Canadians A Bit Too Polite

UBC president talks about free speech

Is political correctness choking the Canadian campus?

Globe and Mail Update

June 6, 2008 at 8:07 PM EDT

Is political correctness killing our university campuses?

Last week two leading Canadian scholars told a gathering of academics in Vancouver that steering clear of confrontation and trying to find consensus isn’t challenging important issues.

“If it does not happen here, where will it happen?” said University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope.

“I think in Canada we are a bit too polite,” observed Prof. Toope, a Harvard graduate who studied law at McGill before going to Cambridge for graduate studies. “We are a little afraid of controversy.”

‘I think in Canada we are a bit too polite,’ says University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope. ‘We are a little afraid of controversy.’ (Handout photo)

Scholars must encourage ‘hot debate’ on campuses, UBC president says.

His concerns were shared by McGill professor and medical ethicist Margaret Somerville, who warned that the free exchange of ideas on Canadian campuses is being threatened by the growing power of “political correctness.”

Prof. Somerville, who has taken firm stands on contentious topics such as same-sex marriage and reproductive technology, says too often her critics respond to her views, not with respectful discussion, but with extreme labels designed to shut down debate. The result, she said, is a clear message to others that such opinions are not welcome on campus. It’s a tactic, she said, that threatens a central role of university campuses.

Prof. Toope challenged Canadian scholars to have open conversations. He said if academics from different disciplines are going to work together to address the fundamental challenges of this generation, they need to be willing to engage with those who have different perspectives, not just tolerate them or take part in what he called “dialogues of the deaf.”

What do you think? Is free discussion being crippled by political correctness? Or is the search for open dialogue an excuse for intolerance?

We’re please that Prof. Toope will join us live online Monday at 1 p.m. ET to discuss these issues. Send your questions now and join us then for the discussion. Prof. Toope’s answers will appear at the bottom of this page.

Prof. Stephen J. Toope is the 12th President and Vice Chancellor or the University of British Columbia.

An international human rights legal scholar, Prof. Toope previously served as founding President of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and as Dean of the McGill Faculty of Law. He is a graduate of Cambridge (PhD), McGill (LLB, BCL) and Harvard (AB).

Editor’s Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

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