U of T launches website detailing “commitment to free expression”

freespeech.utoronto.ca launched March 8

U of T launches website detailing “commitment to free expression”

Last week, U of T launched a website, freespeech.utoronto.ca, detailing the university’s policies on free speech.

The launch was announced in a March 8 statement from U of T President Meric Gertler and Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr.

The new website contains a collection of policies and statements on free speech and related topics, gives links to statements issued by other organizations, and provides answers to frequently asked questions from the university community.

The university’s commitment to free speech is built upon two policies, the Statement of Institutional Purpose and the Statement on Freedom of Speech, both released by Governing Council in 1992. The university says “that commitment has been tested, defended, and enlarged” since 1992 with the 2006 Statement on Equity, Diversity, and Excellence. All three statements are available on the new website.

The university defines free speech as “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate upon, and comment on issues without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize society at large.” The website highlights that freedom of speech and expression is important on the university campus because debating alternative ideas and modes of thinking contributes to social change and advances human rights.

The website also details the responsibilities that accompany the right to free speech and freedom of expression. The university community and its policies are bound by both federal and provincial law, as well as an atmosphere of civility and inclusion important to the learning environment of U of T. The website stresses that the standards of respect and inclusion should not hinder but rather support academic freedom.

“An important foundation for the University of Toronto’s widely celebrated excellence is our academic community’s remarkable diversity – ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, religious, socio-economic, and intellectual,” the university says in answer to a frequently asked question on whether free speech is at odds with equity. The statement argues that, “The interaction and competition among so many different ideas stretch and test our beliefs and spark new insights, leading to discovery, understanding, and advances in the human condition.”

The university’s new website also includes information about freedom of speech on campus in relation to events and protests. The university maintains that when an event takes place on campus this does not mean that it has received the endorsement of the university administration. The website also reiterates that the right to peaceful protest is part of freedom of expression.

A small win for free press on campus at McGill

Re: “McGill’s freedom of student press called into question in recent levy referendum”

A small win for free press on campus at McGill

The recent referendum held at McGill University, which regarded the continuation of a mandatory levy supporting student newspapers, returned a 65 per cent vote in favour of retaining the levy. This result represents a win for free press, specifically for the Daily Publications Society (DPS), the student-run organization that publishes student newspapers The McGill Daily and Le Délit.

The end of this funding would have spelled disaster for both The McGill Daily and Le Délit, founded in 1911 and 1977 respectively. Moreover, the lack of support from the Legislative Council of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), based on disagreement with certain political content in The McGill Daily and a desire to avoid conflict of interest, highlights how undervalued free and diverse campus press is.

Those in favour of discontinuing the levy cited their disagreement with political ideals expressed in and by The McGill Daily, arguing that they should not have to pay to support a paper they do not agree with. The McGill Daily decided in January to close its comment section on all non-editorial pieces, which has opened it to criticism by its protestors to argue that the publication is suppressing debate. However, stripping the publication of funding is not the appropriate way to address issues of journalistic ethics.

Throughout this debate, the francophone students whom The Délit serves were lost in the fray as it became more politicized. In light of the university’s strong francophone community, potentially losing the only French language paper at McGill should have been met with greater worry from the school’s student union, which is mandated to serve all students.

Despite inherent flaws with the nature of representation in student press, abolishing funding for student papers does not promote free speech or active dialogue. The argument for shuttering the publications due to differing political views is ludicrous — invalidating something simply because one doesn’t agree with it negates the principle of free speech entirely. These newspapers carry influence on campus. The way to create meaningful dialogue and maintain accountability isn’t to silence them, but to reflect on what they have to say and push them to make changes if needed.

 

Anastasia Pitcher is a first-year student at New College studying Life Sciences.

Last year was a pressure cooker — this one doesn’t have to be

A bit of distance from campus controversies might provide us with the perspective needed to work towards solutions

Last year was a pressure cooker — this one doesn’t have to be

The Varsity had its work cut out for it in 2016–2017. Allegations of financial mismanagement at the St. Michael’s College Student Union, ongoing conflict between the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Black Liberation Collective regarding the former’s lawsuit against Sandra Hudson, and debates about “political correctness” and “free speech”  provided ample breeding ground for tension and hostility.

Though it is important to see these conflicts to their conclusions, there is a case to be made for at least attempting to avoid repeating the firestorm of drama that occupied the campus last year.

