Students pack U of T's Hart House for discussion on democracy with Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood appears on screen during a discussion titled “The Story of Democracy: What’s Next?" with Randy Boyagoda (photo by Lisa Lightbourn)

Hundreds of University of Toronto students lined up early to watch renowned author Margaret Atwood, an alumna of Victoria College, discuss the future of democracy with Randy Boyagoda, a writer and professor of English – and left with unexpected homework.

“My request to each of you is to spill out of this lecture hall tonight and engage with each other in collegial, respectful, meaningful conversation about your differences,” Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, told the students in her opening remarks. “And don't stop there. Engage with your professors and your fellow students inside and outside of the classroom.”

Held at Hart House with overflow viewing at Convocation Hall, the discussion titled, “The Story of Democracy: What’s Next?” was moderated by Sam Tanenhaus, a  visiting fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and former editor at the New York Times Book Review. The event attracted more than 500 students and was organized in response to the growing concern – at U of T and beyond – that democracy is at a critical point, struggling to survive.

Tanenhaus invited Atwood, who appeared virtually, to be first on the panel to comment. The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, among many other novels, is often quoted in international media on issues of citizenship, free speech and the importance of fiction writers in a democracy. At Hart House, she referenced current turmoil in the U.S., where active movements are attempting to limit who can – and cannot – vote, for example, as well as the media’s ability to report the news.

“It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” Atwood said. “The (political) right has kidnapped the idea of free speech and I think people have to kidnap it back.”

Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science encouraged attendees to “engage with each other in collegial, respectful, meaningful conversation about your differences” (photo by Lisa Lightbourn)

Upon being announced, the event immediately resonated with students, with all 300 Hart House tickets snatched up in just 19 minutes – and more registering for overflow viewing. Ultimately, it brought together students with different lived experiences and a range of political views, as Woodin pointed out in her introduction.

To Boyagoda, the key questions were: How do we all live together in one society? How do we debate – and disagree – in a productive, respectful way whether in the classroom, on campus or beyond?

For one, he suggested replacing the word “no” with “perhaps” in a debate.

“The global village is the place where incompatible realities sit side by side on the bus,” Boyagoda said, in part quoting from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. “In a global or globalized village, we often have incompatible realities side by side – in a classroom, in the Great Hall today,” Boyagoda said. “We all need to cultivate our version of ‘perhaps,’ an openness to something that seems otherwise ridiculous, impossible, wrong. We need to cultivate our ‘perhaps’ and it can be terrifying.

“In leaving today, I encourage all of you to consider: What's your ‘perhaps?’ How do you find a way to keep that space open? Because if you don't keep it open, then everything else is closed off.”

The conversation moved from George Orwell’s 1984 to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, touching on current protests in Iran, social upheaval in Sri Lanka and, in Canada, the Freedom Convoy protests that saw a heavier police presence at Queen’s Park and parts of U of T’s St. George campus.

The panelists also explored censorship – both the censorship of others and the self-censorship that stifles honest and mutually demanding discourse because people fear blowback from those who disagree.

Tanenhaus asked Atwood how often she self-censors. “Well, I was badly brought up and I don't have a job, and that does influence what you feel you can say,” she said. “If you don't have a job, nobody can fire you and this is why writers who don't have jobs are often called upon to speak in public.”

The event at Hart House resonated with students, with tickets snatched up in less than 20 minutes (photo by Lisa Lightbourn)

The event was aimed at: engaging students in robust discussions and advanced research; fostering timely debates that prize the importance of free speech; and educating and challenging future leaders as they journey through their university years and prepare to join democratic public life in Canada and around the world.

Some of the takeaways were deceptively simple for such a complex topic. For example: Continue to have conversations; disagree, but debate; and – as Atwood urged – remember that the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain.

“What we have to watch out for is the deliberate creation of chaos because once you have chaos, everybody looks for a Mister Fix-it to, you know, help make the trains run on time,” she said. “I think we're seeing that in various places in the world and I think we have to guard against it, even closer to home.”

Boyagoda pointed out that students attending the event have demonstrated their engagement in combatting erosion when it comes to democracy. Simply put, they showed up.

“In recent memory, I can't remember a time when the Faculty of Arts & Science had hundreds of students show up for an event,” he said. “I think the primary interest, of course, is having a chance to hear Margaret's observations about the future of democracy, but you're also here because you're here with each other. Those are the little ways that you counteract the erosion of democracy.”

The conclusion? Ultimately, democracy is worth fighting for.

“Many of you recognize that democracy can't be taken for granted – here at home, south of the border and all around the world,” Woodin said. “I believe the university and the Faculty of Arts & Science have a fundamental responsibility to support democratic engagement, which we're doing right here, right now.”

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