I had the fortune to attend Rick Mehta’s lecture “Safe Space Culture in Canadian Universities: An Assault on our democracy” at the Halifax Central Library, on September 23rd. I brought my 16-year-old daughter along with me, as she will soon have to make the choice about what type of education she wishes to pursue, and I am less than confident that her high school will provide her with all of the information required to effectively make that decision. As we discussed the lecture afterwards, it became very apparent to me that the most important lessons came not from Dr. Mehta, but rather from his detractors who also attended the talk. Specifically, the audience was given a master class on how to, or more appropriately, how not to conduct yourself during contentious discourse.
The detractors were a group of six people who appeared to be guided by Dr. Eva Curry, who is a professor of mathematics at Acadia University, the institution that dismissed Dr. Mehta. They were mostly young adults. They came armed with all of the smugness and righteous indignation that normally afflicts the type that would rather disrupt a lecture than honestly engage with the material and presenter.
Before I itemize the lessons learned from this talk, I will give credit where credit is due. Dr. Mehta’s detractors had some valid criticisms of his lecture. First, that he provided no source references for some of the statistics that he used to support his arguments. Second, his use of pictures and names of the people involved in his dismissal from Acadia was, in my personal opinion, in bad taste. Whether or not it amounted to criminal harassment or even a breach of library policy, as the detractors so loudly and vehemently argued, I am not sure, but I did find it to be unnecessary and at times, even a little uncomfortable. Unfortunately for the detractors, these points were all but invalidated by their own behaviour.
Lesson One – Avoid insulting the rest of the audience before the lecture even begins.
Prior to the lecture, Dr. Curry attempted to hand out copies of newspaper reports that were clearly biased and unsympathetic toward Dr. Mehta (the one I saw was from Vice news) as well as a copy of a letter from Acadia University to Dr. Mehta detailing the findings from the investigation into his conduct, which Dr, Curry erroneously referred to as his dismissal letter. Amusingly, rather than object to this, Dr. Mehta helped Dr. Curry distribute the materials, knowing full well that they were unfavourable to him.
The majority of those in attendance declined to take the material, and if I can assume that their reasons were similar to my own, it is because the audience for that lecture knew exactly who and what they were going to listen to. By printing and handing out literature, Dr. Curry must have assumed that those in attendance were somehow unaware or ignorant of the topic and the presenter. This, from a layman’s perspective, was more than a little condescending. Perhaps Dr. Curry did not mean to imply that those in attendance had not properly done their own research prior to the event and therefore needed the help of somebody that was smarter or more informed, but that it is how it came off, and it was not a good look for Dr. Curry and her entourage.
Lesson Two – Avoid behaving like children
The most blatant example of childishness came from one of Dr. Curry’s group who, while sitting in the front row of the audience, repeatedly yawned and belched loudly, obviously and obnoxiously trying to be disruptive. As a general rule, if the most intelligent argument you can come up with is a loud bodily function, perhaps you aren’t mature enough to engage in an adult discussion.
Some within Dr. Curry’s group further demonstrated their inability to engage constructively when Dr. Mehta displayed the names and pictures of those involved in the complaints that led to his dismissal. As mentioned above, the issue is not so much with their argument, but rather with the way it was presented. Members of Dr. Curry’s group began to loudly and aggressively assert that what Dr. Mehta was doing amounted to “the definition of harassment” and was against Library policy and demanded that the lecture be cancelled right there. When Dr. Mehta continued on despite their protestations, a few of them got up and stormed out of the room, one specifically went to go alert library staff of the supposed breach. Alas, nobody from the library came up at any point to intervene, that particular member never returned to their seat, and the lecture continued.
This particular outburst from Dr. Curry’s group was reminiscent of a child, who upon seeing something they think is wrong, runs to go tell on the offender. Further, getting up and storming out mid-lecture because you don’t like or agree with what you are hearing or seeing is akin to closing your eyes, plugging your ears and making a lot noise so as to avoid having to deal with anything that may offend your own fragile sensibilities. Again, this type of behaviour has no place in constructive discourse, particularly in a lecture where you have been explicitly told that there will be an opportunity to ask questions and engage with the lecturer.
Further, throughout the lecture, Dr. Curry and her entourage openly laughed, giggled, whispered and scoffed and any point or argument that did not meet their approval. Again, instead of being quiet and respectful of the presenter and saving their arguments for the period specifically allotted for such discussion, they behaved like obnoxious children, subject to disruptive outbursts at the mere suggestion of anything that may be outside of their own worldview.
In the end, whatever stain has been left on Acadia University as an institution after the Rick Mehta affair was only made worse by the childish behaviour of a current member of their faculty, Dr. Curry, and her group. As so often happens these days, an opportunity for frank and constructive dialogue was thwarted by a small yet disruptive group with a desire to restrict any dialogue whatsoever, condescendingly assuming that their purpose was to decide for everyone else what are acceptable topics for discussion.
There is a very big difference between being in a difficult conversation and being difficult in a conversation. Whether Dr. Curry or her group are aware of this distinction or if they just don’t care is unclear; however, given their behaviour, I will assume the latter is true.