Interview with Nicholas Kosovic – Founder, UBC Students for Freedom of Expression

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Nicholas Kosovic is the Founder of the UBC Students for Freedom of Expression. Here we discuss his work and background, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from a historical perspective. This is the UBC Students for Freedom of Expression. You are the founder and the past president.

Nicholas Kosovic: I was the founder. I recently resigned as president. I am in the process of transitioning an entirely different team as most of them are graduating.

Jacobsen: What was the niche needing filling in UBC campus life for undergraduates in order to create Students for Freedom of Expression?

Kosovic: There’s always a consideration. We are the second freedom of expression group on UBC campus. There is the much larger free speech club going around. Personally, from my dealings with them and examining what they were doing, I just wasn’t seeing what I wanted to happen, which was campus culture is incredibly polarized.

Most people feel constrained by their ability to interact with ideas. It is very limited. There is a high concentration of what I would call the mainstream campus view on certain issues or the inability to address views outside of that consolidated view circle [Laughing].

I decided. If we are going to do it, we need to do it right. That whatever we do tends not to galvinize anxiety or fear, but, rather, an academic view of most of the controversial ideas floating around today.

Jacobsen: Who were some controversial speakers brought to events hosted by Students for Free Expression? What were some controversies?

Kosovic: Our first goal for addressing these big topics is focusing first on the topics and then we sought out academics or authors who spoke on these issues; that seemed like they were going to be suppressed, e.g., Armin Navabi discussing issues in Islam and how we’re able to talk about Islam in a very serious manner concerning radicalism (and how this is discussion about radical Islam is thrown to the side in the greater context).

He didn’t face suppressed speech. Until, he was stopped from speaking at Mount Royal University. We saw the writing on the wall. That he was being disinvited from places. We decided to bring him. He was local.

That was the first event. Our second event, we wanted to talk about a lesser known controversial issue. It is not really in the mainstream in the moment about Canadian history. We wanted to talk about native issues and how the native scholarship has been addressed in the university by indigenization.

We got professor Frances Widdowson to come to UBC. She is a professor at the University of Mount Royal is Calgary. That went off without a hitch. One of the most controversial views and the one getting a lot of press coverage at the moment is either Canadian identity or white identity. 

We found professor Ricardo Duchesne from the University of New Brunswick. He came and is considered one of the most controversial professors in Canada. He came without protest or problem. We were able to see into his view or arguments, and to criticize him.

Then we brought, as a last testament to my tenure, Megan Murphy to talk about tranns issues. That is one of the events that got the most controversy. Those were the four big issues that we thought that might need to be covered: Islam, white identitarianism, native issues, and transgenderism.

Those seemed to be the most prevalent and most talked about in our society right now. We decided to bring the four speakers. They have academic backing. That’s what we ended up doing. 

Jacobsen: If we are looking at Article 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, it provides freedom of expression. What have been traditional arguments across the political and social spectrum to restrict freedom of expression? What have been traditional arguments to expand freedom of expression in Canada?

Kosovic: On that issue, I like to focus on the university. I think the university has a very special place in society. Outside of the Charter, under which the university falls, the university also has the obligation to hold the value of freedom of expression.

It is built into the school’s academic culture or, at least, should be. Having the most educated students and academics in one place, that’s the best environment for controversial speech to be had. 

If we are talking about people in the public square or giving speeches in a park, that might be a little bit different. We are talking about the most educated members of society denounce or applaud ideas that are, perhaps, unorthodox or extremely controversially.

Maybe, it is to expose them to an academic sunlight that you wouldn’t get in a normal academic atmosphere. Some of the reservations that I have had from some groups is having the views available to the public, essentially, grows their following.

I don’t know if that necessarily follows. If you have a society that is harmonious, very satisfied with its current standing, these controversial views do not gain traction because people don’t listen. That is probably a good thing.

The fear that these views are in some way destructive of society is more indicative of the problems of society more than the views themselves. That is the take that I look at it from. 

If you are looking at expanding or restricting our ability to talk about viewpoints, I think the major argument is that some viewpoints are, in fact, a danger in themselves. So, when we had our speaker on transgenderism, Megan Murphy, the loudest criticism I received: you have vulnerable groups are going to be aversely affected by the existence of these views or the proximity of these views.

I do not believe in the proximity of these views in the age of the internet. Views of all sorts are close to us, wherever we go. We all have phones in our pockets. You can look up whatever you want from the safety of your own pocket. I do not really believe in the danger of proximity.

When it comes to popularity, it is the same thing. Having things said in the university or in the public square is not different, in my mind at least, than having it on your phone, I hear people suggesting that we need to remove views from social media and the internet at large.

I have to say: those things do not work. For example, white identitarianism has existed more than I’ve been alive. The fact that they’re coming to fruition now. It does not demand restricting the internet. It means addressing these issues in an academic manner to discredit them if they are worthy of being discredited or, at least, understand what they are.

