By Ahmad Khan
Repugnant and unfettered speech at education institutions might very well end up defeating the purpose of free speech.
Free speech is one of the pillars of a democratic, liberal society. Its stated aim is to be able to talk up to power, hold rulers to account and to foster an environment where people are able to express their ideas and opinions fully without fear of persecution from the state. But it is important to understand that free speech is not unlimited speech.
One principal of free speech is respectful self-restraint. Secondly, free speech does not happen in a vacuum. It is constrained by the cultural norms, morals and values that the society at large deem to be acceptable, if not fully desirable. Thirdly, it has to ensure that the atmosphere in which it is exercised is intellectually stimulating, not intimidating and toxic. Unlimited speech knows and respects no such bounds.
Free speech will only work if the majority of citizens in a society understand the principals that it is founded upon. One of the intents and objectives of free speech is to advance liberal civilization through dialog and debate. These debates should be rooted in research and facts, not mere hearsay and opinion, and based on science and logic, not mere myth and stereotypes.
But what if free speech does the exact opposite of what it is suppose to do? What if it becomes a tool of repression used to talk down to vulnerable groups and further isolate them from society? What if the content of the conversations routinely demonizes and dehumanizes other people, their faith, beliefs, values and culture? What if free speech took away from a person’s basic human right of being able to live in an environment free from bigotry?
Listening to ideas outside someone’s comfort zone should be encouraged, and no one has the right to complain about sensitivities being infringed, provided the arguments are backed up by research. But should condescending comments based on racial stereotypes be put in the same bracket? Is normalizing a discourse that plays on people’s prejudices and reinforces deeply held opinions really opening them up to new ideas and stimulating debate?
Free speech in its present form is becoming a weapon of the privileged. These people know very well that what they say will not carry any personal negative consequences for them. If they are politicians, it is not going to hurt their political base.
Writers and speakers denied a public platform, which they weren’t entitled to, to begin with, claim to be martyrs for the cause of freedom. Faith Goldy who is considered to be a white nationalist with extreme right wing views, is one of these, after being denied a chance to speak at Wilfrid Laurier University on March 20 after someone pulled a fire alarm.
Proponents of unlimited speech argue that policing of opinions is a doctrine that goes against civilized norms. This would be censorship based on fear, a step toward totalitarianism. Whether there is any factual evidence to back up such claims is beside the point.
Research has shown that children as young as five have the ability to differentiate between treatment and status of race in society. This is perhaps why history has proven that knowledge, education and intelligence by themselves do not eliminate stereotypes and entrenched biases that people are taught or they learn at an early age.
The defence of imperialism under the guise of British-styled enforced enlightenment, and France’s mission civilisatrice as being both benevolent and beneficial for the societies that they enslaved and exploited, are still a source of pride for many segments of their societies.
In this environment, normalizing unlimited speech might give validation if not endorsement to views that strike at the very fabric of society and identity. This can put the amazing unprecedented Canadian experiment of multiculturalism in jeopardy. Universities should be allowed to filter out speakers whose research do not meet rigid academic standards. Such a move will only strengthen free speech, not limit it.