Ann Coulter cancelled her own speech in Ottawa this week. No one did it to her. Police said there were so many protesters that they couldn’t guarantee her security, but that’s not the protesters’ fault. Their job is to protest. They have the same right to expression that she does. A university official had sent a supercilious letter, warning her to talk nice, like a Canadian (in his view) does, but even he has a right to speak. Still, once administrators begin effectively recruiting protesters, they should make sure security is in place. They’re the only ones I can see to blame.

The best response to Ann Coulter is — to respond. Tell her to piss off, not shut up. Challenge her, as a Muslim student in London, Ont., did, saying she has no flying carpet (a Coulter witticism) to “go back home” on. So get a camel, says la Coulter. Then it’s the protesters’ turn; they can hiss, walk out, pie her — I don’t consider pie-ing violence, I consider it symbolic speech. It’s what you do when you don’t have the podium and a mic. Think shoe thrower of Baghdad. That was a shoe (or two) heard round the world.

Nor do I feel like joining in the ritual statements that find Ann Coulter’s views appalling. The only point of free speech is when it’s about views you find appalling. Otherwise, it’s “allowed speech,” because it doesn’t offend you.

One Ottawa student protester said a campus should be a safe and positive space. I agree with safe but not so much with positive. I’d even say a university should be a safe and negative space, in the sense used by Herbert Marcuse, whose student I was. He praised the power of negative thinking, by which he meant learning to be critical of the way things are. Little kids deserve a safe and positive space, largely so they can gain the self-assurance to deal with all the negative space they’ll meet later on. In fact, one of the unheralded merits of free hate speech is that it can give those vilified and maligned a sense of their own strength.

Take the black congressmen in Washington this week who were spat on and called “nigger” as they went to work. They didn’t whine or file a human-rights complaint. They’d been through it all on the freedom rides and sit-ins in the old days. They weren’t shocked, even if they were (wearily) appalled. They have overcome, and they still have their eyes on the prize; that’s what counts. I’ve seen woise, they could say, like Billy Crystal as the wizard healer in The Princess Bride when Westley’s corpse is laid before him.

Want a Canadian example? Steven Truscott, sentenced to hang at 14 in 1959 for a murder he didn’t commit in a small Ontario town. He escaped hanging but wasn’t fully exonerated until three years ago. Around then, some media motormouth sneered that Steven Truscott had manipulated the media. Asked how he felt about the silly charge, he said he’d been called a lot worse.

Another Canadian case: I worked with a small union organizing Toronto factories in the 1970s. An immigrant single mom leading the drive in a plant faced humiliating gossip that she’d been seen kissing another worker on an elevator. A youthful union organizer wanted to file a human-rights complaint. But Kent Rowley, the veteran union president, scoffed that he’d heard junk like that in factories forever. The young organizer was mortified and left the room sobbing. But Kent’s priority was to build the workers’ sense of power and confidence rather than teaching them to rely on bureaucracies. They’d need those traits if they were to battle through the barriers to unionization, followed by the hard bargaining and strikes that would follow, ad nauseam.

The taunts that don’t send you running to a human-rights commission can make you stronger. It’s a higher education than most universities offer.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.