Dangerous Dialogues: How Speaking Freely Changes Lives (And Sometimes Ends Them)

Posted October 8, 2020
By Ivor Shapiro

Around the time the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was lying in state, my friend Farid reposted on Facebook a report headlined, “Accepting Israeli prize in 2018, RBG never mentioned Palestinians,” published by Mondoweis, a blog focused on Palestinian rights.

The thread soon disappeared from Facebook, but not before Farid received a private message which set him rethinking. A few days later, he returned to Facebook with a mea culpa

He wrote, in part: “...I have been wondering about my own harshness toward people who do not share all of my fundamental views; in this case it is justice for the Palestinians.” Need someone “have gotten it 100% right on every issue in order to be mourned?” Did RBG’s lifetime impact on women and marginalized communities “count for nothing?”

The answer, Farid concluded, was no. Just as everyone is eventually subject to what Muslims call “an ‘Ultimate Reckoning,’ where our deeds will be weighed by the Transcendent,” no one should be  judged  by a single position held in “a generally virtuous and courageous life.”  

Note what had happened here:

  • Person 1 expressed an opinion that offended others. 
  • Person 2 offered a contrary perspective. 
  • Person 1 reconsidered.

It happens every day, but probably less often, in fewer places, than it used to.

Person 1 in this case is Farid Esack, PhD,  an internationally respected  Muslim theologian and outgoing head of the department of religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. 

To Wikipedia, Farid is a “scholar, writer, and political activist known for his opposition to apartheid, his appointment by Nelson Mandela as a gender equity commissioner, and his work for inter-religious dialogue.” 

To me, he is a friend of whom I don’t see enough. We met when he was a 17-year-old student in Bonteheuwel, an impoverished township reserved by law for so-called Coloured (mixed-race) people, and the leader of an anti-apartheid national movement of high school students. I was a long-haired university dropout from a comfortable Jewish-private-school background working for an anti-racist project. We enjoyed each other’s young-adult intensity and similarly impish senses of humour. 

We talked with young-men's passion, and taught each other to listen. We made each other think. 

It was a thing, back then, this idea of talking and listening across dividing lines. Not coincidentally, my low-paid job at the time included convening quasi-legal weekend meetings of kids from white, Black and Coloured schools in church basements. Sometimes, I remember, we ranged the white kids down one wall of the basement, the others opposite, and told them: “Talk.” 

They didn't hold back. There was shouting, there were tears, and hugs, and, perhaps, more private expressions of mutual interest of which none of their parents would have approved. Friendships were formed, political realities clarified, career paths shifted. 

My point is: speaking freely, and listening, changed their lives.

Don't get me wrong. This was not "free speech" in any immediately coherent sense. 

Certainly it wasn't "free" in the sense of a protected human right, for example. We lived in a police state that suffered only a paper-thin veneer of the rule of white-made law; it would be 20 years before South Africa got its first democratic constitution with de rigeur protection of expression. 

Neither was such speech “free” in the more colloquial sense of coming without cost. For some, the price was as high as it gets. 

One of my sort-of co-workers within the above-mentioned social-justice project, known as Spro-cas, was a particularly fearless young Black man who spoke his mind without evident restraint. I say "sort-of" because unlike me, Steve Biko was employed in the arm of Spro-cas that was dedicated to promotion of black consciousness. Beyond an occasional courtesy ground-rules meeting, we barely knew each other and we never met after 1973, when the government “banned” Steve, disallowing, amongst other restrictions, his continued political activity. 

Four years later, he died, bruised, naked, and shackled, in police custody. 

Steve’s murder was shocking, but no one who knew him can have been surprised that he made white cops crazy with rage. He spoke too much. He was polite enough until he got going, but he easily offended people with whom he disagreed, whether about the tactics of resistance or about its object. Eventually, those with the power to shut him up sent him the way of so many others whose views were intolerable: Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of others, throughout human history, who would rather die than shut up. 

It is, of course, a long way from martyrdom for racial justice to the kinds of threats facing free speech in Canada (or South Africa) today. For one thing, the strongest reins on expression are no longer held by governments. Plus, the topics of dissent are dramatically different.

Take, for example, the urgings about cultural limits on dissenting speech raised by the 150-plus signatories to a letter in Harper’s Magazine published in July this year. Yes, that letter, an intellectual take-down of ideological conformity in progressive culture, which drew an equal and opposite response calling it out as a “a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge diversifying norms that have protected bigotry." 

I was enjoying an off-grid vacation (talk about privilege!) when the first letter was published, but it sparked a wide-ranging and strikingly civil debate on a listserv I follow. Its members are women and men, all well-educated and comfortably off, progressively inclined, and somewhat more racially diverse than we used to be. 

Reading through the thread shortly after it petered out, I sensed the pain and caution with which the listserv's members had expressed contrary views about setting limits to offensive speech. Others had remained silent, perhaps choosing to listen and think; I suspect some crafted responses in their heads, and, on reflection, declined to click “Send.”