For starters, being a student can already be a highly stressful experience. The pressures associated with maintaining good grades, sorting out housing crises, and coping with towering financial burdens mean that many people on campus are already in precarious mental health situations. Constantly having to weave through a thicket of campus tension can hardly improve matters in that regard, especially at a university where mental health supports remain lacklustre by many accounts. Verbal and digital sparring can also escalate to the point where students start to internalize negative comments.

We should also keep in mind that many campus conflicts are small manifestations of larger, more complex debates, many of which have been ongoing for decades. Though things may have come to a head this past year with the Jordan Peterson controversy and the formation of Students in Support of Free Speech, the constitutional principle of freedom of expression has a robust political and legal history, both on and off university campuses. In the latter part of the twentieth century, The Varsity covered a variety of controversies surrounding freedom of speech: in 1980, students fiercely debated The Toike Oike’s right to publish satire deemed offensive to women; in 1993, controversy erupted on campus following the presence of white supremacist groups on a U of T radio show.

The UTSU, in turn, has a long and exceedingly thorny relationship with many of its constituents; debates about inclusivity and transparency, as well as its ongoing ties to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), are not new additions to the roster.

This continuity should give you a sense of the often drawn-out and painstaking nature of campus conflict resolution, as well as how easy stalemates become when all sides are steadfast in their beliefs. When concrete solutions are virtually impossible to obtain within the span of a single academic year, are we willing to put our education and well-being on the line in pursuit of the answers?

It’s not that these issues don’t matter ­— ­­certainly, the level of passion that emerges during campus debates demonstrates how strongly people have been affected them. But they also don’t necessarily have to be defining moments of your time at the university. If you’d rather troll the library than the deepest, darkest corners of the U of T subreddit, there are things you can do to maintain distance from messes that might not be worth your time.

To first-years, it might prove valuable to exercise caution or pick and choose your battles when choosing to get invested in campus controversies, especially given that you’re treading on new territory. Meanwhile, upper-years might benefit from a bit of reflection over the events of past years and considering how much of it they are willing to carry through to the new academic year. While these controversies can go on for decades, most of us are only at the university for a few years — the trick to putting things in perspective might simply be to consider how comparatively little time there is before graduation.

Admittedly, it would be unwise to encourage inaction or apathy on the part of the student body, but self-reflection and conflict resolution are not mutually exclusive. And in light of how quickly tensions flared last year, often to no discernable compromise, perhaps our best hope for coming to solutions is to step back and clear our heads.

We at The Varsity know, perhaps better than anyone, that solutions to campus conflicts hardly come that easy. This year will be no exception: the UTSU continues to face allegations of anti-Black racism, “free speech” remains a hot-button issue in campus discussions, and talk  of CFS decertification are more salient than ever. But so long as campus remains under siege, here’s hoping this year’s battles are milder than the last.

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

While the group purports to be in favour of protecting free speech for all, recent events demonstrate they are only concerned with doing so for certain people

Why is Students in Support of Free Speech defending the Proud Boys?

Picture this: a group of people have come together to organize a demonstration. They are interrupted by a second group of people, who try to stop them because they feel that the demonstration is offensive to their beliefs. In this situation, you’d think that a group like Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS) — who claim, according to their website, to support “every person’s right to free speech” — would jump to the defence of the individuals whose right to protest was being threatened.

SSFS is a “non-partisan” group that wishes to uphold “personal freedom of expression, conscience, and belief,” and “political freedom in expressing beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints.” Their mantra was put to the test when SSFS found themselves in a controversy relating to an incident in Halifax that occurred earlier this month.

On July 1, a group of Indigenous activists held a mourning ceremony in front of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city of Halifax. The Indigenous group staged a protest in reference to Cornwallis’ unrestrained violence and persecution of the Mi’kmaq people. During one part of the ceremony, dozens of people gathered around the statue to watch Chief Grizzly Mamma shave her head in an act of mourning — an especially symbolic act as Cornwallis infamously issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

As this happened, however, a group of five men approached the group with the intention to disrupt or interrupt the ceremony. The so-called “Halifax Five” identified themselves as members of the Maritime Chapter of the Proud Boys, a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice Media. The group identifies themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” They hold that “The West is the Best” and oppose feminism.

McInnes himself is no role model; one of his claims to fame is an extremely offensive video rant published in March of 2017, in which he stated he was “becoming anti-Semitic.” This video was praised by white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer.

