On February 1st, scenes of smashed windows, fires, and police in riot gear filled televisions and Facebook newsfeeds across the United States and Canada. Approximately 100 people turned to vandalism and violence in a concerted effort to disrupt a speech at UC Berkeley by controversial far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos. CBS reported, “Protesters armed with bricks and fireworks mounted an assault on the building hosting a speech by Yiannopoulos.” This moment was the culmination of everything the political right had feared: Left-leaning students were willing to use any means necessary to silence opposing views on campus. Canadian commentator Rex Murphy went as far as to state, “There are fascists on campus. Protesters don’t realize it’s them,” in his commentary in the National Post.
The debacle at UC Berkeley painted a frightening image of the future of free speech and healthy discourse on university campuses. Would the political right now organize events in secrecy, away from campus grounds? While the chaos at Berkeley might suggest so, recent events at McGill University point to a more promising future.
Fewer than two weeks following the events at UC Berkeley, the Conservative Association at McGill University announced it would be hosting a talk by Conservative Party leadership candidate Kevin O’Leary. Immediately following the announcement, mass invites were sent out by Facebook events encouraging students to protest the talk. When McGill Security Services learned about the protest threats, they significantly increased the security for the event, and alerted the local police department. This would be McGill’s boiling point of the culture war between the safe-space-wielding left and the free-speech-touting right, which has consumed university campuses over the last decade. If Kevin O’Leary were unable to speak, this would mark the end of the free flow of ideas on campus and the supremacy of an illiberal political left. Yet, when the day of O’Leary’s speech arrived, it was evident that the violence that gripped UC Berkeley was an anomaly in the political left’s protests against the right – at least in Canada.
If Kevin O’Leary’s speech should teach us at least one thing, it is that the dystopian image of the restriction of free speech on university campuses may not have a foothold in Canada.
The protesters, gathered with signs at the entrance of the William Shatner University Centre where O’Leary was set to speak, allowed people to freely enter the venue. During the question and answer period, those with opposing views were able to express themselves freely in the sort of healthy discourse that universities have been known to facilitate. Simultaneously, the ‘protesters’ listened and accepted the positions of others, while maintaining their differing views. The violent protests witnessed at UC Berkeley did not come to pass at McGill. If Kevin O’Leary’s speech should teach us at least one thing, it is that the dystopian image of the restriction of free speech on university campuses may not have a foothold in Canada.
We should by no means conclude that we in Canada simply have a higher aptitude for healthy discourse and a lower propensity for violence than our American neighbours. Rather, Canada simply does not (yet) have the same polarized political climate that exists in the United States. Some people have associated Kevin O’Leary with the alt-right movement that is prevalent in America, but this association is misleading, and is based solely on the fact that O’Leary and President Trump share a background in business and television. Unlike Trump or Yiannopoulos, however, O’Leary has stated unequivocally that he is pro-LGBT+ rights, pro-choice, pro-refugee, and has no desire to restrict immigration. While it could be argued that it was O’Leary’s progressive stances that kept the radical left from rioting outside of the William Shatner University Centre, another presentation on February 2nd proves otherwise.
The Newman Catholic Student’s Society of McGill (NCSS) organized a panel discussion titled “Gender Mainstreaming and Transgender,” led by two cisgender panelists. The two panelists were there to discuss the topic of faith and transgender issues. The panel attracted the attention of both Queer McGill and QPIRG McGill, who sent 30 activists to challenge the speakers due to the lack of transgendered representation on the panel. While there were reportedly tense moments during the discussion between the activists and the speakers – often instigated by the decision of the speakers to not use preferred pronouns and to refer to gender dysphoria as a ‘delusion’ – the discussion was still able to continue.
Even more promising, after the event NCSS executives reached out to Queer McGill and QPIRG-McGill to organize a new panel talk where trans people could discuss their experiences with Catholicism.
The key takeaway from this discussion is that the activists allowed the panel to proceed, despite having ample opportunity to shut down the event. They used the opportunity to present alternate and personal viewpoints in contrast to those of the panelists and engaged in a healthy, albeit tense, dialogue. Even more promising, after the event NCSS executives reached out to Queer McGill and QPIRG-McGill to organize a new panel talk where trans people could discuss their experiences with Catholicism.
The discussion organized by NCSS, as well the unimpeded speech that Kevin O’Leary delivered to just under 400 McGill students, suggests that there may in fact be reason for optimism regarding protests on university campuses. Both events displayed the type of healthy discourse that should be celebrated on university campuses, and signified a departure from what the right has feared as an attack on their freedom of speech.