Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Free Speech

I've been mulling over this blog post for a couple weeks. It has been sitting in an unfinished state in my drafts folder, with little more form than nearly a dozen news sources and a jumble of ideas swirling around in my head. However, now that the issue has largely passed, I think I'm finally ready to put forth my opinion on something which most people wouldn't really think needs defending - free speech.

A little background first: recently, at Carleton University, a group of libertarian students put up a "free speech wall" in order to promote the free flow of ideas. Well that sounds reasonable (if a little pointless in a liberal university setting) to me - sure it can be a little dangerous, but free speech is rather dangerous in its very conception. However, the twist is that the wall was torn down... by a gay-rights activist. Even stranger, it was not in response to anything which was written on the wall directly (someone wrote "abortion is murder", which had already gotten contrary response, and "traditional marriage is awesome"), but the very idea that someone could write something he didn't agree with. He claimed that the free speech wall was an act of violence against the gay community.

Understandably, this caused a fair bit of controversy, not only in the school, but the national media as well. In order to really get a grip on what occurred and why, it's probably a good idea to go into some further contextualizing. I will then lay out my own opinions on the matter and on this free speech debate.

First off, let's delve into the main figure of this controversy, Arun Smith, a 7th year human rights student. I had actually never heard of the guy prior to this, but it turns out that he's a bit notorious around campus for aggressively pushing his political agendas very publicly. Seriously, read those articles. A private, offhand joke to a friend turns into calls to resign for not respecting victims of sexual violence and because his apology was not sincere enough? Seriously? I can honestly say that my sincere response in this situation would be "F--- off". The other one was even more ridiculous - a game of water gun tag around campus (which sounds fun as hell) apparently promotes gun violence. Admittedly, Arun seems to back off a bit on that one, but still, he really comes across as someone who constantly has to push for his unilateral agenda as publicly and frequently as possible. Suffice to say, this, in addition to the wall incident, didn't exactly endear Arun to me very much when I looked into this.

In response to Arun's constant antics like this on campus, that some students ended up turning him into a meme (from the always unbiased Xtra!: Canada's Gay & Lesbian News). While I'll admit that some of them are funny, the fact that they're directed at a specific person was exceptionally mean-spirited and wrong (not to mention the medium they went with is incredibly juvenile). However, when one of the guys who started the memes confessed, Smith once again said that the apology lacked sincerity. The student, Deketele, stated that he acknowledges that what he wrote was offensive, but he was intending merely to insult Smith, not threaten him in any way. The following from the article is also of note:
"Despite what [Deketele] wrote in the apology, he blames Smith for publicizing the incident. 
'If he doesn’t like you he will try to assassinate your character. I was worried that if I came forward he would do that, and it happened anyway. Just my luck that it only happened to me; I’m the only person who had someone rat on them. I feel bad about what I did, I really do,' Deketele says. 
Prompted by Deketele’s apparent lack of remorse, Smith says he will provide Deketele’s name to police and seek legal counsel."
Smith also stated that:

"So long as Raphael continues to be a student, there’s still a fundamental question of my safety, whether we’re talking about my emotional safety or my physical safety," he says. "There has to be some actual justice, and right now there is no justice."

What I draw from this incident here is that here we have another example of Arun Smith ignoring freedom of speech as a legitimate tenet. On one hand, I sympathize with the man for being mocked as he did (even if it was in response to his very public actions around school), but his response to the ordeal and constant, public badgering of Deketele is excessive. Also, justice was served, although I'm sure that Smith doesn't really support the police or university management either... from my experience with activists at school, there's likely the sense that they reproduce patriarchal hegemony. This may be true to a point, but that also just reiterates the subjectivity of Smith's claims in the end. I think the comments on this article are also rather interesting, since there's about a 50/50 split between people arguing about Smith's methodology - surprising considering that the articles were published on an extremely biased news site, as I mentioned (not picking on gay news outlets in particular, just any overtly biased news site in general... don't worry, I'll piss off the right-wingers soon enough when I call out Sun News Network).

