Amidst the heartbreaking the events in the Middle East and the resulting surge of Islamophobic and Antisemitic hate crimes, something else has caught my eye. Namely our society’s declining ability for civil debate and meaningful dialogue. Many issues – from antisemitism to homophobia to political polarization stem partly from an inability to understand, empathize, and connect across differences. Our ability to engage with ideas that may differ radically from our own impacts our collective religious literacy, the health of our democracy, and the cohesion of our society. What does all of this mean for our long cherished value of supporting free speech?

Are Universities Still Places for Grappling with Different Ideas?

During this current conflict, the universities have been in the news for suspending a University of Ottawa medical resident who posted pro-Palestine content on social media, for posters of Jewish hostages being torn down at Western, and for numerous protests and rallies with chants, flags, and sometimes yelling and confrontation.

However, I have not heard of any Canadian university holding a debate. In fairness to the schools, one held in Dublin ended in chaos. The Dublin event follows a growing pattern in recent years where people shout down speakers, feeling speech they dislike must be prevented (there are examples in both the USA and Canada). Many are asking whether university cultures still support free speech (a balanced take is here). This issue seems real and one, I think, that should concern us.

Students tearing down posters at Western’s UCC building | Screenshot from a video posted by @antisemitismCA in X (formerly known as Twitter)


It’s Too Volatile

Many feel the topic is too volatile. But the idea that we cannot debate sensitive topics is fairly new. In 1965, James Baldwin, the famous African-American writer and activist, debated racial equality with conservative William F Buckley. Today, allies would urge Baldwin to boycott the debate and not give a “platform” to Buckley’s ideas. But Baldwin, a brilliant activist, believed he had to fight racist ideas. He felt he had to address those not on his side and try to persuade them.

James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley on racism | By Allan Warren,, National Review,


A century earlier, Presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas visited multiple towns to hold seven 3-hour debates about slavery. Newspapers that reprinted the debates were read across the nation. They debated this sensitive issue precisely because it was critically important. 

Conversely, this past year, CNN hosted Donald Trump for a town hall, causing outrage on the left that he was given a “platform.” But during the program, the interviewer asked challenging questions that he never confronts on Fox News or Tucker Carlson. Many felt he denigrated the host, but this, too, is useful information. Even when you think ideas are bad, there is value in exposing them to the light.


Falling Support for Free Speech

This growing tendency to deny a platform or to censor those we disagree with is troubling. Recent American polls (here and here) show younger cohorts have less support for free speech than prior generations. Particularly surprising: young liberals support free speech less than young conservatives (see the first link above). Typically, young liberals have been outspoken advocates for subversive speech and the right to dissent. 

I think this raises two problems.

Problem 1: How Do You Change Minds?

In a democracy, if you want your important perspective to win, you have to convince people. De-platforming or censoring people seems counterproductive – tell me my perspective cannot be heard, and I will feel wronged and righteous, possibly see you as oppressive, and conclude your view is clearly weak if you have to insulate it from critique.

So, if we want to fight Islamophobia (or homophobia), how do we change minds? In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, he explores how rarely people are convinced by straight reasoning. We have all experienced this and see this lesson daily on social media.

Yet…people do change their views. How does this happen? Haidt believes the key is what he calls “social intuition.” In short, we mostly make gut decisions on how we feel, and then we find reasons to justify those gut feelings. But our views can shift if our gut instincts shift. To do that, you need to think about emotions. 


The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt |


You still need reasoning, but the reasoning must be wise about emotions. First, it is vital that the other party feels heard. We feel a connection to those who listen and understand us, and that connection affects our gut intuitions (hostage negotiators agree). Second, reasoning does better if you can ground your argument in the other person’s fundamental values. If I begin disliking your idea but you appeal to my core values, and I feel a kinship or connection with you, my gut instincts become mixed and cause me to reflect. Change is not guaranteed but it becomes more possible.

Changing Megan Phelps Roper’s Mind

Megan Phelps Roper was raised by the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, which holds public protests with God Hates Fags signs and celebrates when opponents die. Roper was on social media, spewing hate and damnation on the church’s opponents. But, incredibly, a few people ignored her tone and engaged her respectfully. They listened, asked questions, and ground their questions in her Christian and Biblical values. They formed an online relationship and then eventually met her at the church’s protests. Their actions affirmed her dignity as a person. She liked them. And then listened. And then abandoned the church and married one of the people who treated her with such patience and care. (Here is her Ted Talk)

Roper’s a dramatic example of how empathic listening and asking questions based in someone else’s values can foster change. | By Slowking4 –


Changing Many Minds: The Gay Rights Movement 

On a broader scale, look at the gay rights movement. In 1990, gay marriage would have polled terribly in Canada. By 2005, it became law amidst majority support. By 2009, even conservative lobbyists declared the fight over. It was astonishing! 

Advocates for LGBTQ rights followed Haidt’s description. People came out of the closet. “Homosexuals” were no longer dark shadowy figures…it was your sweet niece Kate. And Kate’s girlfriend was lovely. This deeply complicates your gut intuition and emotional feelings. Pride parades helped not by giving reasons but by replacing the gut portrayal of homosexuality as shameful with people riding floats and having parties. Many did the emotional labour of talking with family and friends. And they changed the world.

Pride Parade | Photo credit:


Problem 2: How Does a Democracy Function?

Democracies are hard. We have to live and even try to organize society with those we disagree with. But democracy is not just rules about governing. It’s an ethic, a moral commitment to try to share a society despite differences. 

When we censor and de-platform those we disagree with, where is that leading? Those we censor will not disappear. More likely, it will foster polarization and growing hatred while different parties retreat to their increasingly isolated information silos. It also worsens those gut intuitions – when those we disagree with censor us, demean us and treat us as lacking basic humanity or dignity, we keep relationships only with those on our side while our dislike and distrust of “them” only intensifies. That is a recipe for fostering antisemitism and a general recipe for social fraying.


So What to Do?

Whether it’s on Israel-Palestine or any other issue, here are my tentative suggestions. Consider these points as a work-in-progress and, to that end, I value any suggestions or ideas you want to share in the comments:

  • Encourage free speech. Some limits are necessary, but today, the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
  • To understand a view you don’t hold, search out that view’s most thoughtful spokesperson. Social media highlights each camp’s most extreme and intolerant voices. Find the thoughtful voices instead.
  • Try to listen well. Even if neither of you changes your views at all, simply understanding one another better affirms each other’s dignity and helps reduce polarization and hatred. This can be hard…but it’s a moral act.
  • Let your opponents talk. Listen to them. Try to keep relationships amidst disagreement rather than purging your contacts of people you disagree with. (we have a new resource to help with that) 
  • Seek first to understand, then be understood. Humbly remember they may educate you too, even in a small way, like seeing how your view looks from their perspective. 
  • Lastly, argue well.  I really like this quote from Dr. Caroline Leaf. 

“It is incredibly important to remember that in any argument, it’s not you against the other person. Rather, it’s you and the other person against the issue. Separate the human from the problem.”

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