Free speech: Be open to debate or become irrelevant

The danger arises when we become too attached to ideas and are no longer open to healthy discourse

Gerry ChidiacHanna Holborn Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, said, “Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

So it’s quite ironic that issues of freedom of speech have taken centre stage at Canadian educational institutions. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson was shouted down when trying to speak at McMaster University, and graduate student Lindsay Shepherd was censured for using material featuring Peterson in a lesson at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Cooler heads prevailed in both of these instances and have actually drawn attention to the importance of informed debate in schools.

Perhaps the tension on university campuses results from the fact that while we do our best to determine scientific facts, there’s much we don’t know. Much of what’s written in textbooks is theory and is up for interpretation.

The danger arises when we become too attached to ideas and are no longer open to healthy discourse.

I recall embracing theories of Marxism as a university student. The ideals appeared wonderful, with each person giving what they were able and taking only what they needed. This was certainly more palatable to me in my idealism than the extreme wealth and poverty of capitalist economies, especially in the developing world. I vehemently debated my views – until I spoke to people who had lived under Marxist dictatorships and I actually spent significant amounts of time in developing countries.

Experiencing these challenges to my beliefs, I faced a choice. I could hold fast or I could re-evaluate my views with an open mind and continue learning. It can be frightening to engage in dialogue with those we disagree with, but in doing so, we come closer to finding truth.

Of course, there will be those who purposely distort the truth. David Irving, for example, presented Holocaust denial as legitimate-looking research, which fooled many. When brought up against scholarly scrutiny, however, his lies became apparent and he was discredited.

Scholarly dialogue is perhaps more important today than it has ever been. Before the Internet, we only had to learn to navigate particular sources of information. We knew that the truth was somewhere between the claims of American and Soviet news outlets. Today, the truth can be much harder to discover – but reputable scholars can bring much clarity to the world around us.

The bottom line is that as active citizens, we need to have enough confidence in our views to be open to questioning. Those who are able to do so continue to evolve. Those who aren’t eventually become irrelevant.

I have to admit that I likely wouldn’t have listened to Peterson had he not drawn so much controversy. I was pleased to discover an educator who embraces the ideals of scholarly debate. He doesn’t have an issue with others questioning his views. He doesn’t have an issue saying that he may be wrong. He does have an issue with being criticized and then silenced or shouted down by people who are unwilling to engage in dialogue.

As an educator, perhaps the most valuable lesson I can teach my students is to not only constantly ask questions about the world but to be open to dialogue with those who appear to disagree with us.

If I’m going to ask for this from others, then I too must confidently and humbly embrace the challenge of living in a constant quest for truth.

Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. 

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