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 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.

[Related: “Ending Woke Culture Wars: Different Worldviews Require Different Institutions”]

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.

[Related: “What Poisoned the Pond?”]

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.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Epoch Times on February 7, 2023 and is republished here with permission.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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10 thoughts on “What I Learned When Students Tried to Cancel Me

  1. The reason these student groups wield such influence is college administrators are by and large cowards. Adults would tell these student groups to go pound sand or find some other school to attend. But, these days we don’t have the adults in charge on college campuses.

    1. Patti — it’s actually worse than mere spinelessness.

      The average tenure of a top level college administrator today is something like 5-7 years, they are a nomadic cohort who drift from one high paying job to another, with loyalty only to themselves and their careers. Hence they don’t care about the long-term consequences of any decisions they may make because they will be long gone by then and it will be someone else’s problem…

      Kors & Silverglate put it best in Shadow University — their motto is “no trouble on my watch.”

      The real question you want to ask is why all the radical student groups are on the left and there are three reasons for this. First, the colleges literally organize such groups, providing student phone numbers and email addresses to the group leaders, providing administrative support (persons and space), and funding them. (Like those investigating Watergate were told, follow the money…)

      Second, institutions look aside when unsavory leftists come onto campus — sometimes even inviting them, eg. Raymond Levasseur at UMass Amherst see: https://www.foxnews.com/story/convicted-terrorist-to-speak-at-university-despite-objections and https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna33833791

      Third, the institutions know that the majority of their undergrads do not support this DIE foolishness and they live in fear of them showing up en masse. Much of student affairs is organized around preventing this from happening, everything from the removal of the traditional bulletin boards to the use of facial recognition technologies to prosecute students for attending unauthorized gatherings.

      Kors & Silverglate were speaking about the top level administrators — not the staff ones, who are far further to the left than most faculty, and have the time to organize this stuff.

      Don’t think that it is the undergraduates themselves who are organizing these groups. While undergrads may nominally lead them, it is paid university employees (at least a paid graduate student) who is doing the organizing and motivating. And as there is no one in student affairs to the political right of Vladimir Lenin, you can see how everything else happens…

      1. As an academic I can say that the administrators aren’t (for the most part) cowards (though some are); they are the primary drivers of campus radicalism. They “give in” to radical student groups because they AGREE with them; the groups are put up to provide the excuse for administrative action. This is partly because university administrators tend to be leftist ideologues, and partly because this is a way for them to increase their power.

        And at more selective universities, administrators actually now shape their student bodies through the admissions process to be dominated by left-wing radicals, and to have as few conservatives and moderates as possible. So it’s all rigged from the start.

  2. “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.”

    I can’t speak to the Canadian government, and was truly shocked by the truly fascist oppression of the Canadian truck drivers although, reflecting on the plight of the English language in PdQ, I probably ought not have been surprised. (I can’t imagine a US State mandating private businesses to only have English on its signage, or to mandate that its employees only speak English in the workplace — the only question is *which* reason a court used to overturn it, I have no doubt one quickly would.)

    And there is a strategy to destroy young people’s links to their community foundation so as to change them — and it’s part of why we have so many discipline issues in higher ed, but I digress. But this is on the lower level, in the “grunt” level jobs that no one really pays attention to who is being hired into.

    I don’t think it is malicious on the legislative level, or even on the top administrative level — Harvey Silverglate and Alan Kors, in Shadow University, presented a different thesis, that of “no trouble on my watch.” Truly spineless administrators pandering to bullies so as not to have “trouble” until they could go onto their next job.

    The issue of street signs in Quebec, as explained to me by a Canadian Studies professor, is reflective of the problem. Circa 1970, Quebec (like all of Canada) was officially bilingual and Quebec street signs were printed in both languages — e.g. both “stop” and “arrête” — see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_signs_in_Canada#/media/File:Bilingualstopsign.jpg — even though “stop” is both a French word and the actual word used in France.

