October 31, 2018 4:11 pm
Updated: October 31, 2018 4:44 pm

Is it better to debate Steve Bannon or to ignore him?

The Munk debate featuring Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, has drawn a new call to cancel the sold out event. Kamil Karamali has more.

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Backlash is mounting over a planned debate in Toronto this week featuring Steve Bannon, the controversial strategist that helped U.S. President Donald Trump win the 2016 election.

Calls to cancel the Friday debate are being met with outrage over what a cancellation might mean for free speech.

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But this is not just a free speech issue, says Maya Menezes, media contact for a coalition of organizations that came together to urge the cancellation of Friday’s Munk Debates, in light of the attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend that killed 11 people.

“We don’t have space for violent rhetoric that emboldens white supremacists.”

Bannon, who was axed from his job as Trump’s strategist in August 2017, is most often associated with Breitbart News, an alt-right website known for publishing fake news. The website once accused President Barack Obama of bringing “more hating Muslims” into the country and routinely attacks organizations like Planned Parenthood. The site also compared abortion with the death of millions of Jewish people: “Planned Parenthood’s body count under Cecile Richards is up to half a Holocaust.”

In court documents obtained by the New York Daily News, Brannon’s ex-wife said he didn’t want their daughters to attend a certain Los Angeles school because of “the number of Jews that attend.” More recently, Brannon continues to make headlines for his views. He is currently working on launching a far-right revolution in Europe, through a foundation called “The Movement.”

The Munk Debate isn’t the first time Bannon has been invited to speak at a high-profile event. Last month, the New Yorker announced an on-stage interview at its annual festival between Bannon and New Yorker editor David Remnick. The proposed interview was lambasted by the public and New Yorker staffers alike, with other guests threatening to cancel if Bannon attended.

His appearance was cancelled.

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People everywhere are grappling with how to handle people like Bannon, a right-wing nationalist who told a National Front crowd in France to embrace being called a racist: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists.”

In Canada, there is a balance between hate speech and freedom of speech. A legal provision that provided more avenues for dealing with hate speech was removed by prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013, over criticism that it was too broad. As a result, one lawyer said, Canada is left with an “impoverished system for preventing hate speech.”

“We believe we are providing a public service by allowing their ideas to be vigorously contested and letting the public draw their own conclusions from the debate,” Munk Debates chair Rudyard Griffiths said in a statement.

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History already makes it clear what happens when these types of ideas are given broader platforms, Menezes says.

“We know the type of violence that incites,” she says. “We don’t think that the maintenance of a platform for white supremacy is actually going to create a safer society or a more just society.”

It’s unsurprising that people are angry that Bannon was invited, says Cara Zwibel, director of fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. But the context in which Bannon has been invited to speak, she says, matters.

The debate is about the rise of populism, with Bannon arguing that the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.

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“He is what populism looks like right now, at least in North America,” Zwibel says. “That context is really important because he’s not in a venue where he’s going to be celebrated, not challenged. It’s a venue that’s intended to challenge and debate and question.”

Still, Zwibel says, “I’m not sure he should have been invited.”

Remnick also mentioned context in his note announcing the cancellation of Bannon’s New Yorker Festival appearance. While the magazine does not pay for interviews, it does pay an honorarium for the festival, as well as travel and lodging. Upon reflection, Remnick wrote, “There is a better way to do this.”

He went on to say, “if the opportunity presents itself I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting… not on a stage.”

READ MORE: Critics call for cancellation of Toronto debate featuring former Trump strategist, Steve Bannon

In Toronto, Bannon will face off against conservative David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, who also worked for President George W. Bush and wrote the book, Trumpocracy.

Frum welcomed the debate format.

“Liberal democracy is founded on the belief that free people can be inspired to make wiser choices by words and ideas,” he said in a statement.

“Mr. Bannon comes to the prestigious Munk platform because he believes his words can persuade people to follow him. I will face him there because I believe democratic ideas can defeat him.”

The fact that Frum is speaking is also part of the problem, Menezes says.

“Having someone far right and even farther right debate each other as two sides of the spectrum is a really sad day for organizations that say they foster conversation.”

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Zwibel says that’s actually what makes the debate interesting to her, since they’re less likely to “talk past each other” than they would be if their viewpoints were more divergent.

In any case, Zwibel says, to cancel now would do more harm than good.

“It turns him into a martyr for free speech, it lets him point to liberals as the enemy and it just feeds into the kind of narrative that he’s already espoused,” she says. “Frankly, it will probably give him a bigger platform than he would otherwise have.”

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