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Purely at the institutional level, it’s troubling enough to watch the current media revolution in which the workers seek control of the means of redaction.
Journalistic greybeards know in their bones no good can come from recent eruptions whereby younger(ish) newsroom collectives sought to press their political ways on outlets as august as the New York Times, the Washington Post, theNational Post and theCBC. The affliction has spread even to fluffier publications such as Teen Vogue, whose newly appointed editor was infamously fired after one day on the job in order to stem staff rebellion over tweets she authored as a 16-year-old.
Of course, there has always been, shall we say, creative tension within media. On one side of the fault line are busy beavers who buzz about each day gathering info and fantasies from which to craft painstakingly produced rapid-fire, typo-littered, fact-challenged breathless reports. On the other are experienced editors wise enough to cry “Reverse Ferret” before the news ship goes off the rails. Arguments between the two solitudes have, at times, been known to ensue.
For example, I’m not certain whether the claim I’m about to report is actually supported by Scripture. (I could fact check it if I weren’t so lazy.) But reliable sources tell me that Moses vigorously protested God’s “suggested edits” to early drafts of the original 110 Commandments. I do know, without even having to Google it, that God ultimately stood His editorial ground and won. Why? Because… well… He ultimately always does, doesn’t He?
The same ordered hierarchy traditionally underlay the age old editorial adage that everyone needs an editor. No one needs one more than the group-think emboldened, three-year journo who fervently condemns the Canadian Press Caps & Spelling guide as a mere tool of racist patriarchal systemic oppression. As a former colleague of mine at the Montreal Gazette used to bellow when faced with such note book toting true believers: “Taxi!”
That “git me outta here” outlet is precisely why the big media’s current internal turmoil is troubling, but not exactly apocalypse news. What remains of the day always goes to consumers, who were wielding their power to say “cancel” long before the word was elevated to a whole culture. When newspapers no longer offered content customers needed and wanted to buy, cascading cancellations doomed the newspaper industry. The process began decades before the Internet was invented as a handy excuse to explain the demise of the Daily Bleat in towns and cities across North America.
It’s an end Facebook, Google, Twitter et al might want to ponder before investing too heavily in the belief they’re too big to likewise fail. They should remember, especially in our epoch of amnesia, that nothing and no one is too important to be forgotten. Ask Sully Prudhomme, winner of the 1901 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yeah, I’d never heard of him either.
But if we need not fret too much about when the bell might toll for social media as it already has for its legacy media predecessors, serious concern is warranted for the institutional crisis besetting North American universities. A calamity is underway that threatens much more than the particular forms of information we receive. It puts at risk our very capacity to analyze and adjudicate what is true, or even verifiable.
“In the past 20 years, the university has become a commodity that exists to give undergraduates an educational experience that makes them happy, like going to a country club, or where they feel safe, like going to a hospital, instead of a place where they are challenged intellectually,” says McGill University’s Pat Kambhampati.
“Scholarship involves using principles, reason, logic and evidence to get a better picture of reality. That can happen only where there’s a marketplace of ideas (and) critical thought. We can’t do it in what is now meant by a safe space,” he added.
Kambhampati isn’t speaking in philosophical or political abstractions. He’s an associate professor whose research focuses on the physical complexities and practical purpose of nanotechnology. He works intellectually at the boundary where chemistry and physics meet.
Yet he says what began as a movement to give students “empowerment” has morphed, through “wokeism” and “cancel culture,” into the shutting down of ideas, hypotheses, arguments, research and processes arbitrarily deemed lacking in diversity, equity or inclusion. Nor are the effects limited to what he calls “grievance studies” within the humanities.
Kambhampati says he’s been denied research funding for cutting edge science strictly because the mandatory “DEI” – diversity, equity, inclusion – statement on a grant application was judged inadequate.
“I've actually lost funding based upon my desire to focus on the excellence of the researcher and the diversity of experience rather than diversity of skin color. The irony is not lost on me (given) my race, my group, my family,” he says.
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Last week, he and group of McGill scholars launched THINKSPACE: A SAFE PLACE FOR REASON under the auspices of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. While THINKSPACE hopes to have a public launch and forums starting next September, its kickoff media release stresses it won’t be just another lobby group for pointy headed college professors who can’t park a bicycle straight on campus. Its goal is nothing less than returning to the university its traditional freedom to question and to “contend through rational inquiry” rather than political pressure tactics.
“We in science are supposed to question everything all the time but we can’t do that anymore. We in science are afraid to ask questions out loud, and that is the hardest thing in the world,” Kambhampati says.
Crucially, he notes, the ills plaguing the university in general are generational in nature. They arise from a type of thinking that took hold of educational faculties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The current crop of “social justice warriors” seeking to shame and silence those with whom they disagree are the product of what began in their grade schools around that time.
“The educational (faculties) created teachers, the teachers educated the children, then lo and behold those children showed up at university. It took a cycle of about a generation, which means by 2010 you start to see students unable to think critically, only able to emote and talk about their feelings, how they needed safe spaces and trigger warnings. We wanted students who could have critical thoughts. We got students who were undergoing the revolution every time Jordan Peterson showed up (on) campus.”
The good news, Kambhampati says, is that there’s an increasing wariness, if not outright rejection, of social warrior dogma and tactics among students he teaches and encounters at McGill. The cautionary note, he emphasizes, is that a lot of damage has been done already and broader society can’t stand by with its arms folded hoping the higher education revolution plays out of its own accord.
“The institution is an incredibly important institution. It’s delicate. Democracy is delicate and precious. So is academia. The delicacy comes from the ability to think and speak freely.”
In other words, our institutions themselves are under threat when emotion, not prudence, is key to the work of redaction.
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