Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On freedom

While I've been spending so much painful time watching and thinking about recent Occupy-related protests on American university campuses, I've been thinking again about fundamental values, both those spelled out in UVic's draft Strategic Plan and those I tend to hold dear. Here are the Plan's declared values:
The following fundamental values will inform all of our actions and are a prerequisite to fulfilling the purpose of the university:
  • intellectual and ethical integrity
  • freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry
  • equal rights and dignity of all persons.
And here's what I sniped a few weeks ago:
So ... the basic assumptions of a democratic society and of any university anywhere ever, some of which are entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? THOSE are the fundamental values of this university?
Handy PR tip: claiming as a "fundamental value" the nation's legal minimum standards may not be as impressive as you think.
I went on to say that the university, as a matter of principle, needs to take on leadership roles in areas that it feels are important, and that this draft statement of fundamental values failed to do that. My focus throughout this blog so far has been on ecological principles, but let's set that aside for now.

Events at UC-Davis, in particular, have suggested that, in assuming near-absoluteness for freedoms of expression and inquiry, maybe I'm giving too much credit to The Powers That Be. If police in Seattle can pepper-spray an 84-year-old woman not actively protesting, then maybe I shouldn't assume that my right to declare myself peacefully will be respected. If New York police can throw a self-proclaimed library in a dumpster, then maybe I shouldn't assume a broad cultural respect for independent intellectual inquiry. If the University of California's own security staff are so ready to use pepper spray against students sitting on a sidewalk in protest, then maybe other universities' security staff are similarly ready to take similar action. Maybe security staff are ready here at UVic to do this: please understand, I say this not to impugn them, simply to insist that the individual YouTubed experiences we're all watching can and must be generalized to other individual circumstances.

To that extent and for those reasons, I'm now somewhat more tolerant of the draft Fundamental Values: the university really does need to reaffirm its belief in and support for these abstract principles of freedom, integrity, and dignity.

But you know what? I'm embarrassed by it, both by my tolerance and by the need for reaffirmation. I've spent years and years thinking that human civilization was ready to reach further and do more, with this a core part of my desire toward activist change, and yet here we are, once again pledging allegiance to established principles of justice. Good on UVic for making the pledge.

But it hurts, it really does hurt, to know that maybe we're not equipped to do any better than we've been pledging to do for so many years.

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