Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary and conservative activist, has been castigated this week following remarks made at the University of Lethbridge about child pornography. Flanagan’s word choice was poor, but commentators have blown this incident out of proportion without paying attention to context. Unfortunately, Flanagan has been so badly reprimanded over the verbal slip that the message he was attempting to communicate and its real problems have been ignored. U of C president Elizabeth Cannon released a statement condemning child pornography. The Wildrose and Conservative parties are tripping over one another in their haste to throw Flanagan into the wolf pit. On the front page of the Wildrose website, Danielle Smith stated, “There is no language strong enough to condemn Dr. Flanagan’s comments.” Child pornography is one of those bilateral issues that Conservatives and Liberals can demand a public execution over; woe betide the individual who exposes themselves to suspicion of such deviance. Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews drew heat last year for lumping his opponents with child pornographers — a comparison that drew criticism for its exploitation of societal disgust for pedophiles.
I don’t know Flanagan personally, but he is likely not a pedophile. He certainly has a track record for controversy, though. Known in particular for his uncharitable views on aboriginal Canadians, Flanagan has previously described native governments as “wasteful” and he has argued that the reserve system be replaced with assimilation. Given that many aboriginal Canadians were molested in the residential school system, Flanagan’s Wednesday lecture seems even more thoughtless and insensitive. However, this is not evidence that he is a pedophile. And even if he was, he would be insane to promote any form of support for such individuals. Everyone hates pedophiles, which is why politicians cannot wait to throw Flanagan under the bus. But the issue of personal liberty he was trying to broach needs to be addressed as this is where the real problems lie.
The whole fiasco illustrates the difficulties many professors face with appearing apolitical to maintain academic credibility. The concept of being truly apolitical is inherently false, but professionalism in a neutral tone can go a long way towards maintaining status as a scholar. Flanagan’s real mistake was not last Wednesday’s lecture. It was the years of visible affiliation with a polarizing political perspective that has shifted his public status from academic to political pundit. One can tackle any subject in academia by taking the appropriate steps. Marcel Proust once wrote an essay on pederasty and many post-structuralist philosophers have discussed the moral implications of pedophilia quite freely. But given Flanagan’s prior choices and our fascination with sensationalism, we have once again successfully avoided the real debate, which is not whether pedophilia is wrong or harms children, but whether the lines we draw over personal freedoms to protect society at large are just. That is why his distasteful example is such an ironic analogy for why immoderate libertarian views tend to face-plant. Every liberty the individual enjoys comes at a cost that may not be obvious. When we consume pornography, we don’t equate the viewing of images to the exploitation of actors. As Andri Magnasson, an Icelandic filmmaker, once said when commenting on the destruction of Iceland’s highlands for geothermal energy production, “nothing comes without consequence.” Flanagan’s remarks violate political boundaries but do not attempt a defence of child pornography. Rather, they were a selling point for Flanagan’s libertarian ideology of non-interventionism. But if the personal tastes of a citizen prove destructive, it is the responsibility of governments to involve themselves.