Earlier this month, protests broke out at the University of Victoria over the screening of a TED Talk and Skype Q&A session led by champion of effective altruism, Dr. Peter Singer.
Students from various lobby groups signed petitions to have the event cancelled due to the fact that Dr. Singer has, in the past, advocated the idea of selective infanticide and eugenics towards disabled people.
The screening was allowed to be held, however, as the club organizing the event – UVic Effective Altruism – did not violate UVSS or UVic policy.
In the days leading up to the event, signs of trouble included several messages to the event organizers about the protesters’ disagreement and posters of the event being torn down or going missing.
It all culminated on the day of the screening when several student protesters tried to block people from entering the hall by linking arms at the doors. After failing to physically keep people out, they proceeded to read a short story through a megaphone, in an effort to drown out the contents of the TED Talk so that students would not be able to hear it.
An argument can be made for the protesters, upon identifying their concerns with Dr. Singer’s past – they simply wanted to make UVic a safe space for disabled people, and therefore wanted to keep out anyone who advocated euthanasia based on disability.
UVic Pride released an official statement prior to the event: “As UVic Pride coordinators, we do not support the decision to host Singer on this campus. It is irresponsible of the UVSS to allow such a speaker that violates their commitment to the safety and rights of disabled communities.”
On the other hand, upon speaking with the organizers of the event, it became apparent that eugenics was not the topic being discussed.
According to the leader of UVic Effective Altruism, Wray McQuat, “we as organizers don’t necessarily agree with everything he’s said over the years on other issues like euthanasia, and we emphasized that the focus of the event was learning about effective giving.”
Moreover, he contends that the protesters were even allowed to take centre stage before the screening began, to read out a list of disabled people killed over the past year, and thanked for bringing the issue to the public’s attention.
The aftermath of the event saw an outburst of posts and comments on social media by students and other members of the audience.
The arguments took on an ugly nature, as students who were denied the right to hear what Dr. Singer had to say clashed with those who thought it was more harmful to him to be heard. “The whole occurrence was exceptionally unfortunate, with both the crowd and the protesters behaving abominably towards each other,” says audience member Bristol Hobson.
No matter the outcome, it is clear that the incident brought one crucial question to the forefront: is having a “safe space” worth cutting out freedom of thought and the right to free speech?