“University should be a place where we think out loud together”: A Q&A with U of T’s new adviser on civil discourse, Randy Boyagoda

“University should be a place where we think out loud together”: A Q&A with U of T’s new adviser on civil discourse, Randy Boyagoda

The educator discusses Jordan Peterson’s legacy, the limits of protest and how he plans to get his colleagues talking again

Randy Boyagoda is a writer, critic and professor of English at the University of Toronto.

University campuses have become rancorous places. Class debates regularly devolve into screaming matches, guest speakers get hounded off lecterns, and seemingly everyone, from undergrads to esteemed professors, holds at least one viewpoint they’re reticent to express for fear of being yelled at, bullied or ostracized. This on-campus phenomenon may be a reflection of today’s political climate, which compels us to confront noxious viewpoints before they spread.

Then again, maybe this moment is not so exceptional. The last century, for example, was hardly one of peace, tolerance and social consensus. Halting the spread of bad ideas may seem like a noble pursuit, but how can we know which ideas are bad if we don’t discuss them first? Randy Boyagoda—a novelist, professor, former president of PEN Canada and current vice-dean at the University of Toronto—believes that free inquiry and open debate are as important as ever. His biggest worry? That we’ve lost our capacity for civility. 

In January, U of T appointed Boyagoda its first-ever special adviser on civil discourse. His goal is to help people on campus engage in better, more productive conversations. The first step, though, is figuring out what civil discourse even means.

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Tell me how the idea for your position came into being. I assume it has something to do with October 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza.
Yes, but these events didn’t create the need for civil discourse. They simply revealed the need for civil discourse. Civil discourse wasn’t exactly robust and healthy on October 6.

Even before the war, were there signs that civil discourse on campus was in bad shape?
I’d point to the anxiety that faculty and students experience over both speaking their minds and hearing others speak their minds. Higher education institutions should be places where we think out loud together. But there have been instances in which I’ve found myself self-editing or I’ve watched someone else self-edit for fear of what’s going to happen to them.

For example?
A few years ago, I was at a campus dinner in which I got into a discussion with an undergraduate student about cultural appropriation. I would describe myself as middle-of-the-road on this issue. The student wanted an absolute prohibition against any form of cultural appropriation when it came to Indigenous peoples. I was having a great time in this debate. I thought, This is what university is all about. We’re in this beautiful neo-Gothic dining hall, and we’re thinking out loud together. Then I noticed that the student beside her was filming us with their phone. I had this immediate sense that I should stop talking. Here I was, a senior administrator and tenured professor, going back and forth with a young female student of colourand I had no idea how this exchange was going to be edited or shared.

You thought you were speaking in one context, a campus event, but in fact you may have been speaking in another forum entirely: social media.
Right. And so the conversation ended quickly.

Who, in this anecdote, was violating the norms of civility?
The person doing the filming. They thought, “Something heated is happening. This could be interesting or entertaining. How can I make use of this?” Clearly, they didn’t share my understanding of what we’re all supposed to be doing at university.

Can you give another example that speaks to a degraded culture of civility?
I’m teaching contemporary American fiction right now. One of the texts I assigned was Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. I also had students read Pamela Paul’s New York Times op-ed, “Barbie Is Bad. There, I Said It.” I told students, “The great thing about Barbie is that everyone can have their opinion on it, despite how difficult it is for people to speak their minds today.” But multiple students, primarily male undergraduates, disagreed with me. They said they weren’t willing to voice their criticisms of Barbie for fear of seeming unsupportive of women. I thought, My goodness. If we’re anxious about saying we don’t like Barbie, that’s a bad sign about the health of civil discourse on campus.

Was there a single moment at U of T that made you realize things were going off the rails?
It would be impossible to have this conversation and not reckon with the Jordan Peterson experience—the way his very presence became divisive. I’m not just talking about people who found Peterson objectionable. Nor am I talking about people who were persuaded by his ideas and found themselves opposed to the dominant view on campus. I’m talking about the people in between. Was there any real space for them?

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Back in 2016, Peterson made a name for himself by criticizing an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that protects gender identity. He believed that the amendment was going to force people to address others by their preferred pronouns—in other words, that it would amount to a form of compelled speech.
That’s how I remember the initial controversy as well. Obviously, things have evolved since then, and Peterson’s interests and activities have evolved too.

I remember feeling, at the time, that there was some validity to Peterson’s point. I’m not sure if Peterson’s interpretation of the law was correct, but I do think that compelled speech is an issue worth worrying about.
It is. But, very quickly, Peterson’s conversation about compelled speech became an attack on trans or gender-queer people. That’s where the fight ultimately went.

Whose fault was that? Peterson, his supporters or his detractors?
Everyone—including him—bore responsibility for failing to take up his questions civilly, in the interest of the greater good. The conversation quickly became a form of theatre, an occasion for everybody to establish their progressive or conservative bona fides.

