Monday, October 17, 2011

A hate law v. freedom of speech, in Canada

By Lysiane Gagnon, Globe and Mail, October 17, 2011
Each country has its share of bigots and racists. If they’re silenced and excluded from the public sphere, they’ll go underground and perhaps do more harm than if they were openly contested. Why did our courts have to persecute Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel? Targeting this man didn’t erase anti-Semitism – it only provided exposure to his previously obscure pamphlets.

The reason why bigots and racists should be free to express their opinions, as unpleasant as they are, is that when the state starts repressing “bad” ideas, it ends up repressing other ideas, too, especially those that go against society’s predominant views. Remember Galileo, who was tried by the Roman Inquisition for saying the Earth revolved around the sun? Today’s Galileos should be encouraged to defy public opinion and express unpopular ideas.
A liberal, open-minded law against hate speech? That’s an oxymoron. There’s no possible reconciliation between freedom of speech and hate-speech laws, however they’re written or reformulated. A civilized, progressive society should opt for freedom of speech, period.
If we wish to see what a society looks like when freedom of speech is unbridled, we have only to look south of the border. With Obama characterized as another Hitler, by people like Rush Limbaugh every day on national radio (while earning some $40 million a year) and little, if anything, stopping him, since there are people paying for that kind of "reporting". In the U.S., the tabloid press has made an industry out of hatred, bigotry and character assassination. It is now considered a normal part of the political dialogue. Does that kind of use of words as bullets constitute "freedom of speech"? Or is that kind of hate-mongering really another excuse to justify the Second Amendment right to bear arms?
Almost all of the people who consider themselves "scribes" oppose any form of hate legislation. Most of the ones whose recent pieces I have read condemn homophobia, the primary cause of the individual who has brought the case to the Supreme Court, as do I.
However, I have never been convinced that the Jews or any other group whose honour and dignity and reputation are do damaged by the words, acts and hatred of another (group) should not have recourse to the law to seek justice. A hate law, while somewhat offensive, might, just might restrain our relentless slide into the mire of linguistic "war" in which the reputation and the honour and the dignity of an individual/group/religion through the "acceptable" use of words that wound even kill is, in fact destroyed.
Once uttered, bigotry and hate words are impossible to retract. Once uttered, they reinforce the option of others to follow. Once uttered, they open the public discourse to words and meanings that result in a holocaust. It is impossible to say that a hate law would have prevented the holocaust. However, one of the lessons of that profound tragedy is that if we can restrain the human impulse to destroy another through the use of contemptible language ever so slightly, even if the motive  and definition are both difficult and vague and subjective to ascertain,
then, far from creating a "nanny state" where victim seems to be the goal, we might preserve a modicum of self-respect and dignity and honour, and that just might prove worth our complicated consideration.
As an unapologetic liberal, the idea that "there must be a line drawn" with respect to certain forms of discourse is more important than the difficulties that arise in administering such a law. Better to have one than to remove all restrictions so that at least there is a place and a reason to have a hearing, where the language is the most important instrument in the dialogue, the Supreme Court.

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