Letter: When freedom of expression is hate speech how do we respond?

The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus recently cancelled an event that would have featured a talk by self-styled alt-right guru Stefan Molyneux, with an opening address by far-right YouTube celebrity and BC native Lauren Southern.

These invitations, although now rescheduled, raise questions about the academic credentials, artistic or scientific achievements—or intellectual integrity, for that matter— altogether missing from Molyneux’s and Southern’s profiles.

One thing must be clear: there is no wisdom in opening an academic venue to people who promote simplified visions of complex realities, including around diversity and multiculturalism. Still, there is something we can do to make the situation into, well, a teaching moment.

What do we achieve as a centre for learning when ideas acquire a hateful bent, cut off from the logic of facts and even the elementary lucidity arising from argumentative skills?

More and more, we see people in all sorts of forums and situations who advocate stereotyping, intolerance, and hate, all the way up to mass murder. Racist discourse and behaviour have spread across North America, especially on college campuses. Far-right ideologues are always careful to cloak their political positions in pseudo-science, as Molyneux does with his manufactured views on social Darwinism, and Southern does with her dogma about the war on races.

These individuals are not the living incarnations of the racism that wrecked the 20th century; I doubt that Molyneux and Southern grasp even the fundamentals of fascism. Rather, they deliver themselves via the echo chambers of social media, where truth and facts are in short supply. If anything, Molyneux and Southern epitomize what happens to a civilization when education is shunned and critical thinking derided. We can do better than tolerate forms of fossilized ideas around binary terms: us versus them, as is the case with white-supremacy posturing. Their racialized views of the world dovetail with the current demagoguery prevalent in Western democracies and their sycophantic body politics, which is why there is little time to waste.

Will UBC’s cancellation of the event feed into Molyneux’s and Southern’s paranoid narrative? Silence is a bad strategy. I would rather they had spoken, on the condition that other guests be allowed to exercise the right to reply and unravel the threads of the supremacists’ charade. Diagnosing an evil is not enough; our mission is to explain it. UBC should have seized on the opportunity presented by Molyneux’s and Southern’s campus visit to help re-establish the truth: that there is nothing radical, masculine or even patriotic about spreading hatred. For YouTube celebrities such as Molyneux and Southern, racism is mostly a business model, and UBC should have never been in a position to contribute to their cash flow unless we demanded exact change.

Farid Laroussi is an associate professor of French in the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies at UBC.