Not only was the Halifax Five incident horribly disappointing in light of Canada’s colonial past, it also meant drawing a great deal of attention away from what the activists were actually trying to say. Canadians need to learn how to acknowledge the violent colonial actions of well-respected figures like Cornwallis, but instead of opening up a dialogue about Halifax’s past and Cornwallis’ actions, media attention on the Proud Boys and the fallout from the incident drew the public’s eyes away from the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The exact nature of what the Halifax Five did and said isn’t precisely clear. Some reports characterized their actions as a disruption of the Indigenous protest, while others, including SSFS, seemed to say that the news reports were skewed with left-leaning bias. Perhaps the Proud Boys perceive criticism of Cornwallis and the actions undertaken against Indigenous people under colonial rule to be offensive to their belief that “The West is the Best.” Had the Halifax Five held some type of pro-Cornwallis demonstration the next day, or even restricted their disagreement to the internet or to a different place away from the ceremony, this would be a different conversation. It is clear, however, that the Proud Boys sought to at the very least interrupt the ceremony by singing, waving a flag, and ultimately making a scene that disrupted the proceedings.  

In light of this, one could argue that the actions of the Proud Boys ought to at least trigger conversations about the rights of the Indigenous group to protest peacefully and express their views freely. Accordingly, you might expect that SSFS would decry the attempt of the Proud Boys to try to suppress the free expression of the Indigenous protesters — but the exact opposite happened. On July 15, SSFS took the side of the Halifax Five and organized a rally in their support at Queen’s Park.  

SSFS might argue that they only intended to express support for the right of the Proud Boys and the Halifax Five to organize peacefully. This is indeed what the rally itself seemed to be about, and would certainly align with SSFS’s stated philosophy. According to SSFS member and rally organizer Simon Capobianco, “The major purpose [of the rally] was… to defend the Constitutional rights of the Halifax five… One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the charter is the right to freedom of assembly, and… [the military members] were in a public space, they were assembling peacefully.”

However, this seemingly noble purpose is misguided, and potentially reveals the true motivations behind the actions the group has taken in favour of free speech. Capobianco’s statement is somewhat confusing, considering that you could very easily say the same of the Indigenous activists — they were also assembling peacefully, and were well within their right to do so. In the past, SSFS has even decried interruptions of their own proceedings, such as when the Toronto Action Forum, an event co-hosted on campus by SSFS and Generation Screwed on February 4, was interrupted and ultimately halted by protestsWhy would they jump to defend the disruption posed by the Proud Boys, but condemn the protests in response to their own events?

It should also be noted that while there was thankfully no violence as a result of the confrontation between the Halifax Five and the Indigenous activists, back in April, the Proud Boys announced the formation of a “military division” to be headed by Kyle Chapman, who had been released from jail the previous month on suspicion of a felony assault with a deadly weapon.

What makes things worse is the fact that much of the focus of this rally has been on the presence of white supremacist Paul Fromm and SSFS’s ever-shifting explanations and apologies for his presence. Though SSFS’s claim to fame is supporting free expression regardless of the content of the messages, in this case, they appeared to waver in their stance. First, they made a statement on Facebook claiming that they did not know what Fromm looked like and hadn’t been aware that he was attending the rally. The statement was later deleted from their Facebook page, and replaced with a YouTube apology, after receiving numerous negative comments from skeptics.  

Let’s give SSFS the benefit of the doubt and say that they really didn’t know Fromm was there, or at least that they did not intend for him to be there and do not in any way endorse his views. At the least, the fact that SSFS jumped to backtrack when faced with a real-life white supremacist demonstrates some serious inconsistencies in their logic. In their initial post, SSFS stated that “if we had been aware of Paul Fromm’s identity and affiliations at the time of the rally… we would have prevented him from using our megaphone.”

This particular statement seems at odds with the group’s alleged commitment to the importance of free and unbridled speech, regardless of the nature of the messages — does this mean that SSFS is recognizing the danger of giving a platform to white supremacists and other hateful people and groups?

If you’re keeping score, here’s the deal: Indigenous activists chose to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly to protest a statue of a man who ordered many acts of violence to be committed against the Mi’kmaq people after founding a city on territory that hadn’t been ceded. They held a protest and a mourning ceremony for Indigenous people who had been hurt or killed. The activists were interrupted by five men connected to a “pro-Western” chauvinist group with a paramilitary branch founded by a far-right, possible anti-Semite. Finally, SSFS, a “non-partisan” student group, decided to hold a rally supporting those five men in their brave quest to interrupt an Indigenous ceremony — and a notorious white supremacist just happened to show up and speak. SSFS then apologized for his presence.

