A coalition of anti-racist community groups, as well as some Canadian politicians, are calling on organizers of the Munk Debates to rescind an invitation to Steve Bannon and cancel his debate this Friday with David Frum. It’s a justifiable request and one I fully support. In the wake of recent racially and religiously motivated shootings in the United States and Canada, it is absurd and unconscionable to provide a coveted speaking platform to a hate monger.

Organizers of the Munk Debates, under some misguided notion of promoting free speech and encouraging uncomfortable or polarizing conversations, felt it necessary to invite Bannon to “debate” “the rise of populism” at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall. The Munk Debates are self-described as a neutral public forum to discuss “challenging issues and ideas.” I can’t help but wonder what exactly is challenging, enlightening or edifying about ideas like racism, bigotry, and white supremacy? What haven’t we figured out about these belief systems so far that we need Bannon to clarify for us?

Bannon isn't controversial, he's dangerous

Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, senior advisor, and co-founder of Brietbart News, is not some controversial figure who deserves to be heard and debated; he’s dangerous. I'm baffled by those who downplay both his troubling past and his more recent involvement in some of Trump’s most abhorrent anti-immigrant policies.

Have educational institutions and charitable organizations like the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and Wilfrid Laurier University, started to stoop so morally low in their desperate search for controversial and revenue-generating events that, under the guise of protection of free speech and lofty notions of philosophical debate, they are comfortable with de facto supporting and encouraging abhorrent ideas? That’s not protecting free speech; that’s enabling and normalizing hate speech.

A quick Google search of Brietbart articles quickly nets an array of misogynistic, racist, bigoted click bait that cannot be regarded as harmless and controversial. We are in an era of increasing awareness that words matter and that hate speech – online and from people given soap boxes to spew from – can prompt real-life racial and religious discrimination and violence.

As chief executive from 2012 to 2016, Bannon made the Breitbart News Network site a go-to platform for the alt-right and white nationalist movement. What about Bannon’s proven track record of expressed misogyny, bigotry, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism is worthy of debate in a respectable forum like the Munk Debates in the name of “free speech?”

There is no 'slippery slope of censorship'

Are mainstream media pundits so terrified of this “slippery slope of censorship” that we keep hearing about that they can’t acknowledge that perhaps by allowing unfettered public discourse we are normalizing fascism and hate speech?

What exactly will they debate? Is humanity and people's worth up for debate? Why do I need to wait until David Frum “annihilates” or “destroys” him on stage, as some have suggested, so we can collectively feel better about upholding some mistaken notion of freedom of speech? Why can’t I simply save Frum’s and everyone else’s valuable time and acknowledge right from the get-go that I don’t need to listen to a takedown of white supremacy and racism to know that it’s inherently bad.

The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a non-partisan organization that investigates and monitors racist activity in the U.S., has unequivocally branded Bannon a racist, and if that’s not enough proof, the KKK’s David Duke issued a gleeful statement when he was appointed to the White House. This is who the Munk debate folks decided we could benefit from listening to and had something to possibly learn from?

A debate entails two opposing ideas of similar value, which by their complex nature invites conversation and a presentation of pros and cons. Often, a good debater can easily argue both sides of an argument, and there are debate topics that are so intricate, so multi-faceted, and so interesting, that they can be respectfully debated even if they incite major discomfort and heated disagreement. This isn't one of them.

Munk invite only benefits and legitimizes Bannon

I am astounded by the absurd notion that we are adding oil to the fire of populism, harming democracy, somehow capitulating to the “flaky, easily flustered” PC crowd, or turning off moderates who will inevitably jump into the arms of white supremacy if denied the right to listen to Bannon’s hateful rhetoric.

Racists and white supremacists are relying on "useful idiots" who advocate free speech at all costs, who are terrified that the slightest indication to rein in hate and demand accountability will lead to a terrifying spiral of censorship that will render them incapable of saying anything controversial in the future. They privilege their intellectual discomfort at that mere thought and remote and abstract possibility of censorship to the outright denial of marginalized people’s humanity and basic rights, because it's easy to debate and leisurely mull over hateful concepts and ideas that will almost never directly and measurably affect them in real life.

Yes, bad ideas need to be debated, confronted, and eventually denounced. Needless censorship is never desirable, and no one is interested in making free-speech martyrs out of bigots. But since when is free speech absolute, and an invitation to debate offensive ideas as if they are worthy of equal consideration a notion worth respecting and defending?

When we choose to promote, validate, and normalize hate as just "another point of view" that someone in a suit on a stage can politely debate for the benefit of a paying audience, we are emboldening bigots and making the world that much more dangerous for marginalized communities. Who ultimately benefits from that other than people like Steve Bannon?

Investigative journalism has never been more important. Will you help?

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Comments

I seem to remember Munk being discussed in Linda McQuaig's "The Trouble with Billionaires. If my memory serves me, Bannon is likely right up that outfits ideological alley.

An online Oxford Dictionary defines populism as follows:

British & World English populism
Definition of populism in English:
populism
NOUN
"A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups."

Is this a dangerous idea? (Not a rhetorical question).

