on originality should not be paralyzing. Don’t we learn output by first receiving input, and how to create by first consuming? Creating content on social media is no different.

This is where I confess my failings. While I finally created a Twitter account, I’ve yet to find a valuable role model for how I’d like to tweet and retweet, and the kinds of content I’d share. I chose to follow my company, a hockey team, and a singer-songwriter I’m fond of. But they’re too unlike me to be helpful role models. My use of Twitter will be as a regular well-read, civil-tongued guy, not a pro team or huge corporation or indie-rock artist.

So, who do you follow on Twitter who’s local, or at least Canadian, and is thoughtful about what they tweet and retweet – and why do they impress you? Is there an Ottawa version of Matt Galloway? Recommend one, and I’ll check them out, and let you know what I thought.

My last defence of mimicry returns to the novel excerpt. It has punchy prose that portrays a lonely masculinity. Why? Both are prerequisites in my genre. I learned that by reading novels like that.

Then I mimicked them – first badly, then competently, and eventually in my own voice.

twitter Help wanted: Twitter user extraordinaire in Ottawa. Who’s worth following?

facebook Who’s a great Twitter user with Ottawa and Canadian content? Wanted: someone worth following.

An old warning, the tongue and Twitter

COM0011 – Blog 2

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‘Facepalm’ is a fairly new phrase — but it is a very old human experience.

Did you ever say something stupid that you regretted?

Most of us have. Maybe back in school, or in a circle of friends or at the family dinner table. Back when our circle was small. What we’d said was soon forgotten or forgiven, and no record survived to haunt us.

It’s different these days, in part because of social media. It gives a greater voice to everyone. That means it magnifies your mistakes.

Forget about forgetfulness

There’s no forgetting if your transgression triggered a storm on Twitter or can be Googled easily years later.

If you’re any kind of public figure, or in authority, you’re in big trouble when you transgress. If you or others like you are perceived as privileged, know this: the tides of history, on your side for centuries, are turning. The less privileged, and their progressive advocates, are asserting themselves.

One of my old university profs learned this in the last few days, after uttering one incredibly insensitive joke. A few months ago, a journalist learned it too after taking sides in a cultural debate by tweeting an offer of $100 toward a satirical but inflammatory cause.

Both men paid dearly

The academic was retired U of T history professor Michael Marrus, a world-renowned expert on the Holocaust. He resigned from a position at Massey College. He did so in response to a protest to a hurtful, insensitive, racially-charged remark he made in person, not on Twitter or Facebook. But his thoughtless misstep was in the minefield of race. It is on the digital record. It will be around longer than he is.

The other example is Steve Ladurantaye, former managing editor of CBC’s The National. He was reassigned by his CBC bosses in May after getting flamed online for tweeting that he’d chip in $100 toward a “cultural appropriation prize” suggested by another journalist. (They were taking sides in a dispute in literary circles.)

“I didn’t stop to think”

What stands out in Ladurantaye’s apology on Twitter is this line: “I didn’t stop to think.” It reads like genuine contrition. It rings true for another reason: not stopping to think is often the trouble.

Your tongue or your tweet can bring you down if you don’t stop to think. Apologizing later can only do so much to mitigate the damage. Your error will ripple across the Twitterverse. Trolls will feed on it. It will be archived.

Pause before posting or tweeting

Maybe protecting yourself starts with humility about your immunity. You don’t have any. Assume that you, too, could give your reputation a self-inflicted wound on social media.

So pause before posting. Ask how others, including those with different experiences or contrary opinions, will receive your message.

Don’t be so guarded that you give up on free speech. Have your say. But remember that real-time technology doesn’t need to make us twitchy. Take your time. And abandon the illusion that you’re only talking to a friend or friends. You aren’t. And if the opinion is so nuanced as to be easily misinterpreted, or you’re wading into a highly charged debate,

Rodin’s The Thinker: sculpted today, would the man be holding a phone?

choose your channel with care. Nuance and emotion and 140 characters make a volatile brew. It might blow up in your face.