    The problem was that the bilingual signs were vandalized, with the English words painted out, with such frequency that the people who had to keep replacing the signs simply gave up and went with French-only signs. The same is true of much of Higher Education — we’ve had 55 years of the radical left attempting to impose its agenda through violent means and no one willing to stand up to them.

    Nor has anyone been willing to stand up to the leftist criminal thugs who have plagued higher education for the past 50 years. And that is why we are where we now are — not because of any particular intent but because of gross spinelessness.

    I don’t think the state legislatures truly want ChiCom-style universities, I don’t think that even Masschusetts wants that — it’s just that they (a) respect people with letters after their names and (b) are too spineless to stand up to the thugs.

    DeSantis may be changing this — and while he is a political animal and probably a loose cannon, he may well wind up rescuing higher education from itself…

  3. ” 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.”

    While Canada, like the former Soviet Union, has a constitution which purportedly protects the rights of citizens, like the former Soviet Union, it is a hollow promise.

    We are so lucky to have an established First Amendment in the United States — and a tradition of free speech that goes all the way back to the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, who had written something that had upset the Royal Governor.

    This is why it is important to defend the rights of the Tiki Torch Brigade — their right to make fools out of themselves defends the rights of people like Dr. Widdowson.

    And she is yet another example of why I don’t think tenure is worth preserving — *she* had tenure and it didn’t protect her…

  4. The last paragraph, the last sentence tell it all. They’re all just a bunch of communists! Salzman has gone and done it again. This shows to normal people that the opposition to DEI is verging on just plain nuts.

    1. During the Cold War, I took several courses in understanding the Soviet Union, taught by people who were not fans of the Soviet Union.

      These courses were immensely helpful in understanding the purgatorial gulag known as the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. No, I’m not saying that they were all communists — they actually were more fascist than anything else — but then Leonid Brezhnev was actually more fascist than anything else as well.

      Saying that they are all communists was probably hyperbole on Salzman’s part, but you have to admit the strong resemblance to the communists, particularly in the methods employed.

    2. The left wing Concern Troll has returned and has cast off the usual “yeah but-ism” guise and now open displays slavering defense of the DEI Kommisariat.

      Worse than communists, they are Stalinists.

      I would guess you are sock puppet for John Wilson except you lack the usual self-absorbed whataboutism and legal quackery.

  5. The only way in which professor Salzman is a racist, is in his support for Israel, which explicitly includes as citizens some people who have no known ancestors there, because of their ‘race’, while excluding millions with Palestinian great-grandparents.

    Typically, the students calling for his cancelation don’t mention this, but rather, claim he undermines “the right of Muslims and People of Colour have to feel safe”. So long as leftists talk like this, Zionists have nothing to worry about. And the professor should have the freedom to criticize Islam, and to support the Jewish state.

    1. If Israel is so racist and treats “Palestinians” so badly, why would any sane “Palestinian” want to move there? Historically, oppressed peoples have sought to leave countries where they are oppressed, e.g. Jews in the Soviet Union.

      Above and beyond that, why is there such a focus on the “Palestinians” and not other groups such as the Coptic Christians — against whom a literal genocide is in process — with only CAMERA (a Jewish organization) making a fuss about it.

      Let me know when the beaches of Israel are running red with the blood of beheaded “Palestinians”, much like other beaches, in other countries, are with disturbing frequency.

      Furthermore, the “Palestinians” twice picked the wrong side in a global war. They first were allied with Hitler during WWII and then with the Soviets during the Cold War. Much as Austria learned after WWI and certain American Indian tribes learned after the War of 1812, there are consequences for being on the loosing side of a war.

      Notwithstanding that, the United Nations partitioned the British Mandate of Palestine, with Jordan and associated lands being intended for the so-called “Palestinians” and Israel for the Jews. The response was war in 1948, 1967, & 1973 — all of which you lost.

      And then while people refer to the January 6th Frat Party as an “Insurrection”, the “Palestinians” already living in Israel have had an ongoing series of them for the past 35+ years. Why should Israel — a sovereign country — admit any more?

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