Free Speech in an Era of Polarizing Populism

My local social entrepreneurs’ community listserv is usually a pretty tame forum for seeking and offering help for different aspects of running a social business. Earlier this week, it lit up with a dozen messages asking for popular support to pressure the Munk Debates to cancel Steve Bannon’s upcoming appearance in Toronto.

To my surprise and concern, at least five or six people responded to make a case that seeking to cancel Bannon’s talk was ethically wrong because it would limit free speech. I felt compelled to respond. Here’s the original text of my post:

Tolerating intolerance leads to more and worse intolerance—that’s why it’s “rage against the machine”, not “festival of ideas against the machine”.

Don’t confuse the ability to draw an audience with the right to a platform!

The arguments I’ve seen here for Bannon from the principle of “free speech” have erred in understanding what “free speech” means as a right and entitlement. Bannon is no more entitled to have an audience at the Munk debates than I am. To be sure, Bannon has distinct experience in politics that makes him more likely than me to draw an audience, but please don’t confuse that with an entitlement to speak at the debates because of a right to free speech.

The Munk organizers would love to be let off the hook for being accountable for their choices of debaters—it was, and ever will be, 100% within their control to decide who speaks at their events. Any purported entitlement of Bannon’s to “free speech” certainly does not compel the organizer’s actions, nor can the organizer hide behind it as an excuse not to cancel him.

If the Munk group decide to choose someone other than Frum to debate Bannon, is Frum’s right to free speech being violated? Also no—this is a big red herring. If you’ve fallen for arguing it this way, you’ve taken the big fat bait, and the alt-right thanks you! Their best trick is accusing their opponents of what they’re doing themselves. Do you think Breitbart News is a bastion for rational debate, or was a functioning public sphere not really part of their business model?

Bannon (and the debate organizers) are entitled to not be arrested for their views, or be censored or otherwise interfered with by the local, provincial or municipal government on that basis—although hate speech is less protected in Canada than the US, if you want to get into the legal limits. The Munk debate organizers cannot be compelled by law to cancel their show, nor would we want that unless Bannon (or Frum) contravene our hate speech laws. If Munk organizers are firm in their convictions that Bannon really has something valuable to offer in a public debate they are certainly entitled to proceed with their event; they’re paying for it after all.

Organizers aren’t the race or class that bears the social costs of their decisions.

But I don’t think that’s all that is happening here. I think the organizers are more than happy to laugh all the way to the bank, selling out their $200 tickets, because they aren’t the race or class that bears the social costs of their decisions. They’re pretty insulated from the adverse social effects of the ideas and policies they espouse, or more directly, insulated from getting beat down by racist thugs fired up on rhetoric and half-baked philosophy. This is not hyperbole—the Proud Boys beat down some people in New York ten days ago. Did their victims get to make the choice “not to be hurt by ideas”? Should we give the Proud Boys a platform to engage in a rational debate too?

This isn’t just giving a platform to someone who has “unpopular opinions”… Bannon has literally made a fortune advancing the ideas of neo-Nazis and white supremacists (not to mention climate change deniers, people) to a global audience. Do we really need more of him around? Do we not know enough about him already? Let’s not be naive about how he works.

I want to hold the organizers to an ethical standard about their contribution to society.

I think vocally protesting the Munk organizers’ choice of Bannon as a speaker is critical part of upholding and embodying free speech, in the form of a vibrant and civil discourse about what is meaningful and valuable to our society today. I want to hold the organizers to an ethical standard about making a worthwhile contribution to society at a time when tribalism, polarization, populism and emergent fascism are a direct contributor to people being beaten and killed.

Protesting Bannon’s appearance is not an attack on free speech, it’s the opposite—it’s about taking on the real responsibility for participating in the curation of “what conversations are worth having” in the public sphere when our most precious commodity is human attention. I don’t have time for Bannon, in debate or not. I don’t have time for his fake news. I don’t have the ten times the amount of time it takes to refute lies and bullshit in the public sphere compared to the amount of time it takes to spread it. We all have more interesting problems to deal with.

I believe, and others here have argued persuasively, that giving Bannon any more air time than he has already enjoyed is not in the public interest, if you believe in having a civil society that has functioning institutions, rather than a poisonous war of all against all where the most powerful can no longer be held to account.

For the record, I started into my career in communications after taking the now-legendary ‘Truth and Propaganda’ course from passionate free speech advocate Randal Marlin at Carleton University in the early 1990s.

The ‘absolutist’ defense of free speech is crude and destructive.

It would have been too long for the listserv, but I would also have liked to share some ideas from Charles Taylor’s book, The Malaise of Modernity, based on his 1991 Massey Lecture series. In it, Taylor describes and addresses some the challenges of a slide into endless subjectivity in public debate that have accompanied postmodernism. For example: “all opinions are valuable if they are authentic.” The corollary ‘absolutist’ defense of free speech seems admirable in principle, but it’s crude and unsophisticated philosophically, and politically and socially destructive in practice.

Taylor’s arguments in 1991 in some ways anticipated the unraveling of public and social institutions that has been exacerbated by the confluence of radically self-interested populist political movements and powerful social media platforms. Taylor charts a course back to “the promise of modernity” where striving for self-fulfillment can be reconciled with traditional social commitments and pro-social values. I recommend Taylor to anyone interested in challenging our political and economic systems’ underpinning philosophy of narrow self-interest.

Bottom line: we must confront fascism, hate and violence everywhere. You can get on the phone right now and demand that Bannon not be given a platform to speak in Toronto on November 2nd. Follow the link, input your contact number, and you will be automatically connected with a Munk Debates advisor. You can also sign a petition here.


Garth Yule is Managing Director at Junxion. He’s a staunch advocate for social justice and brings his passion to the service of our purpose-driven clients every day. You can reach him via [email protected]

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