A response to "Safe spaces, free speech, and the fight for unwelcome ideas"

Will Hall’s article featured in the March 9, 2015 issue of The Varsity examines the problematic issue of holding freedom of expression as an absolute right for all in political thought— while choosing to ignore the hard questions it entails in the real world.

The article in question focuses on a lecture recently organized on campus by the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations which featured known deniers of the Armenian Genocide. Hall expresses no doubt about the occurrence of the 20th century’s first genocide but decries Armenian organizations for attempting to have the university cancel the event in what he sees as an attempt to supress freedom of expression.

The fact is that freedom of expression is not limitless — just as with the rest of our freedoms, it is not absolute. We allow it within reasonable bounds. We draw the line when someone else’s freedoms are being infringed upon or there is a threat to the livelihood of others or society at large. This line exists and society has the responsibility to be conscious of it.

The Armenian Genocide preceded the Holocaust. The Germans were well aware of the extermination of the Armenians and according to some scholars carried out their atrocious acts using it as an example. Unfortunately, deniers of the Holocaust also exist among us today. Do we allow them to speak in our university campuses on the grounds of freedom of expression, or do we ask them to take their hate speech elsewhere?

We must ask ourselves: do they truly believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen, or is there an underlying and sinister purpose at play? This is not an expression of honest opinion, a right that we try to maintain for all even when wrong. This is a deliberate act among anti-Semitic individuals to express their hate and disregard for Jews.

Holocaust deniers go to infinite lengths to pretend that the atrocities did not take place — they stare at the nail scratches on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chambers and dismiss them as part of the “conspiracy” by President Eisenhower. They are also blind to the endless testimonies of victims, soldiers, and journalists from across Europe, all of which corroborate the existence of the Holocaust.

Similarly, there is no limit to Armenian Genocide deniers’ attempts to revise well-established history. This is not honest ignorance; it is a systematic strategy promoted by the Turkish government itself. There is no reputable conflicting narrative or doubt regarding these events, yet they attempt to construe it as such — a shameless shift to blame the victims.

With this to consider, where do we draw the line of freedom of expression in academia? Do we allow the victims to be re-victimized? Do we allow a forum to defend the perpetrators and deny the well-documented crime?

If we rightfully draw the line when faced with Holocaust denial, then the same line should exist for the Armenian Genocide.

During the same week as this lecture, nationalists around Turkey held banners that red “We celebrate the 100th anniversary of our country being cleared of Armenians. We are proud of our glorious ancestors.” Young Nihal Atsizs, a leading ideologue of Turkish racism and a proponent of Turanism, have directly accepted the Genocide. In Toronto, the Turkish deniers took a softer narrative by employing historical revisionism, but the inherent evil of their efforts is no different. The same underlying racism and nationalism remains.

These individuals and groups are the ones who make a mockery of our democratic ideals. They hijack the freedoms afforded to them to marginalize and threaten the freedoms of others. Mr. Hall has defended them in his article and the university has encouraged them by allowing this event to take place.

Would the university allow a radical Imam to speak on campus to radicalize disenfranchised youth and encourage them to kill the innocent and non-believers? The freedom of security afforded to society would be at threat and would trump the freedom of this individual.

A line exists for everything, and Hall needs to understand that we do not live in an ideal world. It is difficult to maintain neutrality at times, but we can if we pull back the wool from our eyes and ask the difficult questions.

U of T is well aware of the line, but chooses to acknowledge it for one case and not the other. The administration concluded it could weather whatever criticism and negative attention it receives as a result of this event and allowed it to proceed. By doing so, the university has assisted genocide denial — a crime in many places — and has re-victimized the descendants of the Armenian Genocide’s survivors.

The same body that claims to hold itself as a staunch defender of our freedoms compromised those victims’ rights to freedom from harassment and discrimination. If the University of Toronto wishes to claim that it is a defender and promoter of freedom of expression, it must first show a bit more respect for the power that ideal holds.

Harout Kassabian is a recent graduate of U of T in the faculty of applied science and engineering. 

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