High profile calls to deplatform Steve Bannon at the November 2nd Munk Debate should have been enough to raise the hairs on the back of any principled liberal. Previously marginalized to the confines of campus politics and urban forums, deplatforming as a concept gained mainstream traction in the days leading up to the debate, with a variety of high-profile Canadians and mainstream political parties advocating for the organizing Aurea foundation to cancel Bannon’s appearance.
While the predictable actors: Naomi Klein, an ‘anti-racist, anti-fascist’ coalition of community organizations and some downtown city councillors petitioned to call off the debate, a concerningly more tractive ally joined in the calls for Bannon to be silenced.
Led to the charge by Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, the federal New Democrats endorsed the view that the debate should be cancelled. Even more worrisome, Ontario’s official opposition circulated a petition encouraging Canadians to stand alongside Andrea Horwath and “show Steve Bannon that we won't give a platform to white nationalism and hateful rhetoric.”
Political opposition to the debate raises important questions about the relationship between calls for silence and the basic liberal ideal of free discussion. Though the Canadian public has been historically tolerant of marginal campus actors’ cries, can it maintain the same stance when it is elected officials close to the seat of power who voice concern? Can politicians oppose speech in their official capacity while still furthering the notion of liberal democracy, or in attempting to pull the rug out from under Bannon’s feet are they taking an authoritarian stance? Do deplatforming advocates contribute to a liberal society, or must they have given up on the concept entirely in order for their position to stand?
An initial inquiry in the academic community produced only one answer to the above questions: the answer is complicated. While it is tempting to rebuff deplatformers as modern Salemite triers of fact, the truth of their relationship to liberalism is much more nuanced.
Though deplatormers can cross the line and purvey Soviet-style authoritarianism, their current activities might actually contribute to the intellectual sphere of thought.
1984: Getting Emotional About High School Reading
I posit that most Canadians are first attuned to the ideal of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ in English class of their grade eleven or twelve year when they are compelled to read George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. While the novel provides a first and (in most cases) last introduction to the themes of authoritarianism, I say from experience that a garden variety high schooler is distracted enough by the novel’s pleasant ‘sex and torture’ content to miss the subtlety of the take-home message.
Come adulthood, the novel’s hyperbolized premise converts itself into a sort of quasi-objective reality in mind of a standard liberal. Repelled by the prospect of an extended stay in the ever-lit cells of the Ministry of Love, Canadians generally hold opposition to speech as an evil force, seeking to deprive them of the freedom the Junior Anti-Sex league would just as soon take away. Rather than a positive ideal to be promoted, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ becomes an indispensable impediment to the ever-encroaching threat of tyranny.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the actual reality of free speech theory is somewhat more nuanced than big brother at the Ontario Ministry of Education originally led us to believe.
Are Deplatformers a Threat?
At the very least, most contemporary commentators suggest that opposition to speech is a viewpoint which must be tolerated under the premise of liberalism. At its best, opposition to speech is actually a valuable contribution to the market.
“Those who profess ‘debate’ as an absolute democratic value in and of itself must theoretically agree that we can debate anything, including the value of debate.” Author and U of T professor Ira Wells told me as I was researching this article.
Lindsay Shepherd, Laurier University's impromptu free speech champion went much further, suggesting to me that deplatforming advocacy was actually beneficial to a liberal society.
“I think [anti speech] protest can bring attention to some information that may have been neglected.” she wrote to me in an email. “The problem is only when [opponents] actually shut down the speech or cause a very dangerous situation”
Shepherd knows this firsthand. Her fledgling Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, an initiative born from the ashes of the censorial incident which gave rise to her fame, has cancelled and rescheduled talks because of security concerns arising from anti-speech protests.
The grandfather of free speech in the modern era, John Stuart Mill, agrees with Shepherd, though he took a more foundational approach.
“The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion […] requiring discussion just as much as the opinion itself” he wrote in On Liberty.
Mill’s prescience largely rebukes the Orwellian view of deplatformers as harbingers of a totalitarian shift. Rather, they are better seen as brash judges of usefulness, filling a role Mill considered critical to the operation of marketplace. It is only where extra-intellectual coercion is used that private deplatforming efforts become illiberal.
What About Those Pesky Politicians?
Fast forward 159 years from Mill’s publication date and the Munk Debate controversy begs the question of what to do about politicians.
To me, it appears self-evident that legislative proscription of debate would be unequivocally illiberal. This basic premise, combined with the notion that a private, would-be deplatformer contributes to liberalism raises the all important question of where to draw the line between the two.
The easiest answer would be: everything short of legislation is alright, but a unique ignorance of social dynamics would be required to posit this in earnest. Could the prime minister condemn debate-goers as Nazis on equal footing with protestors? Common sense would suggest not.
