What I Learned When Students Tried to Cancel Me

Even being attacked can be educational and enlightening. In November 2020, eight official student groups published a public letter demanding that the McGill Administration rescind my Emeritus status. This was allegedly necessary […]
Published on February 26, 2023

Even being attacked can be educational and enlightening.

In November 2020, eight official student groups published a public letter demanding that the McGill Administration rescind my Emeritus status. This was allegedly necessary in order to honor “the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe. [sic]”

The groups endorsing this demand were The Students’ Society of McGill University Executive Team, The Anthropology Students Association, The Anthropology Graduate Students Association, World Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies Association, Black Students Network, Muslim Students Association, Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, and the Thaqalayn Muslim Association.

The students claimed that “Salzman’s recent publications in public fora demonstrate a lack of consideration for his responsibility as an academic.”

They took particular exception to a statement in my detailed article about conflict in tribal societies and pre-industrial states in the Middle East: I assert that “the Middle East is a place where doing harm and being cruel to others is regarded as a virtue and a duty.” (This assertion is of course supported by abundant evidence. An obvious recent example is the Islamic State.) The students also cited other articles, in some cases distorting the messages. Overall, they claimed that my publications are examples of “racist and Islamophobic dialogues,” although the article on the Middle East mentions neither race nor Islam.

What I found illuminating about the students’ accusations is that they focus on student feelings, of “feeling unsafe,” and being offended by alleged insults to their race and religion. Most interesting is the complete absence of any challenge to my assertions on a factual basis. They never say that my assertions are false. They never bring contrary facts to light nor offer contrary arguments. In other words, the students offer no academic challenge to my work. Their letter is like a placard with a slogan at a rowdy demonstration. The students have no interest in truth or the academic processes aimed at exploring and discovering the truth.

The students in this letter further demanded the restriction of free speech and academic freedom to exclude opinions with which they disagree, because “when the University refuses to define limitations to academic freedom, the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students become inherently secondary.”

Safety and well-being, according to the students, requires the exclusion of opinions with which they disagree. They thus further “demand an immediate, transparent, and student-centred overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom, enshrining the University’s commitment to inclusivity in teaching and research in policy [emphasis added].”

The part that open debate plays in serious academic life is ignored by the students, because, for them, the feelings of “marginalized students” (no matter how privileged in fact) outweigh any concern for the search for truth.

From my account of this student initiative, you might get the impression that the students who produced and endorsed the open letter were out of tune with the university, the mandate of which is academic teaching and research. But I’m sorry to report that the students aren’t out of tune, for our universities have changed, radically in the past half-century. Since the 1960s, advocacy for various political causes, particularly identity politics, has increasingly become the main activity of universities.

Traditionally, the Enlightenment university focused on inquiry, the search for truth about whatever field was being explored. In inquiry, you don’t know the answers, but rather are searching to find them by collecting relevant evidence and refining analytic categories and observational and calculating techniques.

In contrast, advocacy presumes that the answers to the issues at hand are known and understood, with political policy and action to follow. Ideologies, such as feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, intersectionalism, etc., provide answers to all questions relevant to the reference groups, explaining how the world, society, and individuals work, and what’s required to advance the interests of the reference groups.

For example, feminism has conclusions about the nature of society. Rather than the liberal vision of society as many individuals and groups acting in cooperation and competition, feminism sees society as two conflict classes: the dominant “patriarchy” and the oppressed females. Feminism also has drawn conclusions about biology and social life: social roles have no basis in biology and there are no biological differences between males and females; rather, social roles are “socially constructed,” that is, imposed by the patriarchy on females.

And while nature, according to feminism, plays no role in social roles and psychological preferences, males are naturally competitive and aggressive, manspreading and mansplaining, and are toxic, while females are cooperative, peace-loving, and nice. In consequence, females are owed preferences and privileges, and should be first in line for college admission, scholarships, jobs, awards, and at least 50 percent of every group, board, and council, but if they’re 60 percent or 70 percent, that’s fine too, for, according to feminists, “the future is female.” For feminists, these subjects aren’t open to inquiry or alternative views, but are settled truths.

