JOHNSON – Hate speech and controversial speakers at universities


AN ISSUE POPPED up last week that got me thinking.

Last week, there was a protest against fired Mount Royal University (Calgary) professor Frances Widdowson.

David Johnson.

That’s the one who made headlines a year or two back, lauding the ‘educational benefits of Canada’s Residential School system’ while questioning that ‘abuses against indigenous children equated to genocide’ and generally her concerns that ‘mob mentality and woke policies’ increasingly threaten academic freedom’.

This last one was to be the subject of her speech.

Days prior to the speech, the university cancelled the talk due to protests, but Widdowson vowed to show up anyway.  On the day, 700 protesters disrupted the speech, and 2,500 signed a petition.  Widdowson was unable to give her talk.

This reminded me of when the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) rescinded the University of British Columbia (UBC) entry from the 2019 Vancouver Pride Parade.  In a released statement, the VPS stated that UBC provided a “platform for transphobic hate speech” by an invited speaker.

Jenn Smith’s talk, entitled ‘The Erosion of Freedom: How Transgender Politics in School and Society is Undermining Our Freedom and Harming Women & Children,’ focused on ways that he perceives certain rights and freedoms in society are undermined by what he calls a ‘transgender ideology.’

Smith identifies as a transgender-identified male.  Right off the bat, anyone with intellect is curious how a member of the trans community can hold such views.  I was intrigued.

In cancelling UBC’s parade entry: “This decision was made after reflection and review of information and correspondence from faculty and students at UBC who were deeply concerned and betrayed by UBC’s decision to host a purveyor of hate speech,” states VPS board co-chair, Michelle Fortin.  Directly calling a trans person, speaking on trans issues, a ‘Purveyor of hate speech’.

Is it fair to ask if ‘Purveyor of hate speech’ … has become just cancel rhetoric.

UBC responded with the expected backpedaling we have become accustomed to when a group disagrees with a university’s decision to allow a speaker.  I was reminded of when Richard Spencer the neo-Nazi was turned away from the University of Florida or when professor Jordan Pederson is announced to speak pretty much anywhere, which we can expect to kick up soon as he is planning a tour that stops in Kelowna.

Whether we agree with what any of them say or not, all of these people are extremely well spoken and capable academics, fully able to speak to a room and challenge something we hold vital … our beliefs … with intelligence, forethought and nuance.  These are not idiots who are racists, sexists, or simple hate speech spewers.

To be clear, I am not pro or con any of the subject matters of any of these speakers we are talking about, this is only about their ability to speak and initiate debate in the one real environment appropriate to have these hard conversations: institutions of advanced academic learning, attended by adults.

In the past, I was generally on the side of disallowing any forum for hate speech, in any locale.  Part of me firmly believes that the only way to put hate back into the basement is to be vigilant in disallowing its exposure.  To stand up and say “no … your ideas do not belong in this world”.  And I still believe that, as part of my belief in the rights of the individual.  That also means that I also believe in my right to have that belief, even if others disagree.

My mind has since altered towards there being a single caveat to this blanket ideology, due to these stories of cancel culture taking over at universities.

I have come to think that it is specifically a university’s job to be a forum for academia even if … and especially if … the discussion occurring in the university is controversial, difficult or hard.

Students at advanced academic institutions must be challenged by ALL views and must be able to debate those views in the public forum. It is in this act that students formulate both the critical thinking skills and the belief systems that will guide them through their future.

This … in addition to the acquisition of textbook knowledge, is the true function of universities. If they are not seriously challenged then what is lost is critical thinking as a means to establishment of ideology on their own accord.

These are not children, they are critically thinking adults, and they won’t be manipulated by any speaker that espouses hate or any belief that is contrary to their basic belief systems, but they will learn to discuss them.

This is where ideas are listened to and debates like this teach us about the nuance of belief, and we are challenged to reassess and firm up WHY we believe what we believe, or conversely IF we can no longer justify a previous belief … change it.

If we can’t hear the idea, and we can’t have our own ideology pushed, we can not learn to adapt our beliefs to suit us as we grow, and we do not learn the critical debate skills we would use throughout the rest of our life.

For hundreds … actually for thousands … of years universities have heard ideas that have enflamed and enraged.  Countless students throughout history have listened to such a speech and said, “No, I didn’t agree with it generally … but he had a few interesting points we should discuss.”  That is the moment a controversial speech succeeds in its intent, and future breakthroughs have come from the seed planted at such opportunities.

We need to ask and decide if cancelling speakers at universities in this way is in fact censorship.  We need to determine if the ‘I have a right to say … no … you are not allowed to talk’ crowd is floating on an entitlement borne of today’s general society, that allows cancel culture to be an appropriate way to protect ourselves from hate speech and dangerous ideologies.  Then we need to decide if it belongs in the one place where it can have positive outcomes … universities.

What right do ‘woke’ protesters like this, have to decide that I can or can not hear someone else share their ideas and challenge me, in an adult educational environment?