Most people I have spoken to, do not know what the other side is trying to say. 

Jacobsen: If we are talking about an individual or a group who wants to marginalize individuals who identify as white nationalist or others who identify as pro-Antifa or part of Antifa, then the sentiment in most of the population would probably be that they are correct to feel antipathy towards them. 

However, they would be working in an incorrect methodology or strategy in terms of trying to shut these voices down rather than confront them in a rational way, in order to discredit them and marginalize them with society in a more long-term and effective way.

In that, if one shuts down a group, it only shuts them down temporarily or in the short-term. In fact, they may go underground and become more extreme because they then enter an echo chamber and become more dangerous.

Is that the basic sentiment and argument there?

Kosovic: I would agree. Let’s be clear about what it means to go underground, it is not as simple as having as having a small room in the back of a restaurant where people meet on every Friday and start talking.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kosovic: When you’re excluded from public space, private space may be as simple as your job or your party at your house, or just any sort of things, where people have localized homogeneities. 

What I’ve seen in society at this moment, we’re living in an atomized and localized series of homogeneities that on occasion interact with each other in terribly unproductive ways.

When your think about the bubbles that exist, that is what is means to be isolated and alienated from the rest of viewpoints. I have always thought of radicalization as a product of polarization.

It is undoubtable to me. That by sequestering views one might find reprehensible rather than addressing them. If they are so reprehensible, then they should be addressed. I have come to terms with the fact that a lot of the speakers we’re bringing.

It becomes productive once the conversation ends. We have to understand moderation comes as a result of conversation. It is way better for society for everyone to be moderate.

Jacobsen: If you’re looking at passing the torch for Students for Free Expression at UBC, what is the plan, say 2019/2020? How do you go about mentoring and passing the responsibility onto another generation, with regards to student academic life, of students?

Kosovic: It becomes really easy. Once I leave, my presence or what I’ve learned won’t go away. When it comes to how the group after me will run it, there are no sorts of qualifications for this.

All you have to be is a good, honest, person who is curious about other ideas and will not antagonize people once they come at you. The four golden rules or commandments for this group are 1) never antagonize anybody because that is not your role as the leader of the group, as a host. You should never be in a position of antagonizing anyone at the event or part of the group.

Two things, you should know to be polite and know the role of the university when it comes to the foundation of free speech. The second rule is that you never put your hat into the ring. You never put your own views into the fight. 

Realistically, we are all students running this. We do not have anything to say or to say in contrast to the millions of voices that are commenting on these issues. If it looks like we are in some way involved in a political party or involved, or invested, financially in these sorts of ideas, then that is going to break down any sense of good will.

The idea is to maintain good will by completely being isolated from these ideas. If you are, you have to keep this very private to yourself. The third rule is to always provide a Devil’s Advocate.

One of the difficulties when we bring speakers to campus. We were never able to bring faculty to come who had opposing viewpoints. We really did not have any luck getting other students who represented the so-called marginalized groups to come either. Bringing opposition actually took double the amount of effort compared to bringing the actual speakers themselves, we begged them. We offered to pay for their ticket, and so on.

We tried our hardest to get the opposition of any of the views espoused to come. I think that is something, however fruitless, that needs to continue to happen. That is what establishes discussion. We are not here to establish an echo chamber. We’re not here to grow any localized homogeneity than any other. We are not cultural warriors.

The fourth rule, if I remember this correctly – I should remember this, you have to be aware of the fact that you should never take personal attacks personally. We are living in an age when the internet is prevalent. I have certainly gotten a lot of hate mail.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Kosovic: [Laughing] we get all sorts of hate mail. Not just from left-wing people but from right-wing people, from faculty, from newspapers, the reality is that they do not know me. I really do not put myself out there personally. They do not have a stable definition of who makes me, me. If I take this personally, I am being an idiot.

If someone calls me a neo-Nazi online, they don’t really know me or anything I think about it. I laugh and shrug it off. You’re never supposed to respond to it in a way that makes it serious. If someone comes at you and says, “We think you’re a sexist and a racist and want you off campus,” why not offer to take them for a coffee?

Take them for a coffee, and talk about it, obviously, they are passionate. If you take the context from what they have initially contact you for, at least, they are passionate. You can respect that they have a sort of shamelessness to come and talk to you.

Maybe, they want to talk to you in person or want you to buy them a coffee. I don’t want to say, “Oh yeah, Students for Freedom of Expression has very Christian virtues at its underpinning.” But that is where it has come from for me.  You never antagonize anyone. You always be nice to people. They don’t know what they’re doing when they say that kind of stuff to you.

That is what I am trying to give to the new people who are running this group. I want to write them a rule book and to follow it. If it is a group about a principle, we better have principled responses to all of these very predictable sorts of reactions to us.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Nicholas.

Kosovic: Awesome! Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Nghia Le on Unsplash

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