Ryerson University has canceled a panel discussion called “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” following pushback from activists who said the event was giving a platform to fascists.
The event, which was set for August 22, was slated to feature controversial speakers including University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who rose to prominence after refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns, and journalist Faith Goldy, who works for the far-right Rebel Media. Behavioural scientist Gad Saad and psychologist Oren Amitay rounded out the roster.
Ryerson Communications Director Michael Forbes cited safety concerns as the reason the event was shut down.
“After a thorough security review, the University has concluded that Ryerson is not equipped to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “In light of recent events, Ryerson University is prioritizing campus safety.”
Christeen Elizabeth, one of the organizers of a planned rally against the event — “No Fascists in Our City!”, the Facebook event page for which originally featured a header photo of a crossed-out swastika, before the photo was changed Wednesday — said it was important to speak out against what she sees as violence against oppressed groups.
“Transphobia is violence, Islamophobia is violence. Violence is contextual,” she said. “We can’t be complicit in this.”
Elizabeth said activists inundated Ryerson with calls and emails protesting the panel. She said she also collaborated with the school’s student union, who added to the pressure.
It’s a time to bloody well hope that everyone takes a deep breath and walks backwards a little bit from the edge of the abyss
Peterson said the cancellation is “an indication of the crazy absurdity that characterizes the current political situation. There’s an element of surrealism to it.”
But he has increased sympathy for a safety argument, he said, given the “inflamed rhetoric” the protesters used.
“I think there’s no excuse for what they’re doing, with the Nazi symbolism. It’s very, very dangerous to engage in that kind of casual vilification,” he said.
The group organizing the panel was thinking of delaying the event themselves because of the recent violence at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville.
“We’re drifting into a scenario of increased polarization, and it’s not an advisable time to contribute to that, wittingly or unwittingly,” Peterson said.
Elizabeth said she might have been a bit hasty to put the word “fascism” in the event title, but defended its use.
“The seeds of fascism, that’s how they start. It starts with this ‘othering’ of people,” she said. “Regardless of whether or not they themselves are preaching strict fascist ideology, who are they preaching to?”
Elizabeth said she has received death threats as a result of protesting the panel. She sent a screenshot of one of them to the National Post, which said, “Im coming after your kids you bitch. You just wait.” She said her step-mother has received similar threats.
“It really just goes to show what kind of calibre of people they are that they would do something like that,” Elizabeth said.
The seeds of fascism, that’s how they start. It starts with this ‘othering’ of people
What happens next, Peterson said, “depends on how rapidly the positive feedback loop between extremists on both ends of the political spectrum expands, and how effectively sensible people in the middle are at dampening it.
“It’s like people are batting back and forth a bomb that gets bigger every time someone hits it,” he said. “They’re not attending to the fact that with each mischaracterization they alienate a larger part of the population. It’s a very bad idea.”
Peterson repeatedly echoed U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion that ideologues on both sides were responsible for violence.
“It’s a time to bloody well hope that everyone takes a deep breath and walks backwards a little bit from the edge of the abyss,” he said, but noted that now was not the time to discuss the “sins of the radical left.”
“The time right now is for denunciation of what occurred in Charlottesville,” he said.
Though the panel is no more, Elizabeth is still planning a rally. She said she’s reaching out to labour groups and looking to change the tone from anti-fascism to pro-diversity — “sort of celebrating the people that this forum panel was targeting.”
Peterson said he’ll talk with the other would-be panelists about potentially using another venue, though he’s still not sure the timing is right for the talk.
“We’re going to figure out what we can do that’s least harmful,” he said.”Let’s start with that.”