Some students are calling on UBC to cancel a talk by American conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, who is slated to speak at the Chan Centre this October in an event organized by the Free Speech Club (FSC).
Fifth-year arts student Reid Marcus encouraged members of the UBC Needs Feminism Facebook group last week to write to the Provost and VP Academic as well as the Equity offices to demand the event be cancelled.
“Shapiro is neither a scholar nor an activist,” Marcus wrote in his June 10 post, which is also intended to be an email template for other students to use. “He is a pundit who amplifies puerile prejudices in order to advance his career.”
Referencing Shapiro’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gender identity and Islam amongst others, he wrote that the event would violate the BC Human Rights Code’s section on discriminatory publication, UBC’s policy on discrimination and harassment (Policy 3) as well as its Statement on Respectful Environment. The post also suggests that the talk could create security risks to students, based on protests against Shapiro at his previous events.
As of June 14, the Provost office has received approximately 10 letters.
Why Ben Shapiro?
According to polls in the FSC’s Facebook page, Shapiro has been the club’s most requested speaker for the past year and a half.
Angelo Isidorou, a third-year psychology student and a director of the FSC, attributed the demand for Shapiro to his “very prominent and very controversial” campus events. He then cited Shapiro’s Jewish heritage, as he believes that many Jewish students feel “silenced” on campus.
“Just about [every Jewish person] that I’m friends with, or that’s in the club says that ‘We don’t feel spoken for, we don’t feel represented,’” Isidorou said.
He also believes the backlash to Shapiro is because of his commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that when the FSC has Jordan Peterson to campus, they did not receive the same level of backlash.
“From what I can tell from [Marcus’s Facebook post] … that’s the main gripe. It’s mainly an anti-Israel thing.”
Marcus, who is of Jewish background, acknowledged that there are plenty of reasons why Jewish people may not feel comfortable on campus. But he believes that it is “extraordinarily insulting” for the FSC to assume — by citing Shapiro’s Jewish background as the reason for his high demand within the club — that there is a unified Jewish student community on campus that aligns with Shapiro’s pro-occupation views.
He also highlighted the distinction between being pro-Israel and pro-occupation, where criticizing certain aspects of the occupation does not equate to being “anti-Israel.”
This accusation, Marcus said, “is meaningless, and it’s a way of trying to smear people who do not agree with their views.”
To debate or not to debate?
According to Isidorou, the event will consist of a one-hour speech by Shapiro, followed by a Q&A session.
“I don’t want the whole Q&A to be a line of conservative bros just saying ‘Hey, do you agree with me?’ and then he says ‘Yeah I agree with you,’” he said. “The whole reason for our event is so that we can see both sides, we can see some dialogue.”
But Marcus would rather see the event cancelled than engage in a debate with Shapiro. Amongst other reasons, he stressed the futility of what he called “performative debate,” where a controversial commentator is given the floor to speak and people have only a few minutes each to actually debate with them.
“It is not a good way to either arrive at truth, or actually productively deal with controversial issues,” said Marcus.
He also believes that giving commentators like Shapiro a platform on a university stage gives them a sense of authority that is tied to an academic setting, which could lead more people to be inclined to accept their ideas.
“And I think it’s negligent, and it’s irresponsible for universities to allow that to occur,” Marcus said. “I think that the debate is over. We, as a civilization, have kind of decided that you shouldn’t go around dehumanizing people.”
The role of UBC
In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey and similar responses to students who sent in letters, Provost and VP Academic Andrew Szeri affirmed UBC’s commitment to “free, open, and transparent discussion, no matter how controversial the topics.”
“UBC’s commitment to free speech includes student groups and others using UBC venues such as the Chan Centre for guest speakers,” he wrote. “This is the case even where some members of the University community may consider the guest speaker’s ideas, or the way in which they expressed, to be controversial or offensive.”
For those who might be affected by the event, Szeri referred them to internal support services. On the other hand, he said concerns about hate speech — which fall under the Criminal Code of Canada — should be directed to the RCMP.
Similarly, members of the UBC community, while extended the freedom of academic expression, are also required to exercise these freedoms within certain frameworks, such as those detailed in Policy 3. But invited guests are not subject to the same restrictions.
Marcus, who views this as an “oversight,” is drafting a revision to Policy 3 that would require guests on campus to “abide by the same equity guidelines as any other member of the university.”
“It’s a preventative measure for the future to prevent even more hateful individuals from being invited,” he said.
Dr. Charles Menzies, anthropology professor and a Board of Governors faculty representative, stressed the value of a “broader base social movement” instead, adding that trying to legislate behaviours on campus might not be the best approach.
“Personally, I think it’s really not a good choice to bring this gentleman on campus,” Menzies said. “But if [the UBC administration] were to ban him, they would merely fuel a kind of response that would fit into a narrative that justifies what’s going on.”
Despite the opposition to the event, the FSC is confident it will continue as planned.
“They can try all they want,” said Isidorou. “I guarantee [the event] is not going to be cancelled.”