What’s perhaps most ironic about this whole thing was that, in the apology video, SSFS president Marilyn Jang also apologized for holding the rally at the 48th Highlanders of Canada Regimental Memorial, saying it was “an extremely unthoughtful choice of venue for any rally… Memorials should solely be seen as a symbol of remembrance and a way to honour the fallen.” I agree: it seems like memorials and memorial ceremonies are inappropriate places to espouse political ideologies. Surely this logic should also apply to the activists memorializing fallen Indigenous folks as well?

SSFS has always argued that their only goal is to support freedom of speech, regardless of political affiliation. But this incident seems to prove that the group is cherry-picking whose rights to support — and that everyone else needs to step back and, well, be quiet.

Adina Heisler is an incoming third-year student at University College, studying Women and Gender Studies and English.

Freedom of hate

Evaluating speech, the right-left divide, and the need for respectful debate in light of recent political shifts

Freedom of hate

The past few years have seen college campuses, with characteristically dramatic and maladroit gusto, thrust themselves back into the heart of our continent’s culture wars. The politically correct (PC) left of the ‘90s has come back with a roaring vengeance, mobilizing factions of both the left and right into a resistance against the policing of speech.

In one of his less controversial statements, Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos bisected the battleground not along the traditional line of left and right, but rather of libertarian and authoritarian.

This alliance of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ could very well be a novelty in the decades-old free speech debate; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, liberals fought against the speech-curtailing stances of their conservative opposition. But a blurring of the distinction between the two groups may not be wise. The alt-right insurgency has proven time and again that, for many on the right, the defense of free speech simply acts as a guise for more dangerous impulses.

Here at U of T, a number of student-led movements and Facebook groups created in the wake of the Jordan Peterson affair have adopted this façade. Whatever your stance on the issue, Peterson raised and continues to raise important concerns over compelled speech, governmental and social authoritarianism, and the influence of partisanship on culture.

The controversy galvanized the university, and provided classical liberals and so-called ‘cultural libertarians’ of both the left and right with an articulate and reasoned critique of PC ideology. But, as has been the case in all the clashes characterizing this feud, a sizable fraction of the coalition’s right side broke from valuable discourse on speech, and devolved into a consortium of Neanderthal memes and openly avowed racism and anti-Semitism. They perverted Peterson’s stance on preferred gender pronouns into an apologia of hatred for trans people, and they took the defense of free speech proffered by their moderate counterparts and weaponized it for use against Jews, Muslims, women, and other communities.

Now, with the rise of Trumpism, the same people see their casual violence reflected in the conduct of the most powerful person on Earth. I see no fault in a rebellion against the speech standards of the modern left and, as a true liberal, I am alive to the dangers posed by a relentless retrenching of ‘what is okay to say out loud.’ But absolutely nothing excuses the mendacity and malevolence of the student alt-right. To call these nascent social-media uprisings defenses of speech is frankly absurd.

I have idly observed a handful of the Facebook groups born from support for Professor Peterson’s initial comments through to the rise of President Trump, and watched as the groups morphed into hateful echo chambers. Many were created with the intention of stimulating useful conversation on the nature of speech, but none have so remained.

More than anything, these groups now serve as Trump fan pages at best, and havens for the most ideologically backward opinions out there at worst. Much of what is posted in the way of prejudice comes as an agitated response to the left’s undue proclamations of racism and bigotry: this is not to say that these injustices no longer exist, but rather that the left has grown increasingly reactionary.

Some portions of these online postings are thus attributable to trolling, tongue-in-cheek criticisms of the predominately liberal cultural hegemony. It is only natural, especially for younger people — who happen to make up a substantial segment of the online alt-right movement — to reject commanded behavior, and brashly do the opposite.

This is doubly true for those that hold political opinions on the more conservative side of the spectrum, as the left’s apparent hold on morality becomes more and more absolute. Today’s rebel isn’t the Mao-toting hippie or sexual libertarian of the 1960s: it is the alt-right troll. People with legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, government overreach, the infusion of Marxist dogma into the left’s platform, and Islamic extremism, tired of being demonized for their beliefs, become self-caricaturizing just to get under the skin of their accusers.

This form of satire is a reasonable rejoinder to oppressive social norms, and, in my opinion, even has a place in a well-functioning democracy. But the line between it and genuine hatred is ill-defined and far too easily crossed. The danger comes with the ease of slipping from one to the other. And what’s more, in its more extreme forms, this protestation is indistinguishable from bigotry.

