On Feb. 13, Quebec Premier François Legault made waves by posting a lengthy commentary on his facebook page against “radicals who want to censor, muzzle, intimidate, and limit freedom of speech” in Quebec universities. This came just two days after Journal de Montréal columnist Mathieu Bock-Côté called for state intervention to “defend academic freedom” and thoroughly reform the university system.
This debate over the state of the universities is only the latest chapter in a saga well underway. For months, if not years, rightwing politicians and their media have been working relentlessly to defend freedom of expression against the so-called authoritarianism of the left, “cancel culture” and “woke” ideology. For example Mathieu Bock-Côté, the general of an army of Journal de Montréal columnists in this holy war, asserted last September that, “strangely enough, the main threat to freedom of expression may no longer be [Islamism and the left that collaborates with it].” The great civilizational peril is now “woke culture,” that “form of ideological hysteria” supposedly imported to Quebec campuses from the United States.
The argument put forward by these columnists, and by François Legault, is more or less as follows: the left has gone beyond the limits of a civilized debate by calling those they disagree with “racist” or “sexist,” by demonstrating against transphobic speakers, by opposing the use of the N-word, etc. According to Bock-Côté, the left now maintains a climate of censorship thanks to “ideological militias” that do not tolerate divergent points of view. Intolerance is equated with censorship.
Playing the victim
First, it is time to bury once and for all the myth that the conservative right is the victim of appalling censorship. Mathieu Bock-Côté writes several times a week in the Journal de Montréal—the most widely circulated French-language daily in the Americas—and regularly appears as a panelist on the TVA television network. As if that wasn’t enough, he is a frequent guest on talk shows and debate programs. Bock-Côté is far from alone. Many other columnists and radio hosts are at the helm of influential platforms, on which they all invite each other to spread ideas that are most often conservative, nationalist, Islamophobic, and anti-union. Are these people being censored?
No, the conservative right is not a victim of censorship. They simply want to silence any opposition, and thus deliberately conflate “freedom of expression” and “the right not to be criticized.” This rhetorical pirouette of the right is nothing more than the temper tantrum of a spoiled child who doesn’t want to be contradicted.
Not only is the right not censored, but they are themselves guilty of intimidating the left with all their might. Our home-grown knights of free speech are certainly not shy about “cancelling” divergent opinions.
The most recent case of Legault-style “cancel culture” is that surrounding the appointment of Bochra Manaï to the new position of Anti-Racism Commissioner at the City of Montreal. The right have launched a concerted campaign against this appointment, criticizing Bochra Manaï for having taken a stance against Bill 21 (the religious symbols ban) in the past and her activism as a spokesperson with the National Council of Canadian Muslims. Premier Legault interfered in this process personally. Clearly, when it comes to his own positions, the premier has no problem “curtailing the freedom of speech” of his critics by threatening their jobs.
The power of the left-wing “wokes” to impose their ideas pales in comparison to the right-wing “ideological militias.” If Mathieu Bock-Côté insists on calling the left the “new inquisition,” he may need reminding of the actions of his own camp. Think of the relentless campaigns of certain right-wing politicians and columnists against left-wing public figures, more often than not women.
Quebec Solidaire legislator Catherine Dorion has been the victim of a ridiculous smear campaign led by Sophie Durocher and Denise Bombardier of the Journal de Montréal. This was based around how she dressed in parliament which they deemed to be disrespectful. She was also censored on numerous occasions when she worked at the Journal de Québec. She was explicitly told that she could not criticize Pierre Karl Péladeau, the president of Quebecor Media, who owns the newspaper.
Cree activist Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash was attacked by then-opposition leader Jean-François Lisée and his throng of followers following the broadcast of her educational segment on Télé-Québec about systemic racism.
Dalila Awada, who became a public figure during the debates on the PQ’s Charter of Quebec Values, was the victim of a campaign of harassment and defamation by cyberbullies in 2018. In the context of collective hysteria surrounding the wearing of religious symbols, particularly the veil, in public institutions, she was falsely linked to a Shia Islamist movement by a blogger. This whole situation had been perpetuated by the ruling class, its politicians and its commentators (particularly Richard Martineau of the Journal de Montréal).
