Friday, February 10, 2006

Of free speech, hate and hypocrisy

In this corner, "free speech" as an alibi for causing offence and discord in our own communities and around the world. In the other, those who argue that respect and decency should, at least sometimes, prevail; that "freedom of speech" is not an absolute, that freedom does not mean license.

I am, no surprise, in the latter corner.

The denizens of the right half of the blogosphere claim to believe that people should have the right to be grossly insulting and offensive. But in Canada there are many exceptions. Libel, slander, defamation, hate propaganda and blasphemy (of the anti-Christian sort) are all illegal. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre is an offence against public order. Beware the invocation of absolutes: they are inevitably trotted out when other arguments fail, to blur an issue, to defend the indefensible.

I invite the Right to attempt to make the distinction between the vile Danish cartoons and the antisemitic caricatures that once infested the popular press at home and in Europe. They will not be successful, of course, because no such distinction exists. The Muslims are simply today's Jews--baiting them is plain fun, and objections can always be countered by invoking the right to "freedom of speech."

But how deep is the Right’s commitment to that freedom?

American fundamentalists have shut down television programs and plays and harassed advertisers. Not a peep out of the Right. Izzy Asper, when Executive Chairman of Can-West, threatened and fired reporters and the publisher of the Montreal Gazette for allegedly being too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; copy was re-written to suit the Asper ideology. Not a squeak from the Right.

One therefore has to ask: whose freedom of speech does the Right think is worth defending? Obviously not that of reporters, writers and producers of television programs. In fact, the record shows that the Right promotes freedom of speech only for the privileged, against victims unable to fight back on equal ground. Newspaper editors and racist bloggers who are by turns terrified and disgusted by Muslims, who invoke fears of "a Muslim Europe," who claim that "A-rabs are violent retards," who move smoothly and seamlessly from religion to ethnicity, must have their scapegoat. But just watch these fearless defenders of freedom of speech pounce when their own beliefs and values are affronted. Even the use of accepted means of protest does not appear to apply to Muslims.

In fact, the hypocrisy of the Right on the cartoon issue is simply breathtaking. They have never, ever, believed in an unqualified freedom of speech. They have supported, either actively or through silent complicity, the shutting down of dissent or opinions that they don’t happen to like. They get strategically red in the face about antisemitism, using that label to smear critics of Israel, but Muslims are fair game for their visceral hatred.

Hatred? You bet. The re-publication of blasphemous cartoons in the blogosphere may indeed be a violation of the Criminal Code of Canada:

319. (1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Will the RCMP investigate? Not likely, unless enough noise is made. Like the Jews in the first half of the 20th century, Muslims are expected to suck it up in silence: "As for peace-loving Muslims who are offended, well, too bad. Being offended is the price of freedom ."

Behold the triumph of "freedom of speech," in all its tainted glory.

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