I would unequivocally identify myself as left of centre, but even I am often moved, by their sheer ridiculousness, to parody my side’s arguments. I do not, however, use this as an excuse to pollute the evolving dialogue on the nature of free speech. This is where I feel the distinction between the left and right halves of the ‘cultural libertarians’ becomes important. The old demons of the right are on full display in its modern incarnation.

The left-leaning, anti-PC crowd seems motivated only by an expansive view of free speech: they see speech as John Stuart Mill did, as a means of arriving at the truth, and as a means to expunge outdated and ineffective thinking from society. Their alt-right counterparts, on the other hand, have transformed a much-needed debate on the limits of expression into a vindication of poisonous trolling. They have found in President Trump a champion of the unverified, and defender of all that falls under the banner of what is considered ‘non-politically correct,’ however vitriolic it may be.

If this debate and revolt against the stultification of the regressive left is ever to yield a constructive outcome, the shrinking moderate right needs to reel in their growing extremist wing. This conversation is far too important to be destroyed by an autocratic politician and his trolling multitudes.

Sean Goldman-Hunt is a fourth-year student in Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Sustainable Energy Development.

Debating dignity

Confronting colonialism and what it means to be silenced in light of recent campus events

Debating dignity

The white Western man lives in a schizophrenic moment. Global migrant trends and demographic shifts disturb his sense of the world, although transatlantic, far-right, xenophobic movements, like those of Donald Trump, Brexit, and Marine Le Pen, give him solace. To him, the influx of coloured peoples are symptoms of the destruction of Western ‘civilization.’ He deeply wishes to make this chaotic world “great again;” to revert to a time in which he could fix demographics through the control of speech, expression, and definitions.

Indeed, he longs for a return to the era of colonization, centuries ago, when he first made contact with these foreign peoples of colour. Then, he was able to impose ‘civilization’ upon their ‘backwards’ ways, one of which was the prevalence of sexual and gender nuances within indigenous communities: for example, the hijra of South Asia and the Two Spirit peoples of North America.

The white Western man’s colonialism effectively criminalized and erased these peoples and cultures, and forcefully normalized hetero-patriarchal binaries of sexuality and gender within these societies. Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.

Professor Jordan Peterson’s criticism of the defence of gender identity and expression through Bill C-16 and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, as well as the University of Toronto Human Resources Department’s mandate for anti-racism training, speaks to a deep sense of insecurity of those holding onto a centuries-old power.

When minorities of colour, gender, and sexuality demand that their speech, expression, and very existence be protected through bills like C-16, they are delegitimized as threats to ‘free expression.’ Ironically, the dominant culture, which already defines civilization, argues that they deserve even more freedom. Those who were always denied self-determination of body and spirit, are given no freedom at all. In doing so, these marginalized groups have been written out of law and culture at the paternalistic behest of those with power.

[pullquote-features]Perhaps that is why even women and people of colour supported today’s white Western man Professor Jordan Peterson at the recent ‘free speech’ rally. Colonialism lives on in the norms we internalize, defend, and perpetuate as collaborators.[/pullquote-features]

In the recent past, we have seen a pattern of ‘free expression’ favouring those in power. When Muslims demand dignity and autonomy in Western spaces, they are met with hostility: Islamophobic cartoons in defence of ‘humour’ and ‘free speech,’ and with the demonization of the burka to ‘free’ their women. Likewise, transgender individuals demand that their identities be recognized through pronouns and gender-neutral bathroom admissions. However, they are misgendered and met with anti-transgender laws to ‘protect’ women from ‘pedophile men dressed as women’ in bathrooms.

In other words, the audacity of the oppressed to challenge historical oppression is itself interpreted as oppression of those in power. Ultimately, Peterson and his ilk of ‘free speech’ supporters work to uphold asymmetrical enjoyment of speech; in turn the very identities, speeches, and expressions of transgender and racialized peoples are disrespected and erased.

Thus, these laws, sit-in rallies, and professors in solidarity with transgender and racialized folks apparently “scare” Peterson and his free-speech supporters. To him, culpable is a “Marxist” conspiracy by “politically correct social justice warriors.” He reduces the complex and cross-cultural existence of sexual and gender nuances to “ill-informed opinions” without “scientific standing,” and polices the grammar of their self-definitions. This parallels the cultural imperialism of the colonial past in which the oppressor demonized, excluded, and erased the oppressed.

Most importantly, Peterson ignores the crucial fact that the systematic denial of such groups in terms of speech, in this case correct pronouns, inevitably leads them to be dehumanized and “othered.” Once they are stripped of their humanity, they become legitimate targets of violence. This is exemplified in the victimization of many groups, including attacks on Muslim women on the streets of Canada and massacres against queer Puerto Ricans in Orlando nightclubs.

