Don’t be afraid to face people like Bill Whatcott; engage their ideas head-on.
Author: Joel Huber
On Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, around 10:00 a.m., Bill Whatcott plans on taking up his usual position in front of the Riddell Centre to peddle pencils from his cup of bad ideas. Expect homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny; expect prejudice—religious in origin, some of which is cashed out in pseudo-scientific language—delivered with a cheap smile and an ingratiating tone. Expect someone resistant to, and not persuaded by, reasons or emotional appeals.
So what do we do in the face of someone so perverse and unreasonable? What can we do? Well, two actions come to mind when dealing with the unsavory. The first requires that you ignore them, either hoping through the lack of attention that they just go away, with the signal being buried by noise, or purposely organizing an attention embargo against the person. The second requires that you confront them in some way: harsh criticism, ridicule, satire, protest, and, in dire cases, force. I see the merits of both responses, and, certainly, if the University were able to permanently keep Whatcott off campus, I would lean towards simply ignoring him; however they have not been successful, and he insists on his continued presence. If the man and his views cannot be kept away, I’m not sure they can afford to be ignored. And maybe it is best that they are not.
What is left is confrontation, but it is not the man that necessarily needs opposition; it is his beliefs. Whatcott may himself be beyond the reach of reason or compassion, but that doesn’t mean all who subscribe to the typical anti-gay/women/trans* prejudice that comes from Christian fundamentalism are as unreachable. I’m sure all of us are intimately aware of which of our family members, friends, and colleagues hold similar views. It is with this knowledge that we must strike out; we must to make our spaces safe. In the everyday spaces of our homes, schools, the work places, etc., views like Whatcott’s need to be challenged. People must be exorcized of their fallacious and harmful beliefs through rational and compassionate means, and those who insist on irrational and malicious beliefs must be resisted. They must be brought into the full awareness that their beliefs are, and will always be, contested and that one pays a heavy social price for continuing to hold them. We must shrink the space in which ignorance and hate can flourish. We must give it no refuge.
Here, I am reminded of something Christopher Hitchens once said about free speech. Summarizing John Milton, Thomas Paine, and J. S. Mill, says that “It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something.”
In his essay On Liberty, and within the context of what a person has to learn from a person dissenting against a majority consensus, Mill adds the following complement: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
So, if the University cannot keep Whatcott away, then let him come. We will meet him and we will collide with his beliefs in front of Riddell and anywhere else they might be. And, these collisions will keep happening until these views are made so bankrupt and without value that those who hold them would fear the raucous laughter that inevitably results when they are spoken aloud.
And on that day, when prejudice of this sort is as close to defeat as it can come, and people can love whom they will without fear and reprisal, when women and anyone with a uterus has full bodily-autonomy, and when people are free to become who they want to be (male, female, or otherwise), then our attentions can turn elsewhere. And that is a day that I look forward to.