Many members of the U of T community have remarked to me lately about a sense of division on campus. Drawing on my own observations, I have to agree. What has concerned me most lately is the highly divisive and accusatory rhetoric that seems to have been amplified following last week’s politically and emotionally charged events.
As I observed the unfolding of last Tuesday’s event called “U of T Rally for Free Speech,” I was struck by the unyielding, unforgiving categorizations that many people inflicted on those whom they wished to present as their opposers. These categorizations have resulted in many people declaring “sides” — the so-called “Social Justice Warriors” and the so-called “Free Speech Warriors.”
Supporters of free speech and of social justice need not exist in opposing categories. Many people rightly defend the principle of free speech while also rightly advocating for the rights of marginalized people to be free from oppression, and discrimination.
The construction of this false dichotomy has provided a framework for individuals to accuse inhomogeneous groups of affronts, rather than engaging with the plurality of people with myriad backgrounds, opinions, and insights.
Despite the potential congruity of the subjects of free speech and social justice, it is undoubtable that Tuesday’s rally drew a significant crowd of people whose interest was to co-opt the principle of free speech for the purpose of disseminating hateful rhetoric. A counter-protest group, comprised of many members of the trans and non-binary community as well as the Black community and others, seemed to anticipate this, and came to the event in protest of attitudes that undermine their rights.
The tension between these groups became the defining characteristic of the event. In light of this, I feel compelled to comment on the considerations involved in providing news coverage of these kinds of disagreements.
First of all, it is clear that physical assaults took place at this event, provoked by individuals on both ‘sides.’ These actions were wrong.
But these sides are not equal. I am firm in my conviction that to present them as such would create a false balance — dishonesty in the form of portraying assuredly unequal forces on the same footing.
The people who came to that rally to propagate hate speech were wrong to do so. It is heartbreaking and enraging that someone came to our campus and shouted “We need more Michael Brown’s.” This is hate speech, and it would be wrong to position it otherwise.
Those who came to the rally advocating for social justice engaged in a range of protest activities, which included blasting white noise over the sound of rally speakers. While the tactics this group employed are not beyond scrutiny — in a free society, almost nothing is — it is essential to recognize that the cause of this group is legitimate in a way that the cause of those propagating hate speech will never be. Those who would have The Varsity present the former’s cause on equal footing with the latter’s will be disappointed.
It is important to remember when contemplating all of this that those advocating for free speech and social justice have been falsely dichotomized. Many people — I believe, the majority at U of T — believe firmly in both.
Last month, The Varsity’s masthead developed a mission statement for our organization, in which we stated: “We commit ourselves to innovation, openness, and accessibility; to the development of our contributors; and to the provision of meaningful, just coverage for our readership.” This is a mission to stand by, and false balance does not exist within it.