Protesters gathered outside Roy Thomson Hall during the Munk Debate last Friday. (Victoria Shariati/Ryersonian)

Censoring former Republican strategist Steve Bannon and the Munk Debate sends the wrong message, said James Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression.

His comments came in response to a protest against the latest Munk Debate, which featured Bannon and David Frum. People gathered outside of Roy Thomson Hall last Friday to rally against the debate and its speakers.

The debate, titled “The Rise of Populism,” involved Bannon arguing in favour of populist politics and Frum against it. Bannon is a former strategist for President Donald Trump and Breitbart News executive, while Frum was once a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

Community groups including No One is Illegal and Toronto Against Fascism protested the sold-out debate. During the rally, two police officers were injured and 12 people were charged, with some even being pepper sprayed. The debate was delayed by half an hour.

However, for James Turk, the director of the Ryerson-based Centre for Free Expression, the rise of populism in local and provincial politics indicates that the debate may have happened at “just the right time.”

“The more public discussion we have about right-wing populism, the more people like Premier Doug Ford aren’t just seen as a local aberration but part of a broader, dangerous phenomenon,” Turk said.

Turk also said that despite the controversy, Bannon and Frum are exactly the two people who should be arguing against each other on the topic of populism.

“If you’re going to have a debate about the rise of populism, it makes perfect sense to have Steve Bannon, who is the epitome of the worst aspects of populism, be one of the speakers,” Turk said. Equally important is someone who can articulate powerful evidence against populist politics, he said.

“That’s something that’s in the public’s interest to happen,” Turk said.

While Bannon may not be a good source of information for other topics, when it comes to populism, his view is “precisely the issue,” said Turk. Censoring him in this context sends the wrong message to people — that is, Bannon and his words are so powerful, they pose a threat to society, Turk said.

“That’s bullshit,” he said. “His position is terrible.”

Sabaa Bismil, a 22-year-old OCAD student and one of the attendees of Friday’s rally, said protesting is important because it’s one of the few ways she feels she can show her resistance to populism and its representatives. She said the global rise of right-wing populism makes her worry about the safety of her Black, brown, Jewish or LGBTQ friends.

“If I have a kid, and they end up looking like me, I want them to be able to live their life happily and safely,” Bismil said. “At this point, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Bismil said she was protesting the debate because she didn’t see how it could have any mitigating effect on the dangerous rise of right-wing populism. For her, the debate legitimized people like Bannon and Frum, who are both conservative political commentators. Given the recent trends in provincial and municipal politics, however, Bismil doesn’t think populism is going away any time soon.

In an emailed statement, Rudyard Griffiths, the organizer and moderator of the Munk Debate, said the increasing polarization of society is precisely why the organization chose to debate populist politics. Civil debate about the “big issues” society faces, he said, helps everyone see across ideological divides and work towards solutions.

“We believe we are providing a public service by allowing (Bannon and Frum’s) ideas to be vigorously contested and letting the public draw their own conclusions from the debate,” Griffiths said in the statement.

For Shelving Akhavi, 46, however, his idea of civic duty required him to rally against Bannon and Frum.

Akhavi, a civil engineer, said Frum in particular should not have been invited to the debate. Since Frum coined the term ‘Axis of Evil,’  Akhavi said he needs to be held accountable for the chaos he contributed to other countries.

“What we see in Iraq is [because of Frum]. He has not been held accountable for what he contributed to,” he said.

Before and after every Munk Debate, the audience votes on where they stand regarding the topic. Friday’s final vote was not swayed by the debate, with 28 per cent of the audience voting in favour of populism and 72 per cent against before and after arguments.The debate was a draw.

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