Shortly after her visit to the University of Western Ontario, media outlets began to document the more controversial aspects of Ann Coulter.
Shortly after her visit to the University of Western Ontario, media outlets began to document the more controversial aspects of Ann Coulter. Coulter, an American, right-wing pundit, columnist, and writer came to Canada to speak to university students on issues of liberal media bias, political correctness, and free speech. She was also promoting her latest book Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and their Assault on America. Responses to her visit, a tour called Ann Coulter in Canada that included stopovers at the universities of Calgary, Ottawa, and Western Ontario, ran the gamut from elated approval to near-riotous outrage – preventing her from even reaching the podium at the University of Ottawa.
Despite that event’s reception and whether or not it was considered successful, it is true the publicity it generated was enough to draw the attention from many outside the university. One could speculate that this kind of publicity is, above all else, Coulter’s raison d’être. News reports following the event echoed this claim: “She couldn’t have bought better publicity….Who knows if she actually believes the stuff she spews; it’s simply an occupation…” wrote the Toronto Sun’s Paul Berton, opining on Coulter’s cancelled speech at the University of Ottawa. CTV’s Lloyd Robertson characterized her as a “lightning rod,” alluding to her controversial disposition as a public figure. Contributors to the blog Countering Coulter (http://counteringcoulter.wordpress.com also made their objections noted, with the kind of inflammatory invective only guaranteed by web blog anonymity.
But to conclude that her visit to Canada was simply a means of achieving notoriety by way of diatribe does not answer a question that has been on my mind since her visit to the University of Western Ontario, a visit I attended. What was it precisely that happened during her talk at UWO that had me leaving the event disappointed? My decision to attend her talk as a participant and observer had to do with my interest in how Coulter’s views, largely understood to represent a radical, libertarian Right, would fare against members of a Canadian university, supposedly a site of critical thought, reflection, and tolerance. Not just a tolerance for ethnic, religious, and sexual differences, but a tolerance for differences in ideas too.
Media reports following the UWO event vividly captured the mood of many from the community. It was clear they, like Megan Walker, a local activist, were not shy about expressing their disapproval of Coulter, labelling her a “firebrand,” “venomous,” and one who “crosses the line promoting hatred and violence.” Criticizing Coulter rather than her message, however, does not allow one to appreciate fully the significance of her visit and what it may represent. Although it was clear that people were troubled by Coulter’s visit to UWO, what made people feel this way (moral oppositions aside) remains unclear. What was so troubling about her performance?
It was the Q&A period immediately following her talk that proved to be the waters from which the evening’s tempest would rise. Fatima Al-Dhaher, a student at UWO, whose rhetorical question asking Coulter to inform Muslims as to what mode of transportation they should be using, if not airplanes, provoked Coulter to respond, “Take a camel!” This only after the audience began shouting, “Answer the question!” The bilious back-and-forth was never in short supply and continued for the remainder of the question period. It became apparent that something interesting was happening, something I did not immediately anticipate, given where I was.
Remember to Raise Your Hand
Within thirty minutes, seventeen questions and comments were volunteered. Audience utterances ranged from, “We got to get rid of some of this socialism” to serious analytical observations worth exploring. Most of the audience’s questions were neutral in character, meaning they focused on deconstructing or elaborating upon a particular event, concept, or claim Coulter had referred to. Coulter simply dismissed about one-third of the questions. Some of the audience’s questions tried to explore a concept that she had used in her speech but failed to define, such as “free speech,” “L/liberal,’” “C/conservative,” “bias,” etc. She left far too many of her assumptions obscure, leaving the audience to guess the meaning of much of what she was defending or criticizing.
Coulter’s method revealed itself early. It relied less on the argumentation and more on logical fallacy. There were cases of ad hominem attacks, straw-man fallacies, emotional appeals, false analogies, and emotionally charged language. Her embrace of these methods marginalized critical points of view instead of acknowledging them. One such case occurred when Coulter accused a student, whose question was unclear and in need of clarification, of being Canadian (with health-care) and “having all her teeth,” and, therefore, not knowing why she could not understand the woman’s question. Coulter quickly shifted her attention to the next person in line, rather than asking for elaboration.
She frequently deliberately misconstrued a question’s meaning in order to avoid addressing it directly. Making straw men of participants’ positions in this way served to discredit them, as it had the (intentional) effect of repositioning them as uninformed or incredulous vis-à-vis the issue they were interested in exploring. The same fallacy was also used by Coulter to counter an inaccurate recollection of a past statement uttered by her. Fatima-al-Dhaher’s erroneous comment, that Coulter wanted to kill all Muslims rather than just Muslim leaders, as Coulter has been quoted as saying, serves as an illustration. (It’s fallacious because although Coulter may have been correcting an inaccuracy, she still misconstrued al-Daher’s position. One could agree that elucidating such a distinction hardly makes a difference to Coulter’s point on the matter, and that she is merely shifting the burden of explanation away from her.) It made no difference to Muslims to whom the threat of death was directed, as it was clearly a statement suggesting the destruction of Islam at the hands of the Christian West, implicating all Muslims.
When a student asked Coulter whether it was disingenuous to describe the political spectrum as simply liberal or conservative, Coulter defended her claim using false analogy, comparing the political spectrum to human anatomy; namely it is a thing possessing “two legs,” with nothing in between them. Rationalizing the political spectrum as a binary entity is fine for the purposes of an argument, but the analogy itself is inaccurate, which makes her dismissal of the question unjustified. The political spectrum, largely understood as an abstract continuum within which beliefs or moral claims are found – and their inherent ‘’liberalness’’ or ‘’conservativeness’’ contingent on their location along it – is considerably more complex than the binary drawn from a human leg count. There are more differences in such an analogy than there are similarities. This manoeuvre was an attempt to avoid answering a question that threatened Coulter’s position, as it again shifted the burden of explanation from her to the student who asked it. His question was quickly dismissed as having “no meaning.”
Portions of the audience were equally implicated in shoddy argument. Frequent outbursts and chanting from some members of the audience thwarted and censored Coulter’s remarks, at times provoking her into infelicitous ripostes that served to anger and frustrate. Conversely, others were quick to vindicate Coulter’s position by way of loud and rambunctious applause, mostly from those in support of the Right. People from the Left made their disapproval just as audible.
These observations point to a situation where the choices made by both Coulter and her audience worked against critical inquiry and discourse. They clearly led to the breakdown of what could be called an academic public, one that is specifically geared towards facilitating rational-critical debate as a means to examine, explore, and challenge ideas or claims critically. It is also a space where to appreciate a multitude of perspectives on matters of mutual interest is to enrich one’s own understanding of life and the world, thus leading one to new modes of knowledge and thought. Coulter’s discourse ethic was precisely the opposite, in the sense that it did not facilitate such a public.
She and her audience operated by way of polemic, something quite different from that which is normally practised at universities and something that negated the contextualized language (or rules of engagement) expected in this particular, academic public. “The polemicist proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question,” says Michel Foucault. “He possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making the struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth, but an adversary. For him, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, any possible dialogue.”
Coulter and her audience, located within an academic space, learned nothing from each other that could not have been learned outside the university. The near-total refusal from both parties to work toward a well-ordered academic public calls into question Coulter’s reasons for addressing an academic audience. It also calls into question the audience’s motivation to participate.
It was not Coulter’s intent to educate her audience on the issues presented in her speech, nor was it the audience’s intent to engage with them critically. Rather, it was a forum in which academic discourse gave way to ideologico-polemical skirmishes that produced two outcomes. First, it quickened the collapse of an academic public sphere, thus precluding the process of learning and discovery implied by her addressing students at such an institution. Second, Coulter’s champion, free speech, was denied to many because of the language war that ensued. Any semblance of an academic public quickly transformed itself into a self-contradictory assembly with vested interests; an assembly of antagonistic discourses eagerly anticipating the colonization of the classroom and a game whose rules call for one side’s abolishment of the other. This was precisely the thing which filled me with a sense of disappointment that night.
Lessons for the Future
If universities function as unique spaces where communication can persist freely and fairly, with reason and criticism as its raison d’être, and with enlightenment and knowledge as its telos, it must be critical of events such as the tour called Ann Coulter in Canada because, as I have tried to show, the event’s precise function was to work against the intent of higher education – or, at least, to critical thought and dialogue.
The problem with the UWO talk was not that participants were unable to speak freely but that the conditions that allow them to do so were lacking in a way that prevented communication to proceed as it should have. At one point Coulter stated that speech codes exist on campuses to suppress certain types of discourse in favour of others (such as conservative ones, as she claimed). If this were true, she and her audience would not have been able to express themselves in the way they did, much less gather together in one room. Thus, the source of the controversy had to do with the method of delivery, the process by which she and her audience entered into the communicative exchange. It had very little to do with the message itself.
Should universities facilitate conditions that allow people to speak freely, even if they also allow for the potential censoring of certain voices and giving preferential treatment to certain discourses over others? Would these conditions undermine the purpose of higher education and the function of academic space? Or, should universities actively censor those who embrace polemic, a genre of speech that exercises its power to suppress dialogue in favour of monologue? Should universities only support publics and their agents that allow for dialogue and rational-critical debate to proceed? Is free speech still observed in this case?
The impetus to share my findings stems from a desire to resuscitate a public that was clearly left on life support. Coulter’s speech was better suited for the passive recipients of a political rally than for students who are encouraged to engage critically with a speaker’s message. Ann Coulter in Canada created a situation that devalued university space and nullified the purpose of higher education.
Craig Butosi holds a master’s in library and information science. He has worked as an academic library assistant and is currently pursuing a second graduate degree in media studies at the University of Western Ontario.