Dangerous Ideas, Dangerous Times forum to take place

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As issues of free speech arise with increasing frequency in global, national and even local news cycles, two Brock professors are planning a forum to discuss the topic and its significance to the community.

Paul Gray, an associate professor in the Department of Labour Studies, and Leah Bradshaw, a Political Science professor, have arranged a forum on November 21 from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. at the St. Catharines Public Library.

Bradshaw refers to Gray as the instigator behind the event.

“It came out of discussions that [Bradshaw] and I were having about some of the themes of Ronald Beiner’s recent book and some of the reactions to it,” said Gray.

Gray cited points made by Jordan Peterson, a professor who became a polarizing figure in the free speech debate after refusing to use students’ gender-neutral pronouns, as one of the overarching topics that lead to these discussions. Gray also mentioned the Lindsey Shepherd case, in which a teaching assistant from Wilfred Laurier University faced backlash after showing a clip of Peterson to her students, and the recent policies of Premier Doug Ford guaranteeing free speech on campuses.

The book that ties these topics together and the reason for the forum is Beiner’s Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right. Beiner, who is a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto will be one of three professionals featured in the panel discussion, as well as Bradshaw and Clifford Orwin, who is also a Political Science professor at the University of Toronto.

“The three speakers will have opening statements and will get to respond to each other’s opening statements. Then I’ll be moderating, asking questions and following up to push the stronger counter-arguments for each of the perspectives to see what people think,” said Gray. “After that we’re going to open it up for a substantive [question and answer period.]”

As well as opening the floor to community members of differing opinions and ideas, the forum is designed to cover ideas about free speech and censorship from a diverse group of panellists.

“There are two issues that we’re talking about here. One is the pedagogical one, about what we teach in university. Beiner’s book specifically addresses the connection, or what he perceives to be a dangerous connection possibly between what we teach in university and the outcomes in the political world. He is specifically concerned with the connection between teaching certain philosophers, major philosophers, and the co-option of those ideas by the right wing,” said Bradshaw. “The broader issue that remains is about responsibility in teaching. Should there be any censorship or self-censorship on what we teach and how we teach?”

Beyond the classroom, the forum will cover freedom of speech elsewhere on campus.

“The second issue is in the broader community of the university,” said Bradshaw. “What sorts of speech acts should be tolerated on campuses?”

The panel will also explore the concept of “no-platforming,” which encompasses refusing to spread another’s ideas, typically because of association with fascism, hate speech or other political extremes.

An example of no-platforming was the controversy over a debate featuring Steve Bannon at the University of Toronto. The former White House strategist debated in favour of populism. Because of Bannon’s ties to white supremacy and the alt-right movement, protests erupted.

“In light of the Steve Bannon talk, some people think that some ideas are so hateful and expressed in ways that have led to hateful acts that the speakers should not be provided with platforms by public institutions,” said Gray. “Others argue that even if they find these ideas hateful and even if they, too, are worried about the rise of far right movements, they don’t think that no-platforming is the right strategy for a variety of reasons. Even if you acknowledge that a major problem with free speech is the extent to which there are unequal platforms and that the freedom to speak isn’t necessarily the freedom to be heard, nevertheless the way of dealing with the inequalities between platforms may not be no-platforming.”

Gray noted that these stances are not uniform for the left and the right, but vary immensely even among like-minded camps.

“In a broad historical sense, where you happen to be on the spectrum, whether it’s left, right or center, doesn’t necessarily indicate where you fall in the free speech debate,” said Gray. “There has been a lot of point-scoring characterization of various positions and groups. It’s much better to acknowledge the sheer disagreement not only between but within, note the different perspectives and move toward the strongest arguments for each.”

In terms of Brock specifically, Bradshaw declined to comment on the state of freedom of speech on campus, encouraging interested individuals to attend the forum and hear the opinions of all speakers instead.

“I think one of the things this forum can do is present arguments from people who respect each other and value civil discourse while fundamentally disagreeing with one another,” said Gray.

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