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Free Speech and Propaganda: Past and Present

Posted By Paula Gardner, ICA President Elect, McMaster U, Monday, April 3, 2017

There is a lot of discussion lately regarding the value of free speech, particularly in response to public speakers presenting marginal political views that are met, in some cases, with counterprotests that drown out their speech. Recently at my own university, McMaster (Ontario, CANADA), protestors outshouted Jordan Peterson, a Toronto professor who was invited to discuss his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns (such as ze and zir,) and who argues that “political correctness” (supporting these pronouns) has overtaken Canadian universities. At Middlebury College in Vermont (USA), protestors recently drowned out and then shut down (by pulling fire alarms) a talk by Charles Murray, one of the authors of the controversial 1996 text, Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which argued the existence of ethnic differences in measures of intelligence.   
 
These are so-called “teachable moments” in our classrooms, but they are not necessarily easy moments. These confrontations highlight questions regarding the promise of free speech in liberal democracies and hopes for free speech elsewhere.  As well, they problematize moments when speech becomes intolerable for some groups.  They bring us into discussions of how and when we should engage in speech that some find violates their basic human rights to fair treatment and equal access. These conversations are of course crucial to societies dedicated to free exchange, where we work to distinguish fact from fiction and propaganda.    
 
One of our special additions to the ICA Conference in San Diego is Pictures Creating Image, an exhibition of print-based propaganda from around the globe, brought to us by Dr. Patrick Roessler (U of Erfurt).  The exhibition will feature elaborate magazine pieces from World War I and World War II that highlight the ideals of varied communist, fascist, and democratic societies, many produced in different languages for global distribution. The selected vintage copies have rarely been displayed elsewhere.  
 
This content is certain to incite important conversations regarding the lines that divide fact from propaganda, and how propaganda might function similarly in the digital age to these analogue samples. The work might also serve as a catalyst for rigorous debate among supporters of free speech and those who hold that free speech is not in fact free to all, and thus find certain kinds of speech made in public to be intolerable. We hope this exhibition encourages us to take up these difficult challenges in rigorous dialogue. 
 
The exhibition opens with a lecture in its own gallery space in Sapphire Ballroom C on Friday 26 May at 11am. The gallery will be open all day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for your viewing, and we hope that you will add it to your schedule. A print catalog of the exhibition will also be available onsite. We are so pleased to host this exhibition and we thank Dr. Roessler for his significant donation of time and energy to bring this to ICA.

Tags:  April 2017 

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