That ancient warning in the headline is a proverb: “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

It reminds us that words have consequences. Say, write, tweet or post what you think, but first do yourself a big favour: stop to think.

facebook Trigger-happy tweeting: is it the bane of social media?

twitter Doesn’t thinking first trump saying sorry later? #thinkfirst #publicapology

Recover “cool” before it loses its power


It’s not beyond saving, the word “cool.” But look around. It’s sure losing its power to do good. And it’s so widely misused.

Not-so-cool uses of “cool”

  • Thoughtless “cool:” Sun-starved males reveling in the latest violent point-of-view shooter video game. The bad guy explodes, they yell “cool.”
  • Copout cool: A friend says, “Sure I text while I drive – everybody does, I just keep my phone where I still see the road.” You know that attitude kills people, but you say, “cool.” Assent subs for assertiveness.
  • Brushoff cool: A teacher or parent makes a valid point; a could-care-less student or kid replies “cool.” It doesn’t commit them to anything.
  • “Conformist cool” and “envious cool”: These kissing cousins conjure an image of the “cool kids” in high school. Except, they most often weren’t or aren’t. So let’s skip the pecking-order angst and envy.
  • “Cool” straying from its roots: “It’d be so cool to have that [insert any “cool” product here: car/clothes/jewelry/handbag/shoes…] You can’t satisfy an appetite with nothing but sugar. Coveting is that appetite and it ain’t cool.

Nothing’s cooler than the roots of genuine cool

It’s time to reclaim “cool.” It used to be a counter-culture code word. It was coined by people who earned their cool – they didn’t buy it. In fact, they paid a personal price. By choosing sides in great debates and social shifts, they took a stand. They knew what they aspired to be personally – and were part of collectively. They rejected the established order of things. Authorities were always trying to catch them in something subversive.

Some of those original users knew the Beatitudes (a cool speech about a spiritual cool). Others didn’t, but had that same attitude. They figured out that weakness was strength. That meekness could stop steel in its scabbard. Love and kindness, sacrifice and commitment: they’re soft power. Healing a bruised life or changing a broken world for good starts with their salve on the wound.

Our cool forbears were not idle. They didn’t occupy coffee shops, clucking over their newsfeeds. They occupied campuses and marched. They fought with non-violence and made non-materialistic choices. They were engaged, idealistic, committed, other-directed and real. In other words, cool.

Hey, I’m not trying to romanticize Hippies. Or the jazz players, poets and beatniks who were cool before them. Or any wandering minstrels before them. Or a dusty-footed teacher and his disciples long before them. I just want to restore “cool” as a word that matters.

What restoring “cool” looks like for you

Let’s start with what wasn’t, isn’t and never will be cool: Exploitation. Violence. Meanness. Emotional distance (coldness is just coldness, cowboys). Greed. Selfishness. Cynicism. Despair.

We can choose better than the shadows of cool, or shallow uses, bulleted above. Why be inarticulate? Be expressive. Why conform? You’re unique. Why buy stuff that may apply a thin veneer of “cool” for a time, when what you want is self-worth and acceptance. Sorry, they’re not for sale.

Instead, make experiences or art, contribute and connect. People will find what you do – and you – cool. It used to work that way. It still does. It can for you.

So let’s commit to genuine cool. Today. Tweet about it. Share my posting. The ways we can engage on “cool” are themselves pretty cool.

And we might just recover a word. We might become cool about living in our skin. And we might change our little sliver of the world.

It would be so cool.

facebook icon Recover “cool” before it loses its power.

Will you help restore “cool” to its loving, idealistic and counter-cultural roots?

twitter icon Help reclaim “cool” before the word loses its power to do good. Commit to genuine cool. #CoolAsIt’sMeant2B


Revisit cool in all its former courage and its excess in this documentary about the Sixties: