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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Tolerating intolerance is always a bad look

A local organization called the Urban Abbey is allowing an anti-abortion film to be screened in its space. This is not about free speech. It's about bad decisions.

When you first opened your doors, I was rooting for you. I am not religious (far from it), but the idea that an inclusive, Anglican ministry was rehabilitating a beautiful building in Port Arthur’s downtown and planning to help the poor and vulnerable? I could get behind that. Unfortunately, events of the past week have demonstrated how easily a few poor decisions can undermine years of effort. Your decision to allow Thunder Bay Life to screen the film Unplanned at the Abbey is nothing less than an abrogation of your duties to those very same people.

As an educator, I am ashamed that, somewhere along the way, myself and my colleagues have failed to help people understand the nuances of the concept of freedom of speech. Legally, morally, philosophically, freedom of speech has always been a quixotic, paradoxical, complicated phenomenon. These days, colloquially, it has morphed into a bludgeon with which to silence and a shield behind which to hide and claim undeserved neutrality.

Deplatforming is not the same as the suppression of free speech. If Thunder Bay Life were denied the use of the Abbey’s space, there are other places it could screen its film. Charter rights to speech prohibit government from legislating what is and is not acceptable (and even this has limits). They do not require an organization to indiscriminately accept any- and all-comers. That is a choice you are making, and while you are free to claim it is not equivalent to endorsement, at the end of the day, you are choosing to give Thunder Bay Life its platform.

Deplatforming is, in fact, a necessity if we are to keep our society healthy and free. Because bigots will as soon quash free speech and dissent as wield it for their own purposes. This is Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” Freedom of speech is not the same as speech without limits or speech without consequences. Rather, the principle of free speech must ensure that the limits and consequences of speech are socially, rather than legislatively, constructed. We decide what speech is acceptable through how we define boundaries within our spaces.

There is room for so much discussion and debate in our society, yes. We can debate whether or not our city should have an event centre, interpretations of specific parts of scripture, even the proper decoration of crosswalks. However, to say that every opinion and view must be heard and debated is to insist on a false equivalency that is harmful to the most vulnerable. Human rights are not up for debate: the existence and validity of trans people, the right to autonomy and access of healthcare for pregnant people, the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples whose land we settlers occupy … these are not interesting thought exercises for philosophy class. These are real, existential issues on which lives literally depend.

The Urban Abbey is using free speech as a shield because it doesn’t want to alienate anyone. It wants to try to be an open space for the whole community. This is a laudable yet unattainable goal. Being a true ally means being an accomplice to the community you are trying to help. As Willie Jackson said, “We need people who are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel when it’s inconvenient, when we didn’t plan for it, when it might cost us something.” Denying Thunder Bay Life space for their screening might cost you some people’s support, sure. As you have discovered by now, allowing their screening is having a similar effect—but more vitally, you’re demonstrating that your space cannot ever be truly safe for those you seek to help, because it is welcoming and tolerant of people who are intolerant towards them. No, you do not need to take a moral stance on every big issue. But being an ally/accomplice necessarily involves making hard choices about who is welcome in your space and who is not. You cannot have it all ways.

It’s not too late to change your mind, to say, “Our bad. We hear you. We will do better.” You have the opportunity to correct course, to make amends, and to understand that doing good work in a community is about far more than tangible projects and helping individuals: it must be an ethos that permeates your entire organization, at every level, and inform every decision you make.

I will miss the open, well-lit space of the Habit. But the price of your coffee and tea is too high for me to pay now. So, goodbye Urban Abbey. You did good for a while there, but in this particular case, you have made a very poor choice.