When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence. This often reveals that the dehumanization of one identity is linked to that of another. For example, the presence of the Black Liberation Collective, in solidarity against the transphobic undertones of the free speech rally, was met with calls for “more Michael Browns.” Peterson’s own video, in a pseudo-multicultural gesture, used the “conservative culture” and “discomfort” of Muslim women to justify transphobia — an example that further essentialized Islam. Finally, online threats were made against the transgender community following these recent tensions at the university.

The intersectionality of violence deserves expansion, especially regarding the Black connection to queer issues. Earlier this year, Black Lives Matter protested the Pride Parade with a sit-in in to demand the removal of police floats, given the violent history of police against marginalized groups. This form of protest, however, was itself ‘speech’ that was widely criticized for being divisive and disruptive.

[pullquote-default]When these groups refuse to accept the violence inflicted upon them, those with power only react with further violence.[/pullquote-default]

Yet, those with power seem to refuse to understand that, through centuries of determining the terms of discussion — in the form of ‘respectable’ speech and civil obedience — they have failed to protect marginalized groups. If the latter are excluded from using speech for their own grievances, in the manner they see most effective, how free is speech at all?

Evidently, free speech only respects the freedom of those in power. Peterson proposes discussion between groups for “consensus” to be reached. But human dignity, existence, and freedom from violence are not matters of policy that can be debated. Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.

[pullquote-features]Such dialogue inherently legitimizes violence against oppressed groups. Indeed, human dignity should not be contested, but guaranteed in speech.[/pullquote-features]

In ceding power — the monopoly on speech and expression, in this case — the white Western man and his collaborators are now somehow the victims. They erase their own colonial accumulation of power, and with this amnesic sense of history, see demands for change as a totalitarian conspiracy against them.

To turn the tides of colonial oppression, we must go beyond free speech to equitable speech. We must wake up, acknowledge our privileges, and in some cases cede speech for ears towards the unprivileged. We must practice justice and democracy by enabling marginalized people to speak on their own terms, to assert their nuanced existences, and to self-determine their place in a postcolonial world.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics, International Relations, and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the author’s biographical information. 

Drowning out discourse

The flaws of the social justice warrior movement remind us of the importance of open and reasoned debate

Drowning out discourse

I recently took a bioethics course with a serious and thoughtful professor. For the final paper, I suggested the issue of reassignment surgery for trans children, a topic I thought was relevant, important, and philosophically interesting. The professor agreed that the issue was a good one, but seemed hesitant to assign the question out of fear that it might offend students.

I was left feeling deeply troubled. It seemed that the political correctness (PC) frenzy, which had been building momentum for the past several years, had finally reached such a fever-pitch that the most important bioethical topics — difficult issues with serious consequences for vulnerable, marginalized people — couldn’t even be discussed in bioethics departments because of the threat of controversy and reprisal. The PC or ‘Social Justice Warrior’ (SJW) movement, which had sought with considerable success to roll back free speech on campuses across North America, was now beginning to harm the very groups it purported to defend.

Over the last few years I had become deeply concerned about the brazen attacks on free speech being launched by SJW activists in the name of, among other things, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and gender equality. While ostensibly fighting the good fight, SJWs were taking their reformism to new extremes. They were seeing discrimination everywhere, and reading hate-speech into seemingly innocent, or at worst, poorly-worded remarks. Rather than expressing concerns or requesting clarification, they were clamouring for resignations and mandatory ‘sensitivity’ training — a measure which, along with demands for ‘privilege-checking’ and other attacks on ‘unconscious prejudice,’ smacked of Maoist re-education programs.

Armed with an ideology that considers basically any disliked speech to be equivalent to violence, SJWs were getting events cancelled in order to keep themselves ‘safe’ from any and all ideas with which they disagreed. Several talks at U of T have recently been disrupted by protests of this kind.

SJWs were eager to make strong claims — like allegations of racism or sexism — but seemed staunchly opposed to rationally defending any of their theses – even those used to justify censorship, like their persistent equation of speech with violence. Emphasizing ‘impact’ and ‘experience’ above reason and objectivity, SJWs maintained that they didn’t have to explain their experiences to anyone. They asserted the unquestionable right to censor and punish, while steadfastly refusing to justify the tremendous powers that they had unilaterally arrogated to themselves.