So too with race ideology, in which class conflict is also the central feature of society, but with the classes defined by race. In Canada, allegedly, “colonial settlers” of European origin perpetrated genocide against the indigenous “First Nations,” with only 1.8 million not being murdered (2021 census). The colonial settlers stole all of the natives’ land, farms, cities, factories, universities, etc. Then indigenous children were forced into residential schools in which they were allegedly murdered by the thousands and buried secretly.

The only fair compensation, according to Canadian race activists, other than billions of dollars, is the indigenization of Canadian culture, medicine, justice, and science, and the replacement of white colonial settlers by indigenous individuals through preferential hiring, appointments, awards, etc. None of this is open to inquiry, contrary opinion, or contrary facts, but is now settled, officially validated, and mandated by the government of Canada and imposed on all Canadian institutions.

In the United States, race ideology has been adopted and advanced by the federal government, first through a reinterpretation of “affirmative action” from President John F. Kennedy’s race neutrality to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s racial preferences, to the Obama and Biden anti-white racial policies. No less than President Joe Biden declared that America is “systemically racist,” and that the Republican opposition “wants to put y’all [blacks] in chains.” American society is seen as originating in and based upon the slavery of blacks, a thesis widely endorsed by the wholly politicized leftist “heritage” press, although refuted by historians.

Statistical disparities between races are seen as evidence of racial prejudice, although Asians have had to be redefined as whites for this to work. The trinity of identity politics, “diversity, equity, inclusion,” gives preference to BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) over whites and Asians in admissions, funding, honors, jobs, appointments, and any benefits that might be available. Once again, none of this is open to inquiry, but is considered settled, and alternative viewpoints, even if bolstered by evidence, are regarded as heresy, and the treatment of heretics is punishment, re-education, or cancellation.

Radical gender ideology of the multifaceted LGBTQ2S++ community follows a similar pattern.

Compared to what used to be thought of as academic work, these ideologies and the organizations that adopt them appear to be more like religious cults. Their spirit is much the same. The answers are given and not open to question: your job is to live those answers.

The result of the takeover of universities by ideologues is that universities are no longer places of inquiry, exploration, the collection of evidence, argument, debate, and counter-argument, but rather churches with holy beliefs enforced by “diversity and inclusion” officers who punish heretics. Almost every university in North America demonstrates these ruinous characteristics dramatically. But two examples shall have to suffice.

Dr. Frances Widdowson was a tenured professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. A specialist in indigenous studies, she published many books and articles on Canadian First Nations. However, her findings didn’t agree entirely with the extreme versions of indigenous race ideology, which led to conflict with some indigenous professors and with the administration. As she refused to be silent, the administration fired her. Recently, to add insult to injury, her invited talk at Lethbridge University in Alberta was canceled by the president of the university, explaining that “We are committed to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada. It is clear that the harm associated with this talk is an impediment to meaningful reconciliation.” The president is quite explicit that the commitment of the university isn’t to a search for truth, but rather to indigenous ideology.

Next is a brief look at Florida State University, which represents well American universities in general. According to Christopher Rufo, “Florida State University has adopted a series of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ programs that divides Americans along a ‘matrix of oppression,’ castigates Christians for their ‘Christian privilege,’ and offers a racially segregated scholarship that deliberately bars white students from applying.”

There’s “a sprawling bureaucracy, dedicated to promoting left-wing racial narratives, including a seemingly endless array of programs, departments, trainings, certificates, committees, statements, grants, groups, clubs, reports, and initiatives. … The trainers make the case that, in the United States, ‘whites’ are the racial group responsible for the ‘systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little power.’ Whites are also guilty of ‘cultural racism, or the creation and maintenance of social structures that ‘overtly and covertly attribute normality to white people and Whiteness.’”

And, as usual, “The result of all these programs is a racial and ideological spoils system, in which groups are rewarded or punished based on their identity and political orientation, rather than their academic merit.”

You might ask why the governments of Canada and the United States are so determined to destroy their universities. The answer is that this tactic is part of their larger strategy to destroy all traditional institutions in order to replace them with authoritarian one-party states. Woke ideology is just a cover for the ultimate power grab. The Communist Party of China appears to be the ideal and model.


Philip Carl Salzman is professor emeritus of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, fellow at the Middle East Forum, and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Appeared originally in the Epoch Times.

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