The Plague-Ground – A Tale of Two Women in One City

Lead a blameless life and communicate only via carrier pigeon.

That feels like the only way to avoid the people who are toppling reputations these days and cancelling free speech in the name of defending it.

This happened to two Toronto women recently and their stories and fates reveal just how intolerant tolerance has become.

The first tale involves Vickery Bowles, the Chief Librarian of Toronto.

Last October, Meghan Murphy booked a room at the Toronto Reference Library to give a talk on why transgender women shouldn’t be allowed in women’s spaces. Writers and politicians including John Tory railed against this violation of ….. well, of what, exactly?

I’m no fan of Ms. Murphy’s views, but if she wants to rent a room at the library to offer them, so what? Yes, the library is a city service. Yes, our taxes pay for it. But yes also, libraries have become public squares where people from all sides can speak. It’s not that the library invited Ms. Murphy to speak as part of a library-sponsored speaker series. She was a third-party renter, like you or I would be.

You’d think Vickery Bowles was advocating hate speech, which is a crime.

Despite enormous pressure to give in, she said: “I’m not going to reconsider”. This only made matters worse. So Bowles had to find her own podium, The Empire Club of Canada, to offer this primer on Voltaire’s idea that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

As she said: “What was so surprising to me in this whole debate was that we found ourselves defending free speech; while those who were opposing the library’s decision said we were undermining the rights of the transgender community, undermining their equity and inclusion rights, and putting this vulnerable community at risk of greater discrimination and even physical harm.”

It’s no fluke Bowles’ speech was entitled A Librarian’s Timeless Mission: Supporting Social Justice Through Freedom of Speech.

In fact, I would argue that one reason the Toronto Public Library is the busiest library system in the world is precisely because people of all backgrounds and values feel at home there. Not some. All.

The second woman who was flayed in public is Margaret Wente, the former Globe and Mail columnist.

Last month, she was blackballed as a junior fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto. Her crime? She was insufficiently negative in a review written in 2014 that identified race with culture.

Massey’s faculty and students were enraged. Wente was accused of being a racist and a sexist. Scores of faculty signed a petition against Wente’s nomination. Dozens threatened to resign if she were allowed to be a junior fellow. One faculty member, Alissa Trotz, did resign, claiming she was blindsided by the nomination, even though she was on the nominating committee.

So Margaret Wente withdrew her nomination, kept her mouth shut and walked off into the summer.

Until yesterday when she replied to her attackers in an article in Quillette, the platform for free thought.

The title says it all: It Wasn’t My Cancelation That Bothered Me. It Was the Cowardice of Those Who Let It Happen.

I learned a lot,” she wrote.  “I learned how easily an institution will cave to a mob. I learned how quickly the authorities will run for cover, notwithstanding the lip service they may pay to principles of free speech. After all, they’re terrified. They’re afraid that if they don’t beg forgiveness and promise to do better, they’ll be next at the guillotine.”

Now Vickery Bowles and Margaret Wente can defend themselves, and did. But not everyone has the bully pulpits they do.

So what will you do when you think the rush to reshape our history and habits and laws falls prey to its own excesses?

It feels that we’re in the early days of a revolution.

Every revolution begins by overcoming repression. But all revolutions then quickly embrace The Terror, the time following the initial exhilaration when nuance, second thought and bystanders of varying innocence and guilt are loaded into paddy wagons at night, never to be seen again.

Just look at what’s happening in Russia, China, Brazil – and America.

Here in Canada, we’re in the bush leagues when it comes to losing our freedom of speech. Margaret Wente didn’t lose her livelihood, and her Massey College kerfuffle reminds me of what  Henry Kissinger said: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

But the next time you’re asked to join a march, sign a petition, or cancel someone because you don’t like what they did yesterday or wrote long ago, or their race, gender, income or position disagrees with you, please spare a thought for precisely why Canada is one of the most tolerant countries in the world.

