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Letter to the Editor: Freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence

RE: “White supremacy must be fought, not free speech”
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MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY
MAKENA MWENDA/THE VARSITY

As a recent piece in The Varsity titled “Opinion: White supremacy must be fought, not free speech” explains, free expression is a fundamental freedom and one of the most salient issues of our historical moment. While admirable in sentiment, the reality is that while free speech is a necessary part of a healthy democracy, we need to be careful about inappropriate conflations in debates around white supremacy and speech. 

This begins with understanding the spaces within which free speech must take place, especially within campus communities.

The first of these concerns pertains to the nature of speech itself. It is curious that the article begins by outlining the dangers of the white nationalist ideologies — specifically referring to the raid on the US Capitol — but ends by defending the free speech of “mostly conservative voices.” The argument being that “deplatforming” conservative voices will lead to radicalization into the alt-right.

It’s important to mention that we need to be careful about identifying white supremacist ideas as somehow within the mainstream of political debate because they are not; they are bastions of hate and oppressive violence. Radicalization in these spaces is done by those who already united with those beliefs.

Similarly, the article claims that “social media sites have begun suppressing conservative discourse they feel violates their policies against hate speech and the incitement of violence.” However, this is, at best, a misleading statement of affairs. We should acknowledge that these are not mainstream conservative voices being ‘suppressed,’ but rather these are exactly the radical discourses that the article raises as a problem.

Wide-ranging and healthy political debates are needed for democracy, but there are some ideas that are no longer worth addressing — asserting the supremacy of one race over another is one of these. This coincides with an important point: speech is not an immaterial thing. When we engage in debate, we are performing an act onto the world.

Calls for eliminating censorship and engaging in a free exchange of beliefs are, without a doubt, vital for democratic life. Freedom from censorship, however, is a vastly different thing than freedom from consequences. The article calls for establishing an “equilibrium between free speech and combatting white supremacy.” 

This sounds all well and good, but it is never clear exactly what this equilibrium looks like. The frequent use of phrases like “judiciously,” “extreme caution,” and “carefully balance” provide little concrete clues. 

On the one hand, the article criticizes the protests against Jordan Peterson while, in the same breath, argues that “students should protest real hate speech and racism. School administrators should denounce this speech when it appears, and if it truly meets the school’s standards of discrimination or harassment, they should then intervene.” However, as Bill C-16 outlines,  Peterson’s refusal to acknowledge his students’ pronouns is an example of such harassment. 

Peterson’s exercise of free speech is not a neutral exchange of opinions. When we begin to engage in questioning other humans’ right to existence on parity with others, we have crossed into the zone of harmful action. 

Finally, the article outlines that if free speech is taken away, “conflicts and disagreements may no longer be resolved verbally.” This is another fine sentiment, but it is not backed up by a cursory glance at history. Let’s take a quick look at the article’s own example: the 1960s student movement. 

The article writes that student activists campaigned to remove barriers to free speech. However, at the University of California, Berkeley, police used arrests to break up peaceful demonstrations, arresting around 800 students in 1964. At Kent State University, police response to an anti-war protest resulted in four deaths in 1970

These were protests aimed at eliminating war and protecting people’s rights, yet they were met with violence. Today, people like Peterson advocate not to recognize rights and trigger unsubstantiated claims of being “deplatformed.” We should not conflate two vastly different situations here. 

Further, the article describes universities as “bastions of liberal activism.” However, universities are hardly as innocent as this. We lack the space here to engage in a full discussion of how academia has always and continues to be intertwined with the colonial project. To take only one example of engaging with this past, St John’s College at Oxford University has recently engaged in some preliminary efforts to study its own imperial past.

Universities like Oxford not only benefitted from the economic boons of colonialism, but were deeply implicated in the production of knowledge and training to those expanding the colonial project. In Canada, similarly, we cannot ignore the crucial role that the educational system played in the oppression of Indigenous peoples — for instance in the residential school system.  

In short, what is key here is that universities have never been a neutral bastion of the free exchange of ideas; they have always and continue to be embroiled in the maintenance of white supremacy. When we engage in this conversation, then, we need to begin by understanding the space within which we speak.

Free speech is indeed a cornerstone of democracy, but the solution to white supremacy is not to continue allowing hateful ideas to be spread without consequence. We need to realize first of all that we are not on a neutral playing ground. We are already all engaged in various structures of oppression, whether you believe in them or not. 

The first step to combatting white supremacy is not sheltering its destructive words from within a “safe haven for controversial debates and ideas.” Instead, we need to start addressing these issues on the ground, with concrete material change. This means engaging with the calls for social reform demanded of us all.

This is what free speech is for: encouraging the debate of ideas that will make us better. It is not permitting harmful and violent speech without consequence. This distinction is vital if we wish to move forward and be better.

Ari Finnsson is a PhD candidate in the Department of History.