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Piñata diplomacy: Don’t sacrifice campus free speech

“Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

– Noam Chomsky

On February 20, the Turkish professor and Armenian genocide denier Türkkaya Ataöv, invited at the behest of the Turkish Students Society (TSS) and to the chagrin of the Armenian Students Association (ASA), spoke to a very divided McGill audience. I’ll allow others to outline the historical evidence, but suffice it to say that nearly everyone agrees that more than a million Armenians were systematically disposed of by the Young Turk government in 1915 in what is accurately labeled as the first modern genocide. Professor Ataöv is simply, empirically, historically wrong.

The ASA argues that universities cannot sanction genocide denial in the name of free speech. They could not be more wrong.

The McGill Tribune quoted Mardig Taslakian, Vice President External of the ASA, asking, “What would the University’s reaction be if neo-Nazis invited someone to come and preach that the Holocaust didn’t happen?” I can’t speak for McGill, but I hope its reaction would be to politely ask the neo-Nazis to keep the noise down and clean up after themselves, and I would be right there screaming bloody hell if their reaction were anything but. The distinction between denying past violence and inciting future violence is not an insignificant one.

Taslakian wrote last Tuesday in The Tribune, “The falsification of history, denial of the Holocaust, or of any crime against humanity recognized as genocide by the international academic community can’t be protected by a false label of ‘freedom of speech.’” Pardon my language, but you bet your ass they can and must be. If freedom of speech means anything to you – and, of course, this entire discussion is predicated on my assumption that it does – it must mean that. If the TSS wants to drag its name through the mud by inviting this buffoon to speak, why not let them? McGill’s Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson made the sole defensible decision by allowing the event to go on.

As we turn now to another recent campus free speech issue, recall last week I wrote that an example of the new anti-Semitism can be found in “some posters on Canadian campuses – commendably not McGill’s – promoting Israel Apartheid Week [that] depicted an Apache helicopter labeled ‘Israel’ firing a rocket at a lone Palestinian boy carrying a teddy bear – a thinly-veiled modification of that old, trusty blood libel standby.”

Carleton University, among others, apparently agreed with my assessment and ordered the posters taken down, arguing that they violated the Carleton and Ontario Human Rights Codes.

But the ban was a terrible mistake. I’ll attack federal and provincial human rights codes in the future, but even if the posters do violate them, one simply must resist the sinister, illiberal passions of the offended mob. It’s easy to ban something for being “inflammatory and capable of inciting confrontation;” but if human rights language is to be anything more than the collective moral masturbation of supposedly civilized people, we must take the more difficult and nuanced position: to condemn the anti-Semitism and yet celebrate as loud as we can the right for others to proclaim that anti-Semitism from the highest mountaintops.

Anyone who reads the Carleton University Statement on Conduct and Human Rights, will be surprised to come across Section 6, which reads: “The University respects the rights of speech and dissent and upholds the right to peaceful assembly and expression of dissent” – all principles that the rest of the document goes on to systematically shred into barely recognizable fragments of their former selves. The vagueness of Section 6 renders it utterly meaningless, and the sarcasm is clear. Shame on you, Carleton University, for flippantly using these hallowed words, and for treating the ideals behind them with such unreserved contempt.

I am as proud of McGill for the fact that these posters did not appear on campus as I am for my stubborn intuition that the administration would have let them remain if they had.

In The Tribune’s editorial regarding Ataöv’s speech, they quoted H.L. Mencken lamenting, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels.” If anything at all is true in this sorry universe, it is that. Yet, as The Tribune urged, the fight must be fought. It is not easy, and nor should it be.

But free speech must be defended even – nay, especially – when it is the most difficult to do so. Though the pen is mightier than the sword, it’s still best to have thick skin.

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