Then say two of the hardest words in the world to say when you’re being attacked:

“Let’s talk.”

If you don’t get an answer, or if the answer is a flamethrower, at least you stuck to a value they didn’t.

*    *    *    *    *    *

I’m off – as is The Plague-Ground – until I return from holidays on July 20th.

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35 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – A Tale of Two Women in One City”

  1. Diana Tremain

    Bravo Bob – excellent article. I can proudly say I resigned from my association with Massey as a member of the Quadrangle Society because of the shabby treatment of Margaret Wente.
    Every academic institution today seems to fall on their knees to the mob and political correctness, a sickening development.

  2. Jamie Laidlaw

    Bob: This is a terrific piece. May I add read David Brooks in the NYT today about Liberal Enlightenment values ina the perilous age of facile polarization. The Wente Incident fulfils HK’s discerning observation however one correction. She was nominated and accepted as a Quadrangle Society member a light category(after all I am included) created by the last Master John Fraser to bring the Junior Fellows whom the college is designed to benefit people with some experience of the world at large that may be of interest to them. Wente was decidedly not a Junior Fellow. And one might conclude not of interest to certain Junior Fellows and others. I think this is unprecedented but Massey like all institutions has had its grating moments. I am too young and naive to have an opinion that would not be turned into mincemeat and based into a pie not of my own making. So I demure when it comes to direct comment. Keeping the friendships I have developed which are marvellous and hoping there will be more. Easy does it. All the best. Great work!

    1. Jamie — Actually, I think Brooks’ piece should be compulsory reading for all of us. Sorry about the slipup with junior fellows and quadranglers!

  3. Jamie Laidlaw

    Apologies that would be baked into a pie. I was asked for an opinion years ago on another incident of contention and was treated with contempt for saying that I did not know enough to have an opinion. So there we are. If I learn how to bake a pie myself someday I will let you know.

  4. Sandra Pierce

    Bob — Great piece. I’ve long been a fan of Wente’s. As a woman I have admired and been influenced by her outspokenness. And that fact that she never fell prey to the “epidemic” of political correctness that has consumed our country. And thank you for sharing her piece.

  5. Michael Gundy

    Thank you, Bob. Both Meghan Murphy and Margaret Wente are clearly examples of the current piling on, public shaming and discrediting that has become the norm. May I suggest you look at “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” found in Harper’s. It is signed by 153 public intellectuals.

    The Letter is a plea for civility and measured debate, something that was not offered to Meghan and Margaret. To do otherwise is oppression, as defined by Nelson Mandella “Oppression is to speak as if the other has no voice.”

    1. Michael — Thanks so much for sending me the link to this piece. I agree entirely. The tyranny of the left
      (a group in which I am a card-carrying member) seems to be growing more absolute.
      Cheers. Bob

  6. Hi Bob;
    I have loved all your PlagueGrounds – this one really hit me in the heart. It is really important the people hear this! Thank you!!!

  7. Bob, excellent article. Thank you for writing it. Vickery Bowles was brilliant in her defence of her decision, and Massey bungled the Wente case. I offer here a quote from the longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer: ““Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” — The Temper of Our Time.

  8. Michele Carroll

    As a woman who has read Peggy Wente for a long time and has a journalism degree from 1977, I have great respect for her honesty, astute analysis and courage. All traits contributing to greatness in a columnist. Many dinner table conversations around her columns were not received with the same enthusiasm from my sons who came of age In an era of slowly advancing and insidious political correctness. Ms. Wente expressed their mother’s views. This was infuriating but thankfully , over time, they have realized her commentary was insightful and spot on. She is a strong woman with opinions. The response of Massey College in all it’s ridiculous irrelevance is shameful and stupid. Where is free speech and debate and what is the philosophic principle on which their reaction rests? Ms. Wente would have contributed greatly and the College was too blinded by fear of the mob to realize. Not to be over dramatic, but I think this is another sign of social unraveling. We can’t count on the judgement of our premier institution of higher learning. It’s time for all of us to speak out against the devastation that can result from stifling free speech. Enjoy your paddle Bob. Thanks for a great week of reads. Loved The Passport.

