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Sidebar: ‘Most students are very respectful of diverse political and religious views’

Rev. Ralph Carl Wushke, a United Church minister and ecumenical chaplain at the University of Toronto, talks about free speech on campus

By Justin Dallaire

Q Where do you stand on the debate between the need for free speech on campus and the call to create safe spaces for students who might feel victimized or marginalized?

A It’s complicated. Encouraging debate and critical thinking are among the purposes of universities. One of the dangers of some social media and mass movements is the creation of “echo chambers” where like-minded people cluster and reassure each other of the validity of their own views to the exclusion of others. Dissenters are not tolerated or are quickly “unfriended.” To the degree that free speech encourages the multiplication of perspectives and encourages people to test their own political correctness, that is not a bad thing. Free speech, providing it does not turn into hate speech, is essential for the advancement of critical thinking and transformation.

Courtesy of Ralph Carl Wushke
Courtesy of Ralph Carl Wushke

Q Has the pull toward secularism on campus infringed on religious free speech in any way?

A I don’t think so. Most undergraduate and graduate students are really very respectful of diverse political and religious views, of diverse religious and cultural identities. I find that the student-aged population as a large group, to use a sweeping generalization, is very respectful of religious diversity and world-view diversity.

Q What role can the interfaith community play in teaching about respectful dialogue or in modelling how people of opposite opinions can find common ground?

A Healthy interfaith dialogue has a lot to contribute. I don’t think it is so much about people of opposite opinions finding common ground — as laudable a goal as that may be — but a more profound goal: transformation. Process theologian John Cobb wrote about transformational dialogue, suggesting that interfaith dialogue is not a voyeuristic exercise in hearing descriptions about the “faith of others,” nor finding the lowest common denominator, but listening so intently to the other voices of faith that my own faith — and the understanding of it — may be transformed.

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