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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, September 9, 2011

Are Universities Unwitting Enablers of Idiotic Ideas?

Last week, Ryerson University in Toronto hosted a four day conference of "Truthers." The conference was devoted to exploring and advocating the notion that 9/11 was an "inside job" and that the Bush administration, the CIA and the bicycle riders were behind it. (Well, not all bicycle riders...just the ones who, you know...).

Ryerson has one of the best journalism schools in Canada and I was delighted to be a Visiting Professor there from 2008-2010. But something about having Ryerson hosting this conference is both unseemly and unjournalistic.

In an interview in the Globe and Mail with one of the organizers (a professor of religious studies at McMaster University), this gathering seemed more about faith than facts. Mostly it seemed to be an excuse to indulge in another bout of anti-Americanism. Not so far below the surface of course is Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as the underlying cause of terrorism.

Which seems to be the point: are the origins of Middle East terrorism only about American policy in the region? Or is it about how so-called western values evoke and provoke Middle Easterners? Not easy questions with easy answers.

For the "truthers," the reality seems overly complicated. Like many today who find our present plight unbearable, "truthers" seek simple answers to complex issues. Conspiracy theories are an easy way out.

In some ways, "truthers" bear an uncanny resemblance to Holocaust deniers. They also claim It never happened. And if it did, there must be some reason that "they" are keeping from them.

Holding a "truther" conference the week before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is offensive enough, but holding it on the site of one of the best journalism schools in the country is doubly odd. The fact that no new ideas or evidence were presented seems to be only about mutual psychological reinforcement rather than helping understand what happened and why.

Of course, some will say there are good, free speech reasons to hold a conference about unpalatable views and where better than on a university campus?

Universities have an obligation to be more than intellectual telephone poles, mutely standing there transmitting all signals. In this instance, Ryerson, in my opinion, did a disservice to the concept of open public inquiry and was actually offensive to the memory of those who died ten years ago this weekend.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jeffrey:

    Universities seem to tie themselves into knots over the Cartesian logic bomb: academic freedom implies freedom of speech, and all speech is free speech, therefore all speech is allowed here in the name of academic freedom.

    I don't believe it is a coincidence that recent history shows a tawdry tradition of universities being used to protect and defend purveyors of odious views.

    The example that sticks with me is the prof at Western U who claimed his research proved an inverse relationship between penis size and skull size, ergo brain capacity, ergo intelligence. Oddly enough, his research also proved that African men have larger penises than white men, which led him to the conclusion that black men are less intelligent than white men. Oh, and Asian men are smarter than both, with a correlating shortcoming when it comes to their you-know-whats.

    This generated one of the strangest pick-up lines ever: "My name is John and I'm very stupid. Wanna see?" It also generated a melodrama, with the professor as the poster boy for academic freedom. I took part in a number of discussions. At some point I began asking if anyone had recent examples of freedom of speech invoked to defend a view that was generally positive rather than negative.

    Anybody know of a story where academic freedom helps an anti-apartheid prof keep his job, in a university run by racists? Or a teacher who supports gay rights being protected when the bosses want to fire him or her for violating God's will?

    The response was discouraging. All the anecdotes we came up with were in the category labelled "hold your nose and stick up for the jerk".

    Years later I saw a bumper sticker that might bring comfort to all sides of this discussion:
    "If We Don't Allow Freedom of Speech, How Will We Know Who the Assholes Are?"

    Seems to me, the mean-spirited, small-minded, negative side of the free speech debate has exploited this well. The rest of us don't get it.