Is debate an effective way of combating extremism? Yes

Posted on in Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Contributors
Nov. 13, 2018.   By

Opening up to uncomfortable debate enlarges community — beyond those we agree with, to include those we don’t, even when the latter bring extremist speech.

It also enlarges the marketplace of ideas, bringing in new and old views, however offensive and belligerent. The goal is to keep the community together, for the purposes of pursuing the truth together, rather than declaring ourselves right, the others wrong.

The exclusionary alternatives, however righteous they feel, render opposing communities, opposing truths, each one just in the eye of its beholder. The alternative limits our own community to hearing only what we choose to embrace, not what hurts.

And pain is the touchstone of community growth, out of which painful truths are to be found. The exclusionary alternatives foster division and more division, with no possible resolution outside war, at least figuratively.

Actions usually speak louder than words. To deny or censure so-called extreme speech is the wrong way to combat falsehoods because the act of censorship or censure is a message of excommunication. The fate of shrinking sectarian communities that embraced excommunication is a cautionary tale.

Opposing view: Is debate an effective way of combating extremism? No    (see below]

Besides, extremism is in the eye of the beholder, and the label can mask a bias about the bias objected to by its opponents. And off we go down the rabbit hole of censorship, using words to construct a limit on speech based upon assumptions about those words which may not be true.

Even when we acknowledge that hate harms, that doesn’t mean there is a clear line to draw between a speaker’s prejudice versus criminal or violent conduct. Nelson Mandela was identified as an extremist in his lifetime, characterized as a violent, treasonous criminal by pro-apartheid Afrikaners.

We may want to give the extremist a platform because we recognize that allowing full exposure of extremist views, through debate, permits it to be deconstructed and debunked. Refusing to debate the extremism means that the deconstruction and debunking are left to the listener to unravel on their own, or not at all.

There is also the reality that not all those who call for radical change are racists, homophobes and xenophobes. Some are impatient reformers who think fighting for incremental change to urgent problems (like poverty, the wage gap, corruption) is a fool’s errand.

They instead propose so-called extreme solutions. Debating the radical may end up being the best way to achieve even moderate results, pushing a conversation further than it would otherwise go.

The argument that debate and engagement only raises the profile of the extremist has a beguiling logic, but the message it sends is too smug, too timid and so limited. Other than denying the dignity of a response, nothing further is learned by anyone in the immediate or broader audience, nor those wishing to counter the extremism.

Counter-speech is a more effective tool, even it falls short of a formal debate. When white nationalists held a “Unite the Right” rally in D.C. a year after Charlottesville, they were far outnumbered by counter-protesters. The message that sends is more powerful than what would be accomplished if the anti-racists refused to “dignify” the nationalists with a response.

Historically, the benefit of debating ideas, extreme or otherwise, seems to outweigh the harms. Not so long ago the idea of same sex marriage was dismissed as extreme. That “extreme” idea became a fundamental right through an exchange of ideas and heated debates over many years and in various venues.

THE BIG DEBATE: For more opposing view columns from Toronto Star contributors, click here.

Freedom of expression exists not to protect the views of those with whom we agree, but for exactly the opposite reason. It’s a freedom forged in the humble idea that no one has a monopoly over the truth.

If your primary goal is victory of your truth over others’ lies, then censuring extremists makes sense. That tactic is certainly democratic but it can also backfire. By contrast, allies can be won over through humility and sacrifice, by enlarging the community to tolerate difference.

Besides, history suggests that divisions eventually have to be healed rather than conquered. If a nasty debate is not the best means to that end, it’s better than a premature mic drop.

Michael Bryant is executive director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and was the 35th attorney general of Ontario.


Is debate an effective way of combating extremism? No
Nov. 13, 2018.   By

The Canadian Criminal Code prohibits the “wilful promotion of hatred” against members of racial and other groups. This ban on hate speech, though, catches only a narrow category of extreme expression — speech that vilifies the members of a group — and does not extend to more commonplace forms of bigotry.

Despite our commitment to freedom of expression, we recognize that the extreme or radical edge of discriminatory speech that is hateful in its content, and visceral or irrational in its appeal, carries significant risks.

Because less extreme forms of discriminatory speech circulate widely in society, they cannot simply be removed through censorship. Any attempt to do so would require extraordinary intervention by the state. Because odious attitudes are so pervasive, it is vital that they be confronted and contested in the public sphere. But this does not mean they should be treated as legitimate positions and offered a platform to which few others have access.

Most (but probably not all) of the coded or racist words uttered by individuals like Steve Bannon or Faith Goldy are not extreme enough to breach Canadian hate speech law.

And so, when Goldy is invited to speak to university students, or Bannon is invited to participate in the Munk Debates, the issue is not whether their words should be censored, as if that were possible in the era of the internet. Instead it is whether they should be given a platform from which to speak. Even if Bannon and Goldy have a right to say the things they say, that is not a reason to amplify their words, and give them legitimacy.

In a formal debate, each of the opposing positions is presented as worthy of serious consideration, and as potentially persuasive. The Munk debate, with its pretentious trappings, its substantial speaker’s fees and expensive tickets, its emphasis on celebrity, and its surrounding publicity, gives a degree of legitimacy to the debaters and the positions they take.

The claim that the members of a particular religious or racial group are duplicitous or violent, and so ought to be forcibly excluded from the larger community, should not be treated as a debatable proposition that the audience might decide to accept or reject. Whatever the formal outcome of the debate, the inclusion of such a proposition gives it legitimacy in the public sphere and will be counted as a success.

What gets said in the debate, or who is judged to have prevailed, is less important than the invitation onto the platform. This is why for people like Bannon, the withdrawal of an invitation to speak, or being prevented from speaking by protestors, counts as a success. It brings publicity, and publicity is what they crave. An invitation rescinded also has the great benefit of allowing them to present as victims of political correctness and defenders of free speech.

Whatever its past virtues, the contemporary political debate is a poor vehicle for advancing public understanding of an issue. A debate is organized around diametrically opposed positions, and tends to emphasize performance and competition over understanding and agreement. It does not allow for the development of complex or nuanced arguments or the settling of factual differences.

THE BIG DEBATE: For more opposing view columns from Toronto Star contributors, click here.

The bigot’s position necessarily relies on fabrications and distortions. This means that their opponent must spend most of his or her allocated time correcting these falsehoods. To lie takes a moment, to refute a lie always takes longer.

Moreover, because religious or racial bigotry is not based on reasoned argument or a careful assessment of the facts, there is little reason to think that those who hold such views will be persuaded by facts or evidence. What they see is their tribal leader out there, up front, taking on the “elites.”

The views held by Bannon and Goldy and their ilk circulate widely and openly. They cannot be ignored. They need to be opposed. Reasonable people may disagree about the best strategy for doing this, but treating these views as reasonable, debatable contributions to public conversation is not one of them.

Richard Moon is distinguished professor at the University of Windsor. His most recent book is Putting Faith in Hate: When Religion is the Source or Target of Hate Speech.

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