Listen to the opposition

David Stobbe / stobbephoto.ca

Controversial figure, Ezra Levant, spoke at NASH 76 in Edmonton this past week. (Flickr Commons)

The best thing about opinions is also the worst — everyone is entitled to one. However, only a select few love our opinions so much that we feel the need to share them and have them consumed. As an opinion writer, I will openly admit this is not an egoless exercise. I don’t consider myself narcissistic but there is an element of self-importance to the process.

We are not reporting on the news or current events, but often are found reacting, predicting or criticizing them. I have learned the value of opinion writing is in the way it promotes discussion and challenges common perceptions. I have also learned though, that people don’t always enjoy their perceptions being challenged.

Last week, I attended the Canadian University Press’ (CUP) National Conference in Edmonton and Sun News personality Ezra Levant was a keynote speaker. Conference coordinators were criticized for inviting him, a controversial and opinionated conservative pundit, to a conference paid for mostly by the attending delegates.
I typically don’t get offended when others are outraged by political commentators with controversial and often divisive opinions. I understand it’s how they make a living, doubt they believe a third of what they say, and am thoroughly entertained by the spectacle of it all. Levant’s keynote address was hardly a disappointment.

Before his speech, during dinner, Levant sat at my table. He was engaging and friendly and in comparison to his on-screen persona, unassuming. In conversation with others at the table, he came across as passionate but not confrontational. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but come to think of it, I rarely agree with what people say at the dinner table.

When dinner ended and he was introduced, you could see him transform from animated dinner guest into provocative rabble-rouser. His television personality is expertly crafted – this is how he makes a living after all – and was on full display immediately upon stepping up to the podium.

Levant wasted no time laying waste to his critics and promoting his free speech agenda. He started off with a strongly worded critique of the articles ran in student newspapers calling for his keynote invitation to be rescinded. Then, Levant denounced censorship of any kind, expressed support for the infamous depiction of the prophet Mohammad in Danish cartoons, and even brought up his favourite (and most successful) media battle with David Suzuki.

In true Levant fashion, about a third of what he said was valuable, with the remainder questionable, controversial, or outright wrong.

At one point, he challenged the diversity of the “media class” and brought his point home by taking straw polls of the student journalists in the room on a variety of topics.

On issues like gay rights, abortion, the War on Iraq and others, the room was near 100 per cent aligned, whereas the country is generally split. Thus, according to Levant, journalists are out of touch and, because they have a personal opinion, are not able to report objectively. Oh, and he also called all of us rich white kids.

Reducing issues like the War in Iraq to a “yes” or “no” question is dangerous in its oversimplification but does help prove group-think.

Needless to say, this did not go over well in the room, but his point was a valuable one that requires some self-reflection. We are, as a group, more progressive than the Canadian public. Almost everyone in the room was white and most likely, many were well off.

Having an opinion doesn’t disqualify you from objective reporting, but shaking our perception of ourselves was useful. It was also super  fun to watch everybody squirm as their political views and parent’s income were brought to attention.

The Q&A following his keynote was highly contentious and at several points argumentative. He handled each attack well and agree with him or not, he came out on top every time. He is a professional antagonist; this is the world that he thrives in.

Those that disdain him the most cannot seem to grasp that giving him attention only increases his ability to have a career, make money and have a platform for his opinions.

That’s all he is — a guy with opinions. The fact that he can get people worked up while also getting rich is a testament to how well his approach is working and how his critics only help his cause.

Levant was by far the most engaging and entertaining keynote of the conference. Some suggested he might not come due to the outcry against his keynote invite — that’s funny.

If you can wade through the persona, the theatrics and the provocation, there was more to take away from his keynote than any of the others. We need to constantly self-reflect to avoid a dangerous state of complacency. We are not as diverse as we think and we must consider how to remedy that problem.

Ultimately, Levant proved that you can be successful if you are opinionated, passionate and thick-skinned no matter what your worldview. So, opinion columnists and political pundits rest assured; we have a future. Even if we don’t agree with Levant, we should agree with his ability to have a platform and share his ideas to whoever wants to listen.

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