Finally, Smith was also involved in a protest against allowing anti-abortion groups on campus. I think it would be irresponsible for me to go much further without admitting that I'm personally against abortion, but at the same time I don't believe that I should be dictate what people do with their bodies... so I guess that makes me technically pro-choice? I dunno, clearly the whole issue is more complicated than the opposing sides would like to make us think. Anyway, the Carleton University Students Association's view on the matter was that:

"It looks like it will finally help them respect the free speech of pro-life students," Richmond says. "If you’re saying that a group cannot have the same privileges as other groups on campus simply because they take a particular stance on a human rights issue . . . that equates to discrimination."

Honestly... I'm inclined to agree with them. You by no means have to agree with pro-lifers, but as long as they're not being abusive or hateful then I don't see why a group should be banned from the campus. I mean, a few years ago Anne Coulter tried to come and speak at Carleton, but she was banned before she could. However, despite being staunchly left-wing and considering Coulter to be a complete idiot, I was one of the few who actually supported her coming. Why? Simply because she has the right to free speech. By shutting her out, you're turning her into a bit of a martyr. Furthermore, those who were going to see her are likely inclined to agree with her opinions in the first place, so banning her from the university is not going to change anyones' opinions on the matter. Similarly, banning anti-abortion organizations from the university doesn't change anyones' attitudes - it's just hiding them at best. Also, I'm not entirely sure of the exact reasoning why allowing anti-abortion groups creates an unsafe place for homosexuals on campus (which is what Smith's position in the article is about), as long as these groups are kept from making hateful comments. There's an argument that these groups do not believe their conduct to be discriminatory, but... I dunno. The abortion debate is a clusterf--k of ideologies clashing all over, and I really don't want to get into it much further beyond this.

Anyway, all of this happened before the wall incident, and so I believe that these incidences pretty conclusively suggest that Arun Smith views freedom of speech as a hostile idea to his own ideology. Smith seems to support the typical issues of gay-rights and women's-rights activist would be expected to uphold... although he also seems to take this to the extreme, being a very confrontational individual who might be doing more harm just because he has projected a very distastefully unilateral public persona of himself. Anything which could potentially infringe upon his political agenda is seen as a target which must be eliminated at any cost. This is, of course, great if you agree with his narrow point of view, but he does not seem to want to try to convert others to his cause, being more likely to just shoehorn people into it instead. This is just what I have gleaned from my research, but based on what I have read and heard from others, it sounds fairly accurate.

Moving back to the free speech wall, I think the reasons for Smith's tearing down the wall are pretty apparent, especially considering that he now considers Carleton an "unsafe space" since CUSA changed its abortion stance to "neutral". However, I think that Smith really overstepped his bounds on this one. In fact, the only overt references to sexuality on the wall were pro-gay. As a result, Smith is putting his own opinion ahead of not only those he disagrees with, but of other gays who support free speech as well. Honestly, it's a hypocritical and one which I really cannot say was justified at all in this case.

Smith will argue that free speech will inevitably lead to hate speech and that society has created inequality. My response to this is two-fold. For one thing, hate speech is an unfortunate trade-off of free speech, but it is also balanced by many, many positives in the other direction. On the other hand society, the thing that Smith is so abjectly against, ensures that hate speech is mitigated as much as possible. Furthermore, society is a social construction - we cannot expect our sole opinion to govern the process, and we honestly shouldn't expect it to. Competition of ideas generally leads to a more neutral ground which will please a larger number of people... after all, we're living in a nation built up of the opinions of tens of millions. Put simply, free speech is one of the best things about this society that we live in because it allows our ideas to get out there and for us to decide for ourselves what we will think... I think your activist predecessors would have much reverence for the notion.

Anyway... I think people put too much effort into university politics. In closing, I'll leave a link to another person's thoughts on the matter which I found quite interesting... except for the part about Sun News Network being a great, unbiased source of news. Seriously, wtf?

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