A men’s rights advocate spoke at the University of Toronto

The fire alarm went off, but free speech prevailed

I was expecting the police officers, the provocative placards, and the rent-a-protesters with neon hair and black face coverings.

I was also expecting the fire alarm to go off—and it did—five minutes after Janice Fiamengo’s lecture started in the nearly full George Ignatieff Theatre at the University of Toronto on Thursday evening.

After all, the last time a person spoke against academic feminism on campus, when Warren Farrell visited in November, approximately 100 protesters barred the doors. They wouldn’t try that again, but I figured they’d try to shut things down, and fire alarms can be effective if, during the confusion, enough people give up and leave.

What I wasn’t expecting was a full house 20 minutes later, after the fire department gave the all clear, or that the controversial University of Ottawa professor would make it all the way through her lecture What’s wrong with women’s studies? without an angry mob attempting to shout her down.

Don’t misunderstand me. They denounced her lecture vigorously, but not until the question and answer period after she spoke. During the lecture, most people were respectfully silent.

The general non-violence of the evening—save for the childish fire alarm routine—is a sign of progress. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests. The academic’s voice remained strong. The University of Toronto’s Statement on Freedom of Speech and its Policy on the Disruption of Meetings, mentioned though not read by the moderator, served their purposes well.

So what exactly was so controversial? Few protesters ahead of the meeting could offer specific reasons, except that her talk was promoted by A Voice for Men, whose associates have said some hostile things to women. It’s true that Fiamengo dislikes most of today’s academic feminism, but I think the most offensive thing she said was that, when the Titanic sank, 75 per cent of women survived, but only 18 per cent of men did, because men are somehow naturally heroic.

The rest of the talk was a fairly common critique of feminism. She called it empty, incoherent and dishonest. She said its obsession with violence results in police charging men for assault, while absolving women. She denounced a family law system she says is biased against fathers. She said she is infuriated by “affirmative action where men are passed over time and time again.” She talked about the hypocrisy that women’s studies sees violence around every corner in Canada, but turns a blind eye to the deadly oppression of women and sexual minorities in the Islamic world. And so on.

She also praised a local Toronto feminist, Steph Guthrie, who was interviewed in Metro News about the upcoming talk. Guthrie told the paper that instead of trying to shut Fiamengo down like they did to Warren Farrell, Fiamengo’s detractors should go to the lecture, ask tough questions and debate.

And that’s what many of the would-be hecklers did. In order to stand up to that Q&A microphone and challenge her with dozens of balding men glaring and videotaping, they had to have at least listened to Fiamengo’s arguments well enough to come up with their own rebuttals. That left them scribbling down on notepads and keying into smartphones in eager anticipation while she spoke.

That’s not to say many minds were changed. Many asked questions that betrayed either their admiration or disgust for Fiamengo. In fact, some of them didn’t ask questions at all, and instead just ranted about personal grievances at the hands of those evil women or those evil men.

But there were interesting back-and-forths, including one between a self-identified McGill student who asked Fiamengo to explain why “only 25 per cent of parliament is female-identified.” (I wonder how she knows all 308 member of parliaments’ gender identities, but never mind.) “There’s a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of result,” Fiamengo replied.

Only one person really lost her temper, after making a thought-provoking query about the impact of Fiamengo’s assertion that “children need their fathers” on lesbian parents. Fiamengo responded by suggesting there’s research that children do better in two-parent households. She didn’t like the answer. “That’s heteronormative bullshit,” the woman screamed, before a dramatic exit.

I don’t know that Fiamengo made a sound academic case. What I do know is that she deserves respect for gathering evidence and calmly presenting it. She also offered advice all students should heed. “Educate yourselves so you can challenge [each other],” and, “do it will style, not hatred.”

She’s right on that. The freedom to debate unpopular ideas is something universities have a duty to protect. On Thursday night at the University of Toronto, that ideal was challenged but prevailed.