University halls are filled with our future political, business and social leaders and we must give them their own experiences to develop their own tools.  To question larger societal issues for themselves, and not be forcefully blinded from alternate ideologies that appose what some say is our world’s politically correct soft lens of mediocrity.

Students must absolutely hear hate, from a jerk with a mic, to know how it feels, so they know what to defend against in their own future, and practice the critical thinking and debate skills they will need for the rest of their lives to discuss and defend their beliefs.

It is wrong to forcefully limit the self-education of our future, just because we disagree with the form and subject of the lesson?

Our students are smarter than that, and will come through the experience better off … for being seriously challenged.  The rest of us must turn the corner on this community control of universities, and recognise that they need autonomy to do this work, and push their students to be better citizens.

To the students who protest against Jenn Smith being able to even speak, or are lining up to protest Jordan Peterson, I would ask if they would not be better off listening to what they say and discern if their argument holds any debatable merit at all, or determine it as actual hate and … actually … decide that for themselves.

By refusing to consider any alternate ideas to even be heard, are the cancel crowd not falling into the trap of following the cancel shepherd because he said you should?  Wouldn’t protesters rather think for themselves?  Are you thinking, if you refuse to listen?

But no, in the Smith case, protesters decided that other students didn’t have the right to decide for themselves, even though they refused to enter the room to hear the speaker, or hoot and holler so the speaker could not speak.  Who is the sheep here?

It is interesting that last week’s Widdowson’s talk was actually about the ‘woke and mob mentality’ of those who limit access of others to this kind of academic learning opportunity.

The juxtaposition is nothing short of alarming; they literally proved her correct by not allowing her to speak.  That’s easy to do.  It would have been harder … and more mature … to actually hear her out and debate the details.  But no, expressing their ability to flex was more of a necessity, than the desire to experience and have their shepherded beliefs challenged.

I would rather listen and make up my own mind.  I don’t need the censor of the politically correct, to choose what I should and should not be able to hear, and neither should students.

There is an inherent disconnection between protest and knowledge in many facets of our society and I am starting to question how truth can be ascertained in the absence of actual direct knowledge.  They don’t know what the speaker will talk about, so she shouldn’t be allowed to talk at all, so no one can hear any potential truth in the message.

I will agree it is a fine line between this need I talk about on behalf of students, and the reality that giving voice … is also giving a platform.  There are obviously limits, and the Nazi guy comes closest to crossing that for me.

It is a very difficult balance to find,
and I don’t profess to have the answer,
but I am left to wonder about 10 or 20 years from now
… who will be protested and disallowed to speak?

David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.

About Mel Rothenburger (9489 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

6 Comments on JOHNSON – Hate speech and controversial speakers at universities

  1. Sean McGuinness // February 21, 2023 at 8:32 AM // Reply

    Thanks for this interesting column which is very relevant in todays political climate. One of the issues is deciding when something can be deemed “hate speech”. Salman Rushdie’s “Santanic Verses” was deemed to be an assault on Islam by some people, but for others it was just merely another book. Being an academic, I can say that there are plenty of talks and points of view being given at universities. There is plenty of freedom on campus. Universities are places where the status quo is questioned — protests are common, but so are outpourings of support. But there are limits. I don’t believe the students “absolutely need to hear hate from a jerk with a mic”. However, I certainly believe that even people with controversial ideas should be heard out. But not people whose speech may directly or indirectly attack, demean, or offend a group of people. The problem is deciding where to draw the line. In the case of Widdowson, judging from the title, her speech would likely be viewed as offensive by many in the indigenous community, not to mention the community at large. It’s as if one were to give a speech lauding the value of assault rifles to an audience many of whom had kids who died in a school shooting. Discussion is good, but we need to be cognisant and exercise judgement when it can be damaging.

    • Plenty of apologies were requested and given. Every year billions of dollars outflow from government coffers to First Nation coffers. Special compensations have taken place. I have been in Canada for a while now and I personally never witness systematic, government sponsored (subtly or otherwise) discrimination, nor heard it in the media. I think it is about time to have a frank conversation about many things even if someone may get “offended” for asking questions.
      I am told “we are one” which sounds righteous and doable, therefore let’s move on. With accountability throughout.

    • I might possibly agree that ” people whose speech … attack(s), (or) demean(s) … a group of people” should not be heard out. Certainly if they promote violence or active discrimination against a group of people, then they have crossed the line. But if we silence everyone whose speech merely offends a group of people, then nobody will be able to speak at all on any but the most bland and meaningless of subjects. Discussion of meaningful matters simply could not occur.

      Discussion is good. Full stop.

  2. Weak leadership is behind the erosion of free speech.
    Then again, if students and others would to truly be “discerning thinkers” we wouldn’t have a “mob mentality and woke policies” to begin with. I have grown tired of woke policies and politics.

    • Possibly for the first time ever, I agree with Pierre. Weak leadership is the problem.

      Next thing you know, Pierre will be voting for the Conservative Party of Canada.

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