More disturbingly still, SJWs openly attacked free speech, academic freedom, and even reason itself — as one notable activist put it, “reason should be wielded as a tactic, not adhered to as a rule.” Proceeding as they did from an intellectual tradition which sees virtually all institutions, including reason and logic, as instruments of oppression by powerful groups, SJWs had few qualms about responding to requests for reasoned argument with grand proclamations of the ‘validity’ of their ‘lived-experiences.’ Similarly, they were perfectly comfortable with using actual violence to suppress ideas and speech that they perceived to be violent.

One can imagine my relief, then, upon learning that a U of T professor, Jordan Peterson, had taken a public stand against neo-political-correctness, expressing his concerns about the rise of the regressive left in a series of YouTube lectures. Academics, Peterson observed, are increasingly afraid to voice dissenting opinions for fear that they may find themselves in the crosshairs of a highly-organized and effective protest-movement which has proven its ability to have controversial speaking events canceled, and get even the highest-ranking university employees fired and black-balled; Tim Wolfe at the University of Missouri and Jodi Kelly at Seattle U are two prominent examples. In such a climate, Peterson observed, the free exchange of ideas — which ought to be the hallmark of higher education — was all but impossible.

Although I didn’t hold out much hope for immediate change, I was glad to see someone standing up to the cadre of activists who had unilaterally appointed themselves arbiters of campus discourse, and I admired Peterson’s courage – risking his reputation, career, and livelihood to defend free speech.

Unfortunately, and predictably, the response to his videos has been far from constructive. As if to prove his point about their suppression of dissent, PC activists ignored Peterson’s arguments about free-expression, and instead zeroed-in on incidental remarks about gender-identification. Peterson, a renowned clinical psychologist, feels that the terminology underpinning recent human-rights legislation is vague and under-supported by the scholarly literature – in particular, he feels that terms like ‘gender spectrum’ are poor descriptors of the extant data.

Seizing upon this rather banal statistical distinction, SJWs denounced him as a hatemonger, called for his dismissal, and shamelessly attempted to associate him with neo-Nazis. When the dust settled, they had succeeded in drowning out the substance of his remarks — on one occasion, they did this quite literally with a white-noise machine.

Peterson criticized SJW arrogance and smear tactics, and SJWs responded by dismissing his meticulously formulated arguments out of hand and attempting, rather clumsily, to smear him. The irony would be absolutely delicious if the movement from which this response arose wasn’t so powerful — despite their claims to the contrary.

The backlash against Peterson’s videos is emblematic of the unabashed intolerance, reflexive hostility, and pathological incapacity for introspection which has increasingly driven left-wing commentators like myself away from the modern social justice movement.

Unlike protest movements of yore — including civil rights, gay rights, and the Suffragettes — SJWs don’t simply advance and argue ideas, but they attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them. Rather than trying to demonstrate that they are right, as those propounding new ideas typically must, they take it as a given they are right, and move straight on to punishing sedition. They attack anyone who disagrees with them, often ruining their lives and careers, and they attack anyone who comes to the defence of the people they’re attacking – a modus operandi reminiscent of the darkest days of McCarthyism.

It’s bad enough when the people trying to muzzle those who disagree with them are obviously right. The whole point of free speech is that being right doesn’t justify silencing one’s opponents. After all, who ever thought their own ideas were wrong?

But the SJW movement is so hopelessly confused and maddeningly fickle that the prospect of their rising powers of censorship is nothing short of terrifying. Not satiated by the traditional right-wing targets of progressive indignation, they eat their own: feminists who criticize the treatment of women in Islam are racist; Muslim women who feel uncomfortable with biological-men using ladies-rooms are trans-phobic; Caucasians who show solidarity with ethnic-minorities by sporting traditional garb are guilty of cultural appropriation. Keeping up with the ever-changing party line, it seems, is a full-time occupation.

Perhaps their willingness to suppress dissent without justification is related to SJWs’ rather odd relationship with truth. As a Western-white-cis-male construction, truth is relative, and logic and reason are tools of oppression, especially when they underlie arguments in opposition to SJW ideas.

Consequently, their theses don’t have to make sense: all that matters is the feeling, impact, and experience of the people on the ‘right’ side of the debate. Not only does this assume correctness without proof, it doesn’t even make sense — how can SJW ideas themselves be ‘true’ when right and wrong are social constructs? I suppose that once one has freed oneself of the shackles of logic and reason, questions of this sort become uninteresting.

SJWs want to be free to insult, vilify, demonize, and ostracize to their hearts content. Whenever anyone has the gall to question one of their manifold, shape-shifting theses, they scream for censorship and censure. They invariably attack even the mildest opposition to their ideas by contorting it beyond recognition, interpreting it as bigotry and oppression, and concluding that the people who expressed it have no right to speak.

