I was going to accuse Queen’s University of treating its students as though they were all mildly retarded (the term used by the American Association on Mental Retardation until 2006) but I decided not to risk offending anyone. Instead, I will merely observe that the school must think its students all suffer from a disorder characterized by below average cognitive functioning and deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors such as living skills, communication skills or social skills. Put another way, Queen’s University must think its students are all stupid. How else do you explain its new “intergroup dialogue program”?

For those who don’t know, the “intergroup dialogue program” is part of a broader initiative by the university to “foster diversity and encourage students to think about their beliefs”. What could be more benign?

To accomplish these objectives, however, the school will be deploying “student facilitators” whose job it will be, in part, to monitor private conversations on campus and to jump in when they hear someone using terms that could be interpreted as homophobic, sexist, or otherwise bigoted. These facilitators will also be responsible for initiating “spontaneous” conversations about issues and organizing discussion groups and other activities for the same purpose.

So far, critics have focused their attention almost exclusively on the possibility that the reactive aspect of the program – intervening in private conversations – might impinge upon the freedom of speech or freedom of expression of students, a not unreasonable fear. I’m more worried about the proactive aspects of the project – the so-called “spontaneous” conversations and discussion groups on issues that the program envisions.

Clearly, something of this nature must have a set of standards to determine whether or not a conversation is offensive enough to warrant an “intervention” by facilitators. What are those standards, and how will they be applied to the “spontaneous” conversations and discussion groups the facilitators are also mandated to initiate, particularly if these conversations and discussions deal with controversial subject matter? The war in Iraq, abortion, the gay agenda, radical feminism – it’s not hard to imagine a list of topics where feelings run high and where dissent is rarely tolerated these days, let alone respected, especially on university campuses. Will facilitators create an environment where dissent is welcome, or will they use their quasi-authoritative positions to try and convince the dissenters of their sins and persuade them to return to the warm and friendly embrace of neo-orthodox opinion? I for one am not optimistic.

The explanation offered by representatives of Queen’s University that this program encourages diversity and independent thinking simply makes no sense. By challenging and effectively suppressing non-conformist behaviour and opinion, it seeks to induce uniformity of thought and expression, otherwise there would be no purpose in intervening in private conversations in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of examples of stupid and offensive ideas out there, and I’m all for confronting those who express those ideas, but any confrontation ought to be spontaneous and it ought to be limited to truly private individuals rather than agents of the state posing as private individuals. That is what I object to, and what Queen’s students should be outraged by. Don’t think that the experiment will end with interrupted conversations either. Eventually someone will resist the counsel of a “student facilitator” by telling them to take a hike, probably in words that will themselves be offensive. What will happen then? Will the “student facilitator” simply respect the right of his interlocutor to have a different opinion and desist, or will the “offender” be subject to further investigation and sanction, perhaps even expulsion?

The “intergroup dialogue program” instituted by Queen’s University, and more particularly the ease with which it and other initiatives like it are accepted these days – even defended – is symptomatic of a deeply anti-intellectual and undemocratic malaise infecting Canadian society. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we are becoming a police state, where passions rule and reasoned debate is disdained; where thoughts are crimes and common sense is dismissed as the petty prejudice of the ignorant or naïve. The danger in this is not the intent, which is more often than not worthy, but the habituation to being told what and what not to say, think and do that sets in, and the construction of an apparatus of power to enforce those rules. No-one should suppose that democratic procedure can be an effective check on such arbitrary power. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his classic essay The Road to Serfdom “It’s not the source, but the limitation of power which prevents it from being arbitrary.”

Indeed, the exercise of arbitrary power – confirmed by democratic process – is more insidious and more difficult to restrain precisely because it’s garbed in the robes of democracy.

Students at Queen’s University are not children – they’re adults who can control their own private conversations without the benevolent hand of an omnipresent, omniscient, and inevitably omnipotent thought police. They would be doing themselves and the rest of us a great favour by saying so quickly, before expressing objection to the policy is added to the list of offensive speech.