The thread's final, exceptionally concise post seemed to provide apt closure. The subject line was, “About silencing dissent.” The content was a single link, to a July 14th New York Times story headlined, “NYPD Says It Used Restraint During Protests. Here’s What the Videos Show.”  (If you follow that link, viewer discretion is definitely advised.) 

These terrifying clips, like so many others that we have seen in recent years featuring Black civilians and white police, brought back brutal images from South Africa in the ‘70s, when Farid Esack and I were young. 

And so the brutal cost of dissent remains this: there will always be Someone who wants to shut you up. If you are Black, the chances are higher that the silencing Someone may use a badge, a baton, or a boot to mute you. 

Or a knee, or a gun. 

In North America today, Black and Indigenous people, and other people of colour, have good reason to feel unsafe when views are expressed that either expressly or implicit demean their experience of, or resistance to, systemic racism.

On the other hand, some radical feminist and survivors of sexual violence feel fear when activists for trans rights demand unfettered access to women’s bathrooms and women's shelters. And when they push back for separate recognition of cis women, some trans people feel unsafe in turn. Each side feels endangered by the other's arguments. Each might happily see the other shut down.  

As a white cis male nearing the end of a well-compensated career, I am unlikely either to contribute helpfully to any of these debates or to be hurt if I did. That's why I called Farid last week to ask where he draws the line on offensive speech. 

He said that as an academic leader he would not attend, fund or advertise a meeting where a speaker were likely to say, for example, that homosexuality is unnatural. But neither would he forbid the meeting from taking place. 

And as one who himself advocates for Palestinian rights, he understands that someone might object to a meeting that promotes that cause. Someone might say, "Look, I'm a Jew; I've connected my identity and who I am to Israel, and for you to attack Israel makes me as a Jew feel unsafe… and humiliated." 

But to this objector, he would say back: "Well, look, I'm sorry. You have your identity. You don't have to go to that meeting…. You can come, you can even heckle while I speak. I'd prefer not, I'd prefer that the ground rules be set, that I speak for so long and then, you know, we open it up and you can say your say…  We are prepared to debate our opinion, but to debate our opinion doesn't mean to give you equal time to deliver your opinion. So, I'm sorry. Let me speak."  

As for the giving of offence, Farid says that's never sufficient reason to shut someone down. He chuckles in his sly way, and recalls a teacher back in Bonteheuwel objecting to somebody's hairstyle and being asked why. 

"She said, 'I find it offensive.'"

Farid then asked what, exactly, the hairstyle offended. Some rule of conduct, perhaps? Some cultural norm?

"She said, 'My eyes. It offends my eyes.' Well, that is not an argument. 'Offensive' is not an argument. It is completely arbitrary."

Still, I am not Farid. He has earned by his own lifetime of marginalization the right to speak freely about issues of power and pain. The awareness of my privilege dilutes my entitlement to be outspoken. It was from Black-consciousness activists like Steve Biko himself that I learned a rule I've tried to follow ever since: when others speak from a place of pain, my job is to shut up and listen.

So why have I now, hesitantly, accepted the invitation to blog regularly in this space, in defence of free expression? 

Because in my opinion, the case is not being adequately made, or at least adequately heard, for tolerating, listening to, reflecting on, and engaging with speech and acts that are obnoxious, painful, harmful or worse. 

In my opinion, for instance, many journalists do not think hard enough about the part of their job that requires giving space to expressions that offend (at least when they stay on the legal side of inciting hatred). 

In my opinion, the market for free-speech advocacy among progressive-minded people in Canada today is light on the supply side, so it seems worth testing the demand.

In my opinion, the separation of popular discourse into bubbles of agreement has played a major part in the terrifying polarization of political opinion across the democratic world today, empowering populists, stifling compromise, turning factual reporting into "fake news," and well-told lies into widely believed truths.

In my opinion, intellectual and moral resilience is built, and social justice served, by calling across the Divide and straining to hear the calls of others. 

Had Joyce Echaquan's smartphone been taken away from her by hospital staff in Joliette, Quebec, that would have violated her constitutionally protected right to expose the vicious racism of nursing staff as she lay dying. We likely would never have known her name. As it was, she, like Steve Biko, grabbed the right to speak freely. Perhaps, as a consequence her death, like his, will help make the world a bit better.

In coming editions of this blog, I plan to explore (with a focus on journalism) the costs and limits attached to respecting and using "the right to freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication."

I don’t yet know exactly what I will bring to this table or how I will express my thoughts. I fear that some friends and colleagues might find some of my opinions offensive (perhaps starting now). I even fear that some friendships might not be strong enough to bear so dangerous a dialogue across the Divide. 

Those are my fears, but I have a hope, too. I hope you talk back.

 

Ivor Shapiro is a Professor in Ryerson's School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Free Expression. On Twitter, he's @ivorshap.