Adopting a different model for campus debate

Why Queen’s should look abroad for tips in keeping protests on topic

Prousky while on exchange.
Credit: 
Photo By Alyssa Diamond

Across the country, university students are arguing more but accomplishing less. 

When controversial issues hit Canadian universities, students fixate on how they affect campus free speech instead of arguing the issues themselves. 

Last November, I wrote about rethinking campus controversy and the state of campus debate at Queen’s. Since then, I haven’t seen anything change.  

But it doesn’t have to be this way—especially at Queen’s. During my time on exchange at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland last semester, I was shown that campus protests can generate useful outcomes which extend beyond universities.  

If Queen’s were to emulate some of its counterparts abroad, we might be able to make campus debate more constructive. 

At Trinity, I saw students debate issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, legal abortion and student fees—all of which have been points of contention at Queen’s—through sensible and reasoned debate.  

Most notably, the debate at Trinity wasn’t diatribe. Groups with opposing views on major campus issues made their arguments and pushed for students to be engaged and informed.

For example, on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Trinity’s student union put forth a referendum to determine whether or not the school should halt investments in Israeli companies. The union rallied support in favour of the motion. 

Naturally, the union’s lobbying came with pushback. But there was an element of organization to the referendum process that stunned me. 

Both the union and its opposition had clear leadership, and they each took to social media with the purpose of educating students. The founder of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Israel (BDS) movement, Omar Barghouti, even attended an open forum talk at the school. 

Despite disagreeing with one another, both sides argued the merits of the vote instead of claiming their opposing opinions violate the boundaries of campus free-speech. 

Trinity’s announcement to raise fees for supplemental exams saw many of its students take to the school’s main square in protest. People were free to voice their opinion at-large, and the substantial youth turnout garnered media attention from some of Ireland’s major outlets. The protests evoked tangible change, with university officials taking notice and removing the impending fees for supplemental exams.  

Even when it came to national issues, such as the vote to repeal a state-wide ban on abortion, students again joined together. But they didn’t do so as a means to demonize those whose opinions differed, rather to educate every relevant person with a vote. 

Students at Trinity were able to find common ground when it came to contentious issues because of how they approached them: with reason and sensibility. 

When Jordan Peterson visited Queen’s last semester, we replaced an opportunity to discuss real-world issues with a heated debate on free speech and safe spaces.

In none of the aforementioned examples during my time at Trinity did students break glass or yell obscenities at one another, as was the case with Peterson’s visit. 

That’s because Trinity students were careful with how they employed sensationalism. 

When student-fee activists at Trinity felt they weren’t being heard, they held a protest in the college’s main square. There was shouting, but it wasn’t nonsensical like the videos of screaming protestors at the Peterson rallies. 

During the school’s referendum on financial support for Israel, the student union presented a platform for two sides to argue and the vote was based on the content of the school’s discussion. 

The union immediately framed the issue in a way that made a debate regarding campus free speech unlikely. 

To argue the limits of free speech, at Trinity, would have been unimportant. Students seemed to have an unspoken but respected agreement or how to approach controversial issues on campus. It was the culture there to stick to the issues, amidst conflicting debate and protest.  

To implement these ideas at Queen’s, our University administrators must continue to hold firm on their policy of free speech. 

It’s important that students be reminded how benign their protests are if they choose to spin off big issues as being matters of campus free-speech. 

Next, our student unions and governments should frame issues as they exist in the real-world.  Just as Trinity approached the Israel-Palestine conflict with a referendum, we can nudge campus debate in a better direction by offering students a chance to vote on an issue that is of global interest. 

Finally, the broader student-body should be tasked with shifting the culture of aimless protest that runs rampant on campus. 

As I witnessed at Trinity, this starts with a group of students who make a Facebook page, engage with their peers and ensure the narrative of their side’s arguments is educationally focused. 

While I was impressed by Trinity’s process of debate and dissent, I witnessed the school elect long-term support for the BDS movement. I disagreed with the decision and felt as if the student body had made an apprehensible and uneducated decision. 

But when I was left to make sense of it all, the debate and protest didn’t feel pointless. I don’t think the students of Trinity made the right decision, but they didn’t argue for nothing.  

When it comes time to debate the next hot issue at Queen’s, I hope our faculty, student governments and broader student population will find a way to use the ideas I’ve raised. 

But if not, when the rallies and protests have ended and the moments of heated free speech talk pass, we’ll be left once again to figure out what it is we’ve accomplished.

Jonah Prousky is a fourth-year Commerce student.

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