So how will you foster civil discourse in this environment?
With this new appointment, I don’t want to focus on mere tactics for civil discourse. Tactics are about means rather than ends. They’re a set of rules, usually concerned with etiquette. I want to instead cultivate an open-minded disposition that says, We may disagree about abortion, Israel or Barbie, but we’re going to have a conversation about that and see where it gets us. It’s a shift away from politeness for the sake of politeness and toward a shared goal of mutual understanding.

People say that civility fosters understanding. But does it really? What if people just fundamentally disagree? Take Zionists and anti-Zionists—surely no amount of civil discourse can bridge that gap.
Arriving at a shared understanding is a goal but not the goal of civil discourse. It’s about growing and learning by encountering ideas you don’t agree with and coming to understand what’s behind them. Intellectual growth can still happen during a conversation, even if you remain unconvinced by the other person’s argument.

But some arguments are just so inane that they’re not worth having. Should a university professor really take time to engage with, say, a flat earther?
Civility doesn’t mean participating in every argument. A person only has so much energy and time in the day. If you feel like an argument has reached a point of staleness or redundancy, you can check out.

Checking out is one thing, but are there ever instances in which a speaker should be disinvited from campus?
Violence or incitement to violence is a good justification for preventing speech.

What about heinous examples that fall short of outright incitement to violence? In 2017, a student organization at the University of Florida invited Richard Spencer, an alt-right conspiracy theorist, to speak on campus. Spencer would argue that he doesn’t condone violence: he believes in what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Offended students berated him. But who was really being uncivil in this case? The students for shouting or Spencer for spreading his awful beliefs?
Let me respond in general rather than speaking to this event specifically, because I don’t know it well enough. In cases like this one, the people shouting are downstream from the decision that brought the speaker to campus in the first place. Somebody thought, Let’s bring this guy to our school, because then we’re going to own the lefties and make ourselves look like free-speech martyrs. People with a disposition toward civility don’t think this way. Civility implies listening to people, but it also implies inviting people who are worthy of being listened to in the first place.

Protests are an essential part of political life. They also tend to be boisterous, indecorous and, dare I say, uncivil. How do you feel about them?
Protest culture has reached such a level of professionalization and sophistication that it tends to reach only two audiences: the most committed supporters and the most committed opponents. It doesn’t reach the undecided people or the curious people. Let me give you another example: Bari Weiss. 

She was a New York Times columnist critics have described as neoconservative. She quit the paper because she believed she was being bullied there for being insufficiently progressive.
She was recently invited to speak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alongside Frank Bruni, a liberal New York Times columnist. The talk was protested, and there were attempts to shut it down. People thought that merely having Weiss there was legitimizing illegitimate views. I personally subscribe to the University of Chicago position on these things. In 1972, the school declared that, as an institution, it takes no position on any matters and instead brings together people to take positions on matters. So, by the Chicago standard, having Weiss speak on campus is not the same thing as legitimizing Weiss.

So it was inappropriate to protest Weiss in this instance?
I absolutely understand and affirm the right to protest as part of what it means to be a member of a healthy democracy. If you’re protesting to have your voice heard, that makes good sense to me. If you’re protesting to drown out someone else’s voice, I’m not as convinced. I look at protest as one among several means of engaging in public life. If you’re not able to have your voice heard through some version of respectful dialogue, of course you’re going to protest. But if you’re protesting when you have an opportunity to engage in civil discourse, you may be missing an opportunity for intellectual growth.

What’s the best alternative to protesting?
Ask tough questions. Take the opportunity to challenge and debate people directly. If I were to invite a speaker to campus who then insisted that there be no audience questions after their talk, I would rescind the invitation.

As U of T’s special adviser on civil discourse, what will your day-to-day entail?
I’ll create a working group populated by faculty and students from across the university. We’ll begin discussing, and probably debating, what civil discourse is and isn’t. We’ll arrange public programming: seminars, debates. In May, I’ll be leading a research project on the subject with undergraduate students. We’ll explore what civil discourse looks like, on and off campus, in Canada, the United States and around the world. What does respectful conversation look like in Hong Kong? In Taiwan? In Hungary?

What can people do in their daily lives to become more generous debaters?  
Put your phone down. Every summer, I delete all my news apps, and I find it’s freeing in terms of how I experience time in relation to events. It gives me space to think more expansively. I would also say read novels to understand people not like yourself. A novel is much more useful than the latest commentary on whatever news sites you follow. Serious fiction provides greater appreciation for the variety of human experience.

Any novels in particular?
I just finished reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It brought me into a world of different people. Saint Augustin said that the purpose of literature is to increase charity, to increase love of one another. Bleak House did that for me. There are so many infuriating, despicable, pitiful characters in it. And by the end of the novel, I loved them all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.