This op-ed is a response to a video published by The Varsity on April 28, 2017. The video, entitled “Jordan Peterson and Campus Dialogue,” was made by a contributor and did not reflect the opinions of the newspaper. The coverage casts the proponents of the October 11, 2016 Rally for Free Speech and the Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) group as partisan ideologues trying to further their own ideological agenda under the platform of free and open discourse.
Our group, SSFS, and the notion of free speech were both contextualized in relation to the alt-right and white nationalist movements. Qaiser Ali, an LGBTQ activist, claimed in the same video that despite the good intentions of SSFS, we are indeed setting back the movements for the equality for women, LGBTQ people, and minorities. It is perhaps time to clarify our aims.
The free speech movement, both here at the university and elsewhere, is composed of an extremely diverse group of individuals who have come together to address the erosion of freedom of expression in our society. As one of the founding members of the group, I have found myself breaking bread with people across the ideological spectrum, from hardcore socialists to staunch conservatives.
Despite our differences, our common concern is that the advancement of identity politics and social justice is making the discussion of contentious ideas untenable. Instead of engaging in civilized debate and protesting peacefully with reasoned dialogue, activists would rather grant ‘no platform’ to disagreeable ideas and speakers. Past protests, at U of T and other North American universities, have included actions such as pulling fire alarms to disrupt events, chanting and shouting down speakers, preventing journalists from covering stories, and rioting and destruction of property to force the cancellation of speakers.
Beyond these overt acts, student unions and university administrations are enforcing a culture of safe spaces and acceptable speech in order to protect students from discussing uncomfortable topics, part of an overarching effort to rectify the inherent oppressiveness and inequality of our society by inhibiting the expression of dangerous ideas.
It is our belief that instead of making society a safe space, we need to create an open exchange of ideas wherein opinions that bridge the left-right divide can be interrogated and contrasted instead of being driven underground. Without exposing people to contrary opinions that challenge their beliefs, those beliefs will necessarily be derived from authority. Those who espouse these ideas will not know why they have developed them; their basis of belief will be not from reasoning but rather from emotion.
It is also important that we do not infantilize vulnerable groups and prevent them from facing uncomfortable ideas for fear of offence. There is no surer way to disempower a people than to place them above facing criticism, and openness to criticism is something we would expect of anyone else in society.
It is also untrue, as the video piece states, that we have not denounced our radicals. Those who justify violence against their enemies or believe it is free speech to incite violence or genocide represent an antithesis of free expression.
Similarly, we have parted ways with those who have displayed hatred for transgender people, racial minorities, and religious minorities. However, they are entitled to express their opinions so that they can be disproved, rebutted, and informed of their error. It is not conducive to debate to silence bigotry and ignorance, which causes it to fester and multiply. It is far more effective to dismantle such opinions in the public eye. It is impossible to persuade those whom you do not treat as equals.
Freedom of speech is not an issue of left versus right. It is something that has, in its time, been the rallying cry of the anti-war movement, civil rights of minorities, and gay liberation. It is a reason that many of us come to Canada, to escape persecution under repressive dictatorship, religious theocracy, and oppressive institutions that embody inequality in law.
Though Canada is not perfect, we at least retain most of our freedom of expression. To remain tolerant we must have a free exchange of ideas, which is why any prelude to censorship must be opposed. What is used against those whom we despise and abhor can one day be used against us.
Geoffrey Biffo Liew has a Bachelor of Arts and is now in a Nursing program. He is the co-founder and Vice President of Students in Support of Free Speech.