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?