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Why This Free-Speech Wall Came Crumbling Down

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On Jan. 22, Carlton University undergraduate student Arun Smith forcefully removed a "free-speech wall" from his campus over accusations that it provided a public forum for students to express hateful comments. According to the campus newspaper, such comments included "abortion is murder" and "traditional marriage is awesome." The former I think is too blandly ubiquitous to not be self-trivializing, and you'd have to inject a lot of subtext into the latter to give it the traction needed to qualify it as a hateful comment, but what do I know?

What became even more controversial was Smith's self-published declaration of intent, written the night of the incident. Smith described his deed "as an act of forceful resistance," presumably against the symbolic construction of liberal-democratic discourse, if I am reading his philosophical rhetoric correctly.

"'Free speech'" is a "meaningless platitude" which only functions to legitimize "the damage [hurtful words] do to individuals in marginalized communities," Smith argues, concluding that safe spaces for such individuals and communities cannot exist "where there is potential for triggering, the invalidation or questioning of the identities of others, and/or the expression of hatred."

Credit to Smith for his ability to at least construct a logical, if misguided, argument in defence of his position. As a seventh-year(!) undergraduate student, he's at least demonstrated first-year writing skills. With that being said, I fail to see how the positive affirmation of identity is possible without free speech, an irony completely lost to him. This point was also articulated by civil-rights commentator James Peron, who argued Smith's hypocritical actions are actually detrimental to gay rights.

This story, however, more recently started to gain even more international attention when well-known and progressive Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, on Jan. 28, cited Smith as an explicit example in the destruction of the university as a space of critical dialogue.

Greenwald compared Smith to radical Jewish student groups who cry foul when universities host guest lecturers whom speak out against Israeli violence done to Palestinians. (Remember George Galloway, Canada? Smith eerily resembles Conservative MP Jason Kenney in that analogy.) Importantly, against Smith's comment that "'not every opinion is valid, nor deserving of expression'" was Greenwald's counterpoint that Smith unjustifiably anoints "himself arbiter to decide which opinions are so invalid they cannot be heard."

And here's where things get sticky. Smith's actions were hypocritical, and he was in no position to silence others. What's particularly ironic is not just his own reliance on freedom of expression in order to articulate his point against free speech (as already demonstrated by the likes of Peron and Greenwald), but that the specifics of his own argument are self-defeating.

Fighting "meaningless platitudes about inclusion and equity," Smith asserts conceptually similar grounds on which supposed spaces of inclusion and equity can, and must, breed. Either we live in a liberal-democratic zone where spaces of equality bloom through uncensored free speech -- the positive position -- or the negative position on the same spectrum propagated by Smith, by which he uses freedom of expression to censor speech that, supposedly in his case, threatens spaces of equality.

This is why Smith's actions are so hypocritical: his own argument is merely the other side of the same coin as his counterargument. What's also interesting is that, likewise, Smith actually has a point (as ostensibly absurd as that sounds): although calling affirmations of free speech "acts of violence" is outrageous hyperbole, Smith also -- and rightly -- at the beginning of his self-published declaration, reveals that liberal-democratic society too often utilizes free speech to tackle the symptoms of inequality, leaving the systematic causes of inequality constantly unchecked.

What ends up happening is that Smith then goes and does something to tackle a symptom -- as if negating the freedom of speech to protect vulnerable people from hurtful words will impact underlying systemic attitudes towards such people. What's needed is not external censorship, least of all the "forceful" and self-defeating kind Smith exhibits, but responsible self-censorship, and this comes through critical thinking and awareness, not removing free-speech walls.

The removal of external censorship to free speech does not actually provide spaces of dialogue necessary for inclusion and equity, only their conditions for possibility (and thus also impossibility). Our collective dialogue on this issue should focus more on how to work towards self-restriction to free speech under an ethical framework, to create such spaces of equity. In other words, Smith could better spend his time fostering a culture to alter free speech towards more responsible means. It's hard work, and he gave up too early.