It's not populism per se that's the actual problem. There are numerous historic instances of progressive populism. It's Bannon's use of populism as a justification and cover for his racism, sexism and antisemitism that's concerning. For example as I understand it, antisemitism was a populist idea for centuries before the rise of The Third Reich and was manifest by regular pogroms, which destroyed predominantly Jewish homes and villages in eastern Europe and Russia. Even if people correctly feel their concerns are unfairly disregarded, it doesn't make it correct or moral to lash out or scapegoat others. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Thanks for your considered reply: I believe I understand your concern. Perhaps another way of looking at it might be that whether or not Bannon is a racist, he's not been invited to defend Racism in this debate. Bannon would be debating the merits of Populism. And as my (far left) Political Science professor pointed out back in the seventies when I was in University, "if a Racist adds 2+2 and gets 4, it's still 4, not some other number".

Once upon a time I took a course in Logic during my brief sojourn in University. Reading this article I seem to recognise a "Logic no-no" (fallacious argument), called the "ad hominem" argument.
There's a pretty good definition in Wikipedia:
"Ad hominem (Latin for "to the man" or "to the person"), short for argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself."

It isn't mentioned in this article but Bannon was recently hired as an advisor by American Catholic bishops who are either implicated in child abuse themselves or who have protected pedophile priest. The point is Bannon's views are far from nice ... and he is shrewd. I recently watched Bill Maher's interview with Bannon. Maher who is normally no slouch, was putty in Bannon's hands. Bannon has cleaned up his act and came across in the Maher interview as a regular middle-class guy. He is smart enough to play one game with his sycophants through Brietbart and another when appealing to mass audiences. I support free speech but not hate speech. The Munk Debate is giving a platform to someone who has advocated hatred, allowing him to advance his cause. After this week's Pittsburg synagogue shooting and last week's mail bombs, can we doubt that hateful words lead to hateful acts?

If they really want to be "challenging" they could make it a 3-way match by including Noam Chomsky.
Funny how the people who squall that it's censorship to leave racists out never seem to mind that leftists never, ever get invited to these things.

Normally, "free speech" is a concept that is solely about whether governments ALLOW you to speak. Private institutions or media companies can and do promote only whatever speech suits them, and that isn't normally considered a restriction on speech. And surely one would expect that hard right wing figures ought to agree that individuals or corporate entities have the right to use their private property (such as media platforms) as they see fit, to advance whatever agenda they wish, and if they want to exclude racists, fascists or whoever that is entirely up to them and in no way an infringement on free speech; the fascists, racists and so on can stand on streetcorners and shout or pass out leaflets.

I, however, DON'T actually agree with that. The fact that public discourse is largely controlled by a very few corporations, in turn controlled and largely owned by just a few billionaires, is a serious problem which undermines democracy. If only the agenda of those with money is heard, most of us are left out of what is supposed to be a system of rule by the people. The media (and such things as Facebook) should be at a minimum broken up into much smaller outfits, but better would be to replace the whole finance and ad-driven media system with something both more public and more bottom-up. Something like, everyone gets from the government a certain amount of "money" per year to assign to media outlets in a Kickstarter- or Patreon-like process, and the government funds media accordingly, with certain conditions such as no ads.

The reason the hard, racist right is growing right now is that, try as they will, billionaires cannot persuade us all that everything is OK even as they increase their profits by making our lives more precarious. People are not enjoying the status quo, and status quo answers have largely given up even pretending that things will get better for most people; they've been gradually falling back on "Sure, things will keep on being like this or getting worse, but there's no way around it, that's just the way markets work, it's natural and unstoppable, nothing to do with government or elites, so just accept that we're all powerless." More or less the same argument we see about climate change. And as with climate change, the current approach seems more and more exhausted.
Now, there are two potential kinds of challenge to this empty status quo, either fascism or some kind of hard left. But the thing is, the hard left, whatever its merits or lack thereof, directly challenges money; the status quo has been determinedly marginalizing or hunting it down forever. But the fascist right does not; with their craziness they offer something that seems like a hard break with the status quo, so they become something people can reach for, but they don't challenge money, so status quo elites don't care nearly as much and don't try nearly as hard to keep them off the airwaves. Thus when times are tough and those in power don't care, often it is much easier for the hard right to grow than the hard left.

You make interesting points: I hadn't thought much about the "money" aspect.

"The fact that public discourse is largely controlled by a very few corporations, in turn controlled & largely owned by just a few billionaires, is a serious problem which undermines democracy." Yes. Thanks for spelling this out.
But let's not restrict ourselves to only 2 potential kinds of challenge - either fascism or some kind of hard left! Thomas Homer-Dixon & the Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation reminds us there are lots of axes for political thinking, not just "right" & "left".

I was appalled in 2015 when the foreign affairs debate was hosted by this Munk outfit. I'm really glad to see that Charlie Angus is speaking out; I wonder if he knows, though, that the NDP played a key role in scuttling the traditional media consortium English language debate, to which Elizabeth May was invited, and having that more credible debate replaced with a series of unfair "boutique" debates, from which she was excluded (except for one early debate hosted by MacLeans). See: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2015/07/13/opinion/elizabeth-may-dumped... & https://watershedsentinel.ca/articles/canadian-debate-gate/

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