So if the actions of the right—and of Legault himself—show us that they have nothing to do with freedom of expression, why all this talk of intervention on campuses? In reality, this “war on woke” is not intended to protect freedom of expression or academic freedom, but rather it will serve as a pretext for rightwing ideas to be more prevelent on campuses, while restricting the ability to criticize them.
This is exactly what has happened elsewhere. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford used the issue of so-called freedom of expression to ban campus demonstrations. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are in the process of preventing the teaching of “anti-capitalist material” in the classroom, under the guise of fighting for academic freedom and free discussion on campus.
Marxists defend all democratic rights, including freedom of expression. But we must trust neither the Legault government nor the bourgeois state in general to guarantee these rights. Freedom of expression is a concrete issue. Under capitalism, where media platforms are concentrated in a few hands, the university is increasingly commodified and education is inaccessible to the poor, there is no real freedom of expression for the oppressed, youth, or workers.
On which front should we fight?
There is no doubt that the right-wing offensive against “woke” can only lead to attacks against the left and must be fought. However, it must be stressed that there is an ounce of truth hidden in the dung heap of right-wing critics. If the right and the extreme right are able to present activists in universities as “censors,” it is because they exaggerate very real traits.
The university left wants to fight against all oppressions, and rightly so. But since they have completely abandoned the perspective of class struggle in favor of various forms of identity politics, they find themselves accepting the capitalist economic status quo. Thus the struggle against oppression is reduced to questions of symbols, words, discourse, and representation. This then allows the right to present the left as entirely preoccupied with trivial issues and wanting to police language.
Of course, symbolic struggles are not to be dismissed out of hand, as we argued when the statue of John A. MacDonald was pulled down. Racism and oppression must be fought with all our might, whatever form they take. However, symbolic struggles are far from sufficient to end the oppression of women, racialized people, LGBT people, etc., which goes far beyond words and discourse. When this kind of issue becomes the heart of the struggle, we have lost all sense of proportion.
Moreover, purely symbolic changes do not really endanger the ruling class and its representatives who are responsible for oppression. This opens the door to a hypocritical appropriation of the demands of oppressed groups by the liberals. They can then present themselves as great defenders of women and minorities by making a big deal about symbolic measures, while opposing any reform that would concretely improve the conditions of the oppressed.
This is the case with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who is undoubtedly the Canadian champion of using symbolic measures to hide his reactionary policies. Trudeau and his government consistently make Indigenous land acknowledgement statements. But this does not prevent them from then unleashing state repression on Indigenous communities when they resist pipeline projects on their lands. Similarly the US Democrats present the election of Kamala Harris as vice president as a great victory for women and racialized people, despite the fact that she is a champion of police repression against racialized people. Identity politics serves as a tool for capitalist politicians like Harris or Trudeau to present themselves as being on the side of the oppressed. A class analysis helps unmask the ruling class which uses symbolism and identity politics to deceive us.
The reality is that oppression of all kinds is the result of the artificial scarcity maintained by capitalism. Capitalists use various forms of chauvinism and xenophobia to justify their increased exploitation of certain categories of workers. They make it possible to pay women less, to confine immigrants to slums, to have a layer of workers who have no other choice but to accept degrading jobs, etc. Chauvinist ideologies then allow workers to be played off against each other in a struggle for a greater share of the crumbs that are given to us. Our struggle must be that of all the oppressed in a common struggle against those who profit from oppression: the capitalists and their state.
Instead of accepting the capitalist system and essentially fighting to make the speeches of our exploiters less openly contemptuous, we should demand an end to exploitation. Instead of the methods of identity politics, we should fight the Legault government, and fight oppression, with class struggle methods.
Legault’s intervention on campus will inevitably have the effect of restricting rather than protecting freedom of expression. Attacks on the right to demonstrate and repression of left-wing ideas are to be expected. The student movement should mobilize to resist this attack. We must demand genuine freedom of expression, with measures such as access to completely free higher education, democratic control of education institutions by employees and students, and an end to privately funded university research. Naturally, this government would be opposed to such measures. They and their right-wing friends would then be exposed for what they are: not a bunch of noble defenders of our freedoms, but a bunch of bullies with reactionary ideas.