On a purely theoretical level Mill’s ideas apply equally to platformed and unplatformed speakers. Politicians taking legislative action are an example of the former, private protestors an example of the latter.
On another level however, it seems practically untenable to suggest that speech could not be quashed by an adequately strong degree of censure from elected partisans. Many a private organization has caved to pressure from an official before.
This conundrum can be reconciled by viewing the relationship between an advocate and a host organization as one of power balance. A premier’s condemnation of rural town-hall might be illiberally coercive; a backbencher’s petition against the Munk’s parent Aurea Foundation (funded by the wealthy Peter Munk) might not be.
In the thetical sphere, self-induced technical issues hamstrung the Munk Debate to a far greater extent than any political interference. While some degree of non-legislative political action probably could have posed a significant impediment to the debate, Angus’ six thousand signature petition didn’t seem to constitute an egregious obstacle to freedom.
Exorbitant Security Fees: Effective Coercion?
Despite the apparent support of political theory for their cause, deplatforming advocates’ greatest successes to date have been entirely pragmatic in nature. Ballooning security fees, induced by the threat of masses of peaceful protestors have derailed many controversial events in recent memory.
A high profile example of the latter occurred in October when Laurier University attempted to bill Lindsay Shepherd’s Laurier Society for Open Inquiry more than eight thousand dollars in security fees to host Megan Murphy’s speech on their campus. University bureaucrats justified the requisite security presence as a necessary response to the large volume of demonstrators who vowed to attend in protest. No threats of violence were circulated.
I asked Shepherd what she thought about the fees.
“I don't think it's necessarily fair for host organizations to bear the brunt of the security costs, because it is the detractors who are incurring those costs for the organizers.”
Shepherd remarked that protest-free events generally do not incur any fees.
Ira Wells told me that the organizations which have been hampered by high security fees are generally those which seek to bring in speakers simply as a means of generating controversy.
“People are invoking the free speech argument to undermine the purpose of free speech, which is to provide a space for people to speak the truth in order to allow for the best and most informed policies to emerge”
“Spiraling security costs are symptomatic of a larger problem.”
Was John Stuart Mill Wrong?
A central premise of Wells’s argument that not all speech is valuable, is a modern favourite among deplatformers. How can deplatforming affront liberalism, the argument goes, if classical liberal ideals were wrongly established in the first place?
Central to Wells’s position is a refutation Mill’s characterization of all speech as inherently valuable.
“This strikes me as a ludicrous position” he told me of Mill’s premise, “one founded on very old fallacies.”
“Would a debate that led to an unjust and disastrous war, or the return of capital punishment, or the return of slavery, be considered successful?”
The problem with Wells’s argument is that it can only work practically if some universal arbiter can be summoned to determine a debate’s value in cases of conflict. But who is this omniscient person? Who gets to decide whether something is valuable?
Mill anticipates this type of problem in On Liberty. “There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinion […] unless the condemned has full opportunity of defending itself.”
The Munk debate itself is an excellent demonstration of why Wells’s idea won’t work. If an (alleged) American xenophobe’s debate in a voraciously liberal city isn’t a slam dunk for proponents of the idea that some debates are useless, what is? No one realistically thinks that a two-hour debate will transform the views of Torontonian racists in a way a lifetime of participation in Canadian society couldn’t. And yet some high-profile commentators found value in the debate.
“I came out of Roy Thomson Hall a better-informed person than when I’d walked in” Jonathan Kay wrote in Quillette Magazine.
“I can think of no better rebuke to the protestors who wanted to shut this debate down.”
Wells, for reference, thought the debate was a “Barnumesque spectacle of political entertainment.”
How is our hypothetical arbiter of value to adjudicate between Kay’s commendation and Wells’s condemnation? Mill’s answer is that it is impossible.
On Attempts to Restrain Liberty
While the retinal etching of 1984’s best scenes originally compelled me to characterize anti-Bannon protestors as assailants railing against my most basic freedoms, investigation of the issue revealed much more nuance. Per Mill’s theories, it seems pizza-box protestors’ insalubrious scrawling of ‘Fuck You Nazis’ on grease-stained cardboard contributes to the marketplace of ideas in a valuable way. Even elected officials, it seems, can contribute to the discourse subject to some basic judgements about power balance.
While the common go-to for deplatformers—the idea that not all speech is inherently valuable—doesn’t withstand more than some basic scrutiny, it doesn’t matter. Deplatforming advocacy stands up to test of liberalism.
My advice to deplatformers: Go forth. Frolick. Your craft is allowed by liberalism.
My advice to liberals: Worry not about deplatformers. The marketplace of ideas will work itself out.
William Mazurek is an intrepid explorer, cyclist, and law student. Follow him on Twitter @wamazurek