How should we be defending free speech on campus? What should we be taught? How should it be taught? Many talk about listening to what other people need to say, but is there ever a time when you should say “I’m done listening?”
Brock’s Dr. Leah Bradshaw, a theory professor in the Political Science department, pondered these questions at St. Catharines Public Library on November 21.
The discussion was meant to be a response to the current political debate over free speech, and was based on Ronald Bernier’s book Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right. In his book, Bernier, who is a political science professor from University of Toronto, discusses the connection between what is taught in university and real world political outcomes. In particular, Bernier focuses on the influence certain philosophical thinking might have on the alt-right, an umbrella term for a variety of far-right fringe groups including white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. Dr. Paul Gray, an assistant professor in the Labour Studies department, moderated the discussion between Bradshaw, Bernier and a third professor from University of Toronto, Dr. Clifford Orwin.
“These debates have intensified because the Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, has mandated colleges and universities to develop guarantees for free speech or face funding cuts,” said Gray. “Is this a solution in search of a problem or is there a crisis of free speech on campuses?”
Panelists enlightened the audience with the fact that The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities threatens funding cuts for institutions that fail to implement new free speech policies on campuses. Since Ford has been cracking down on universities since September, Brock was accepting recommendations for a new policy until Nov. 5. Ford has ordered universities to have a final draft completed by January 2019. The current draft policy is available on the university’s website, and it reiterates the university’s commitment to open discussion and mutual respect.
“It seems likely that the principle motivation is to shield the university from one might term broadly ‘identity politics’ or the politics of ‘political correctness,’” said Bradshaw.
Everyone wants to be able to speak their mind freely; this is something that has been fought for by both ends of the political spectrum. In this sense we have been inclined to ask how far individuals can go in their freedom of speech before it becomes offensive or discriminatory to another party. If a renowned thinker of political thought does not live up to what society no longer deems acceptable, should they not be taught in an academic setting? Remaining true to her theory roots, Bradshaw used John Stuart Mill to get to the crux of her argument for freedom of speech.
“The strongest defender of freedom of speech in the modern West is a 19th century philosopher named John Stuart Mill,” said Bradshaw. “He argued that all opinions ought to be allowed in the public realm because this is how the ‘good’ opinions get sifted out from the ‘bad’ opinions.”
“We need to hold the bar, in the university, based on reason,” Bradshaw said.
In their arguments, Orwin and Bernier focused more on freedom of speech outside of the classroom, remarking on the recent advocacy for free speech by Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon and their colleague Jordan Peterson, including controversy over retracting invitations to these figures amid protests.
“I don’t care what he [Bannon] says but once invited to speak he still had the right to free speech,” said Orwin.
While Orwin and Bernier spoke more on the freedom of speech in the general public, Bradshaw kept her comments within the context of the university. She noted that this is a difficult time for those who teach.
“I am a professor of ideas but I am also a citizen of a liberal democratic age, and the political foundations of my citizenship are in jeopardy. I cannot afford to fly the flag of ‘free speech’ or the detached teaching of ideas in a cultural milieu in which we are in danger of losing the very conditions under which we can profess at all,” Bradshaw said.
After moderated discussion between the panelists, Gray devoted 35 minutes to the audience to present any questions or comments. The audience, comprised largely of academics, was enthusiastic to probe each panelist with critiques and requests of elaboration.
We live in a day where freedom of speech has become a lightning rod for debate. There is a clear two sided debate over issues such as hate speech and the practice of denying public figures a platform at institutions, but this panel showed the way people come to either side from different angles.