Mark Jones, Text and Context at Queen’s [Response to the Provost re the Free Speech Wall and Michael Mason] (17 April 2013)

As published in the Whig-Standard Opinions section, 17 April 2013, under the rubric “Academic Freedom”:

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” -Bob Dylan

Recently Queen’s administrators approved the erection of a “free speech wall” by the Queen’s Students for Liberty and almost immediately had it removed by campus security. The administration alleged that it featured “racial slurs and hateful language” that crossed the boundaries of free speech and “violated the university’s policies.” Until someone explains more specifically what the writing on the wall was, it will remain difficult to judge the rights of this matter.

But one thing is wrong for certain. When a spokesperson for Queen’s Students for Liberty objected that there had “ been ‘gross violations of academic freedom’ at Queen’s” and cited the university’s mistreatment of Professor Michael Mason, Provost Alan Harrison countered that “the Mason controversy was a ‘similar issue’ to the free speech wall.”

“There are limits on free speech,” he explained, “and the sorts of comments that were being made on that occasion are appropriate in a lecture if properly contextualized, but, in our opinion, on that occasion the individual in question had not provided that context, and that was what concerned us.”

Thus they wade into it. Such a comparison is bewilderingly inappropriate, not to say gratuitous, and it adds no small insult to the injury Queen’s administration has already done Professor Mason. Consider: how, exactly, are a history professor’s quotations from racist passages to illustrate attitudes in neo-colonial history “similar” to an anonymous scrawling of “ racial slurs and hateful language” on a wall? The wild comparison shows only how far our Provost and VP-Academic is from understanding one of the most basic activities in academia.

It might be objected that what the Provost is really comparing is the lack of contextualization in each case. So— lack of contextualization? Professor Mason lectured in the context of a second-year history course “on imperialism and neo-colonialism around the time of World War II.” He quoted passages from historical texts in the context of those lectures. And his presentation of racist language (or what Queen’s administrators insist on calling his “use” of it) was in the context of those quotations. All that is required to mark a context of quotation to any reasonably competent speaker of English is two words: “he said.”

Unfortunately, however, the elementary distinction between the quotation of racist language and its use is one that our academic administrators have never been willing to understand, for it is only by refusing to understand it that they can justify in their own minds a pattern of mistreatment that began in mere bumbling and foolishness and eventually got entrenched in self-justificatory obstinacy. The proof of this is that even now, when the quotational context of Professor Mason’s statements has been repeatedly explained and emphasized, our Provost and VP-Academic can still refer to the words pronounced by Professor Mason in his HIST 283 lectures as “comments that were being made” (emphasis added) without sufficient “context.”

Then, of course, there is the question of context on the other side. In what way is an anonymous scrawling of “racial slurs and hateful language” on a “free speech wall” a problem of lack of contextualization? That one is too many for me.

But there is an important point in the question that Mark Mercer’s recent analysis illuminates (“Why Queen’s was wrong to tear down the wall,” April 12). As he argues, “whatever offensive remarks the poster contained, they were situated in the context of the free-speech wall. Though those who inscribed them might have meant them, the Students for Liberty didn’t, at least not necessarily. The wall was a piece of politics, or art, or theatre. Or it was an experiment, a piece of research.”

As this suggests, it is the Provost who is guilty of ignoring context—and, again, of misapprehending basic academic practices. But this time he doesn’t take the “hateful language” out of context—rather, he takes it out on its context. As Mercer continues, removing the free speech wall was “nothing like erasing offensive graffiti. It is more like closing down a play or a peaceful demonstration or a science project, one that had already received a permit … no matter how hateful some of the contributions to the wall might have been, the wall itself wasn’t hate speech but the protected expression of the Students for Liberty.”

In sum, the only similarities between the two cases compared by Provost Harrison are that he mistakes the relation of text to context in both; that in mistaking this, he understands neither; and that in spite or because of this he has silenced both.

Small comfort this, one might say, to Queen’s Students for Liberty and Professor Mason. For they are silenced as effectively through power/ignorance (apologies to Foucault) as they might have been had the Provost’s representations been intelligent or true. The authority of the Provost and VP-Academic doesn’t hinge on his academic acuity; it is purely a matter of delegated institutional power. That is why one has had to turn outside of the institution for intelligence and truth in these matters—to the Whig-Standard in the case of the free-speech wall, and to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in the case of Professor Mason.

Given Queen’s administration’s insistence upon traducing Professor Mason, let us not forget that CAUT clearly established last fall that he did in fact contextualize his quotations. Queen’s administration has long understood that it wronged Professor Mason. The longer it resists admitting this, the more it wrongs both him and Queen’s. It is time that it own up and apologize.

Mark Jones is a professor in Queen’s University’s Department of English.

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