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Pluralistic liberals shine like beacons of tolerance—that is, until someone like professor Lieutenant-Duval comes along and challenges their self-evident positions then they revert to censorship, intimidation, and punishment, all in the name of diversity, of course

Dear Editor,

Academic freedom, which protects professors and researchers from sanctions when they dissent from prevailing opinions, has been seriously undermined by the authoritarian left. This was confirmed recently in a controversy concerning a University of Ottawa professor who spoke the ‘N-word’ in class. 

To clarify, professor Verushka Lieutenant-Duval did not promote racism. She had the audacity to point out that some historically persecuted minorities have reappropriated derogatory terms to liberate themselves from their oppressors.   

At first, she offered the example of the word “queer.” Formerly used to denounce homosexuals, it is now employed as a badge of honour to signify both identity and difference. Professor Lieutenant-Duval then compared this to the ‘N-word’—and not the abbreviated version.  She was initially suspended from her course but has now been reinstated, amid an outcry by hundreds of CEGEP and university professors who signed a letter in support of their colleague. 

In today’s social and political climate, any professor—specifically, any white professor—who utters the ‘N-word’ in class is automatically depicted as a racist, irrespective of context, application, or intent. Some students were appalled with the suggestion that perhaps a conversation was warranted to help resolve the issue. “[Professor Lieutenant-Duval] kind of opened it up as a discussion and made it seem like it’s something that can be debated,” one of them told the Fulcrum, adding, “it’s not a discussion open for anybody.” 

Administrators, student union representatives, and a handful of professors at the University of Ottawa openly condemned professor Lieutenant-Duval’s judgement. Kevin Kee, dean of the faculty of arts, was blunt: “This language was offensive and totally unacceptable in our classrooms and on our campus.” The University of Ottawa Students’ Union stated categorically that the ‘N-word’ remains “offensive, hurtful and reprehensible.” In dissent, four professors within the department of sociology and anthropology expressed outrage at “our colleagues’ use of their power and privilege to contribute to the structures of systemic racism.”

It’s easy to see why any dialogue concerning the adoption of the ‘N-word’ is off-limits. No campus wants to be perceived as an enabler of systemic racism, even though professor Lieutenant-Duval was doing just the opposite: explaining how racism operated in the past and how it was challenged by those who experienced it.  

In this specific instance, there was simply no attempt to establish a white supremacist narrative. To think otherwise, one would have to have zero understanding of what constitutes an academic argument. However, pluralistic liberals—specifically, those who support restrictions on hateful expressions or grossly offensive remarks—beg to differ. Determined to impose their own set of political causes, these more militant types believe that they—and they alone—should decide what constitutes racism on campus. Anyone who disagrees with their worldview requires diversity training.

Yet, expressing the ‘N-word’ is appropriate in some scenarios. For instance, Shannon Dea, dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, asks whether the ‘N-word’ should be spoken in class. “The answer is yes. Scholars need to be able to say the word in the course of studying it…. For some professors in some contexts, saying the ‘N-word’ is the right methodological and pedagogical choice.” And that is exactly what professor Lieutenant-Duval was doing in her Art and Gender class: studying the impact of hate and examining how minorities countered its pernicious effects.   

Interesting, however, was the fact that those who continue to attack professor Lieutenant-Duval never complained about her use of the word “queer.” According to their logic, she can articulate terms meant to demean some historically persecuted minorities (i.e., homosexuals) but not others (i.e., Blacks). Nothing arbitrary there.

On a multicultural campus, pluralistic liberals shine like beacons of tolerance—that is, until someone like professor Lieutenant-Duval comes along and challenges their self-evident positions. Then they revert to censorship, intimidation, and punishment, all in the name of diversity, of course.

Stuart Chambers is a professor at the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. Photo: Stuart Chambers/Provided

Stuart Chambers, PhD, teaches at the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa.  Involved in education for over 30 years, his opinion pieces on contemporary social issues have appeared in the Huffington Post, Vancouver Sun, National Post, Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, London Free Press, Winnipeg Free Press, University Affairs, Policy Options, and Impact Ethics.