Protest of Janice Fiamengo’s lecture was a failure on both sides

Illustration by Tina Wallace

You can change more minds with a debate than with a noisemaker.

On March 28, an on-campus lecture by controversial University of Ottawa professor Janice Fiamengo was loudly disrupted by a group of students rallied by the Revolutionary Student Movement. The protestors gathered to defend feminism on campus by denouncing the men’s rights movement and attempting to shut down the forum to share those ideas.

Debates quickly turned into screaming matches, and both sides resorted to name-calling and personal attacks. People were called “rape apologists” and “idiots.” No matter the opinions expressed, both sides lost credibility because they showed themselves to be incapable of restraining their comments until the appropriate time and engaging in proper debate.

Those involved in the conflict were motivated by only one thing: anger. And in their fury, they failed to realize the dialectic potential of the event.

These are not your average students who wandered into a lecture hall for a casual evening at a men’s rights presentation. These are people who came with their minds set, and they came to discuss particular issues within a like-minded group. Regardless of whether one agrees with Fiamengo’s position, it is not one that was broadcast to hundreds of students ready to be swayed into a particular mindset. There were two groups of people at the event: those for, and those against.

So there’s no real reason for a group of students to crash the event, make a racket, and otherwise prevent Fiamengo from speaking, other than to try to silence an ideology they don’t agree with. It doesn’t work like that, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the free expression of ideas and opinions in Canada. The way to change someone’s mind isn’t through hostility or muzzling, but through civil discourse and respectful debate.

When it comes to the clash between feminism and men’s rights activism, however, that’s easier said than done. But a very similar event at the University of Toronto one year ago proved that unpopular opinions — particularly ones that challenge academic feminism — can still be welcome, if not encouraged, on a university campus.

When Fiamengo spoke at the U of T on March 7, 2013, she made it through her lecture “without an angry mob attempting to shout her down,” according to a Maclean’s column by Josh Dehaas.

“They denounced her lecture vigorously, but not until the question and answer period after she spoke. During the lecture, most people were respectfully silent,” Dehaas wrote.

The events also prompt a flashback to 2010, when riotous students forced the U of O to cancel its planned speaking event featuring controversial American political pundit Ann Coulter. Her speech was cancelled after hundreds of students protested outside and the police and security deemed it unsafe for her to proceed. It too stifled the opportunity for a public figure to share an opinion, however radical, and for opponents to challenge her opinions in an open forum.

These protests did, to their credit, serve a purpose by bringing the conflict to the attention of the broader public. But neither group’s message was legitimized by their words or actions.

Fiamengo said at the beginning of her lecture that she could scrap half her speech because the behaviour of the protestors proved her point. Obviously, a protest that serves to strengthen the argument of the opponent does not make a good protest. The event was cut short, but opinions remained strong and unchanged amongst both groups, each now able to play the victim.

Both groups accused each other of hate speech, a term whose true meaning has taken a beating from those who throw it carelessly into discussions with people whose opinions they strongly oppose. In law, hate speech refers to any communication that may incite violence or prejudicial action against a protected group or individual. There’s a big difference between hate speech and an insult, between hateful language and just being mean.

Of course, it’s possible (and likely) that even through respectful debate, neither side would change their ideals or see things from the perspective of the other. But at least it would preserve the sociopolitical health of an institution that’s supposed to be a forum for debate, discussion, and the exchange of ideas. Instead, both sides of the argument threw reason out the window and opted instead to just make a fuss — a move that likened them closer to a child with a rattle than a social movement with an education.