Debra Soh is a Toronto-based sex and political writer with a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University.
On Wednesday, the Canadian Freedom Summit will be held in Toronto. The speaker lineup includes Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of the Daily Wire, and Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor who opposed Bill C-16 and the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Both speakers have faced protests and have been banned from speaking engagements because campus groups found their ideas threatening.
The event is being held by Students in Support of Free Speech, a group affiliated with the University of Toronto and York University, to defend free speech against censorship and the use of violence in response.
Campus incidents revolving around the issue of free speech have been plentiful. Consider, in recent months, the mindless mobbing on Charles Murray at Middlebury College that left a professor concussed and in a neck brace.
We see a similar trend happening on Canadian campuses. In March, Danielle Robitaille, one of Jian Ghomeshi's defence lawyers, was forced to cancel a guest lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University due to safety concerns. The same month, Ezra Levant, founder of Rebel Media, was disrupted by protesters during a talk at Ryerson University.
Academia is a place where ideas should be free to roam. Good ideas will stand the test of debate and scrutiny, and those that don't are better off forgotten.
Of course, speech should never advocate inciting harm against others, but we are reaching a point where controversial ideas are being thrown out or shut down merely because they make people feel "unsafe." Words are not inherently harmful, yet on campuses they are considered tantamount to physical violence, and therefore, deserving of the same.
The most concerning thing I've found in discussions with those in favour of censoring "dangerous" ideas is that they frequently don't know what they are arguing against – they've either refused to read the speaker's work or are opposed to it based on misinformation.
Despite this, censorship continues to impose constraints on academics in serious ways, because there has been increasing pressure for scientific research to toe the party line. Emotional grievances are being prioritized over logic and facts. For example, in my field of sexology, even if academic researchers have tenure, they will avoid particular areas of study completely (such as the topics of gender dysphoria in children or biological sex differences in the brain) because they know their professional – and personal – reputations will be at stake if their findings aren't socially palatable.
Many of my colleagues have been bullied into silence, terrified of becoming the newest casualty in this unpredictable war. I can't count the number of people who have told me that they walk on eggshells, keeping a low profile, avoiding social media and interview requests, out of fear of inadvertently inciting the mob. It has become a form of mind control.
It is also often the case that academics cannot interact with the media without explicit approval from their institution. As a result, the mainstream discourse suffers because only "experts" touting politically correct messages are heard. This results in a bias in information that is available to the public, and further indoctrination of a generation of students who are already shielded from dissenting views.
The university system is transforming into the deepest of echo chambers, because those who dare to speak out are thrown to the lions and left to fend for themselves. Although I was fortunate to have been encouraged to speak my mind during my time as a researcher, like many others, I chose to abandon the ivory tower because of the current climate.
We are barrelling toward a future in which the greatest minds must be more preoccupied with who might possibly take offence to their ideas than whether they are factually correct. Banning controversial speakers and unpopular opinions may seem harmless at first glance, but it sends a larger chill across campuses, an anti-intellectual shift that is derailing our fundamental pursuit of knowledge and the truth.