Free speech isn’t just a right, it’s a fountainhead of rights — a ‘meta right,’ if you will — whose safeguarding enables marginalized groups to gain new rights despite majoritarian opposition. It is also historically young, and geographically sparse. Throughout history, and around the world, people have fought and died for the freedom to say what they think, regardless of how the majority or powerful minorities feel about it.

A clique of myopic bullies, who use ad hoc jargon and smear tactics to dismiss the fundamental rights of those who disagree with them, threaten to wipe out these important advances in a few hysterical years. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the countless martyrs to free expression and to future generations, not to let this happen.

 

Simon Capobianco is a fourth-year student at Woodsworth College studying Bioethics and Mathematics.

White noise and public representation do not mix

Cassandra Williams’ actions at the U of T Rally for Free Speech are inappropriate for a UTSU executive

White noise and public representation do not mix

At the Rally for Free Speech on October 11, UTSU’s Vice-President, University Affairs Cassandra Williams suppressed the free speech of the students she is supposed to represent. The rally was meant to promote freedom of speech in the U of T community and in society at large. Anyone was allowed to take the microphone and speak their mind. The organizers strove to ensure no opinion was silenced, and that whoever spoke was heard without disruption.

However, some individuals, including Williams, used speaker systems to blast very loud white noise while people were speaking. Not only was the sound unappealing, it became difficult, or sometimes impossible, to hear what people were saying. Organizers asked for the noise to stop, but Williams and other anti-rally protesters sat on the speakers, preventing anyone who wanted to shut off the sound from doing so.

The hypocrisy of Williams’ actions was evident after considering that she helped out one week earlier at a different rally, when a group of students came together to give out “basic 101 information about trans folks and non-binary folks,” as she explained. Anyone who spoke at that rally was heard without any disruption close to what she imposed at the Free Speech rally. Photo and video evidence of the Free Speech rally showed Williams at one point publicly communicating her opinions to Professor Jordan Peterson, a promoter of and speaker at the rally, while later playing white noise when Peterson spoke out to promote freedom of speech.

Free speech is not only a fundamental right granted to us by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also central to student life at the University of Toronto. The university’s Statement on Freedom of Speech states that the members of the school have “the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue,” and to “criticize the University and society at large.” It further states that the University “should not limit that debate by preordaining conclusions, or punishing or inhibiting the reasonable exercise of free speech.”

Anti-rally protestors cannot argue that the dialogue was ‘unreasonable’ if they shut down speech before any voices are even heard. By creating an environment where we cannot hear the opinions of the members of our community, the actions of the protestors inhibited the ability for free speech to be exercised at the university.

Most importantly, as a member of the UTSU executive team, Williams’ role on campus is different from that of any other student. She is paid just under $30,000 a year from mandatory fees by over 50,000 undergraduate students. Her mandate as Vice-President of University Affairs includes representing all students, and being highly involved in the Academic and Student Rights Commission. These students did not pay fees to have one of their most important rights stifled on campus. The fact that Williams is a public official, paid from students’ fees, and making such a drastic statement against a large portion of the student body calls the legitimacy of these actions into question.

Consequently, many students have realized that what she did was not appropriate for a public official that is supposed to represent them, and went online to voice their concerns. Facebook posts condemning Williams’ actions were posted, and the video showing her taking part in creating the noise became one of the top Reddit posts of all time in the U of T subreddit. Calls to impeach Williams were even made on social media, and a petition to this effect garnered over 300 signatures.

In comparison, Williams has remained relatively silent. Her only public statement on the matter thus far was in an article in The Medium, where she explained that it was “noise-music,” and not white noise, as if this excused her actions. The UTSU, in turn, has yet to make any public statement about her actions. When asked directly about her actions, her thoughts on the calls for impeachment, or whether she would consider resigning, for the purpose of this article, Williams did not comment.

A member of a student government should not take part in disrupting reasonable discourse. Student politicians do not have executive power over the students they serve, and they are given a salary not to oversee or impose restrictions on the student body, but to fulfill their duties and responsibilities in line with the university community.

Of course, student officials have their own beliefs and opinions, but raising those above the thoughts of the students they claim to represent, and acting as if those ideas are not as important, is unacceptable, indefensible, and not what student governance is about. If the UTSU purports to represent the student body as a whole, Williams’ actions at the rally greatly failed to promote that mission.

Robert Tran is a third-year student at New College studying Geography.