  9. I expect Canadian victims of the evolving Terror such as Paul Bunner and Trinity Christian University would describe our heavy-handed approach as “major league”. It all depends on one’s perspective. Enjoy your well-earned break Bob. I trust you will come back refreshed to continue your interesting and necessary journalism.

  10. Amazing amount of bullying to prevent a retired journalist with long, well-earned credentials from attending a few book club events.

  11. Well said, Bob. An important issue.
    It is perhaps worth noting that four senior fellows, including Margaret MacMillan and William Thorsell, did speak up for Peggy Wente and ultimately resigned from Massey as a result of this calumny.

  12. Sheila Robinson

    Excellent article Bob. I would be happy to join those who resigned from the College over this, but I already resigned over the Michael Marrus debacle.

  13. I wish that an elementary course in dialectics was taught in all high schools. Thesis (hot), meets antithesis (cold) forming a synthesis (not necessarily warm) which becomes the new thesis (that in fact may be hotter than the original thesis and colder than the original antithesis. Smashing of ideas is a creative process. Oy vey.

  14. I wish a course in elementary dialectics was taught in all high schools. Shortly put: thought starts with a thesis (eg. : hot) which triggers an antithesis (eg. : cold), resulting in a synthesis (not necessarily warm, sometimes hotter than original hot or colder than original cold).

    The synthesis then becomes a new thesis and the process repeats itself,… the idea being that the smash of creative ideas moves us forward in the ever unfolding history of thought.

  15. I totally agree with your general point, Bob, and am a fan of Vickery Bowles. However, there is serious issue with Margaret Wente’s history of plagiarism, which is in my view a real problem for an academic institution like Massey College.

    1. Julia — I take your point about plagiarism and have never understood how she got tied up in it.

    2. Sheila — That’s very funny! I think I was a Quadrangle member long ago. But never went, so I quit.
      But they still keep sending me material. An odd organization. Cheers. Bob

    3. Thanks so much, Michele….we WILL enjoy our paddle….and thanks for your insights on family dynamics as well.
      Cheers. Bob

    4. Bernie — If you keep sending me more of these wonderful quotes, I’m going to use them!

    5. Gail — I don’t think she’s denying the plagiarism. I can see how it would conflict with an academic institution. But the Quadrangle Club
      at Massey isn’t exactly an official academic institution. It is more a social club.

  16. Thanks for this insightful and factual article, and for the links to the additional reading. It’s valuable to have the whole story before reacting.

    1. Deb – Glad you connected on this. Indeed, if we all don’t succumb to coronavirus, political correctness could get us!

  17. Madeline Thompson

    This is a piece, and conversation, that must be published and read. It is so alarming
    to hear how politically correct some Canadians have become, how quickly they can
    respond with truly harmful actions against those who express opinions counter to what
    they believe. Actually engage in an activity that will harm that person.

    It’s the same old thing again and again, it looks more alarming because social
    media permits free speech. But that is only half the equation, the other half are those
    who say ‘me too’, a kind of club that reverberates until the their target must flee. I am
    so happy these two women spoke up, and recognize they already have a solid platform,
    well earned, from which to speak. So far, there are no governors against this kind of retribution
    for ‘improper thinking’ of others, although there are governors against hate speech (and
    which are tricky to define). When an individual is harmed because he or she engages in open
    free speech, and those who disagree – and are in a position to do so – cause real and
    identifiable harm to them, is there no way of stopping that kind of damage? I’ve seen this
    again and again online – vindictive responses to an individual’s opinions, designed to cause
    them viable harm. I agree it is a conundrum.

    1. Madeline — Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I agree with you, it is not only a conundrum, but a suffocating illness
      that muffles us all. More to come! Cheers and thanks again. Bob

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