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John G. Stackhouse Jr.

John G. Stackhouse Jr.

John G. Stackhouse

We need heated public debates. So why are universities refusing them? Add to ...

Bernard Drainville, the Parti Québécois cabinet minister responsible for the controversial Values Charter now before the National Assembly, recently cancelled his appearance in a debate at Concordia University, citing “security concerns.”

He was right to be worried, and wrong to cancel.

Mr. Drainville was right to be worried because universities across the country have shown an alarming unwillingness to protect the free speech that is the lifeblood of their enterprise. Particularly when controversial public issues come to campus, university administrators, doubtless wary of lawsuits and bad publicity, shrug and refuse to guarantee the safety of participants.

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And participants are right to ask for such commitments. Only a few days before Mr. Drainville’s announcement, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) refused to police a debate on the Values Charter that was disrupted by those on the other side of the issue, those who violently support it and who refuse any dialogue with its opponents. CTV Montreal quoted activist Djemila Benhabib as saying she was incapable of being civil to opponents of the Charter. “I cannot talk in any fashion to Islamists,” Ms. Benhabib said. “An ocean of blood separates us.”

Ms. Benhabib, however, was not being asked to talk to Islamists. The people she and her fellow activists silenced were Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir and Alexa Conradi, leader of the Women's Federation of Quebec. By painting all of her opponents with this brush, she hands over the debate to the worst of them. By destroying debate, the Islamists she refuses to debate end up winning.

The terrorists win when they stop democracy from working. They do not win when they blow up trains or demolish buildings. Those terrible actions scar some people’s lives, of course, and briefly disrupt the ordinary flow of life for a while. But such actions do not collapse our society. And what they ought to do instead is stiffen our resolve to protect the values so cowardly under attack. The terrorists win when we cave in to their threats, when we stop doing what we ought to do because they frighten us.

The Values Charter raises fundamental issues for Canadians, not just Quebecers, that go right back to Confederation itself. Will we tolerate others with whom we deeply disagree? Hardly anyone in the world in the mid-nineteenth century had fiercer histories of mutual loathing than the English and the French, except maybe Protestants and Catholics . . . and out of that unlikely matrix came a lasting confederation of mutual accommodation.

This confederation is what is under attack when universities fail to arrest those who strike at the heart of democracy – which is exactly what those who disrupt debate, or threaten to do so, are doing. These anti-democrats are true enemies of Canada, and they simply have to be arrested, if necessary again and again, if they impede our common life. For when we stop talking to our opponents, even our enemies, we must resort to politics by other means. And this means war.

The Values Charter needs to be debated. In my view, it needs to be debated to death as the ugly, cynical appeal to nativism it so obviously is. But that is how it must die: by debate, not by intimidation or disruption.

More fundamental even than the values of this Charter are the values of civil discourse. Without the commitment to communication, we are left with only coercion. Universities, and the municipal and provincial governments that support them in the public interest, must support that public interest by holding debates and by insuring that those debates proceed. If massive police presence is required, then bring it and use it. That’s what police are for in a democracy: to preserve the proper workings of democratic institutions.

Leaders worried about bad press and anxious about looking tough have always been prey to the cynical and bloody-minded who gladly seize the power left on the table to cow or crush dissent.

If you’re going to be tough about something, Mr. Drainville, be tough about public discussion of issues that matter. That’s what the Sûreté is for: to protect the safety and security of democracy. Call them out, and then get up there on stage where you belong.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver. His next book is Need to Know: A Vocational Epistemology, to be published by Oxford in 2014.

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