Recently 43 professors at the University of Alberta signed a letter in support of freedom of speech. This letter came about in the wake of an instructor apparently making a Facebook post denying the Holodomor, a genocide waged against the Ukrainian people by the Soviet Union in the early 20th Century.
After the post, the Student Union came out in support of the Ukrainian student body. It called for the instructor to retract his statements or resign. This is is part of an ongoing debate about freedom of speech on campus, which has been making headlines across North America.
Locally, this issue came to a head several times before. Several billboards around the U of A popped up, celebrating climate change as a boon to the beef industry—the scandal saw the school’s vice-president of university relations resign.
Another case saw debate around the ‘right’ of pro-life activists showing horrifying images on campus. Jordan Peterson’s presence in the city sparked the debate at a municipal level.
Of course, the United Conservative Government has put its lot in with freedom of speech evangelists at universities.
The defence of freedom of speech is not just invoked by university administration and professors. Sometimes, student bodies are also complicit. In 2016, I questioned the Muslim Student Association for parading various problematic speakers during Islam Awareness Week.
One speaker had called for the death penalty for homosexuals.
I understand the immense significance of freedom of speech. I don’t preach my personal opinions about economic inequality, minimum wages, and the carbon tax in class. I let students on any part of the political spectrum speak their minds and engage in respectful debate.
But, in Pakistan, unfettered and angry free speech was spread through loudspeakers, and eventually lead to the persecution of the Ahmadiyyah Muslim community. In many cases, people stoking hatred against a vulnerable community, while claiming it’s their inalienable right, have access to financial resources and public platforms, which those on the receiving end do not.
In cases like this, freedom of speech just leads to further marginalization of already marginalized people: the Ahmadis of Pakistan, LGBTQI2S+ Muslim youth or the Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
The genocide in Rwanda, similarly, didn’t happen magically. It was well-oiled propaganda that led to horrific crimes perpetrated by humans against other humans. The least we can today is to not deny instances of human suffering, which the Holodomor-denying professor seems to have done.
There have always been people who go to great lengths to deny historical wrongs. Fanatics and conspiracy theorists deny the Jewish Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Why is it so hard to believe the genocide of the Ukrainian people? It wasn’t long ago that Vladimir Putin simply took Crimea from Ukraine. The evidence continues to pile up, but there are those who routinely deny it. What value is freedom of speech, then, when some people are so consumed by their own prejudice that they can completely ignore well-documented fact?
Freedom of speech should be about empowering the weak voices against tyrannical rulers, not about giving platform to prejudice. But as it currently stands, freedom of speech is the last refuge of scoundrels who want to spread their hateful ideologies with impunity, causing suffering to others or denying that the suffering ever existed.
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