One of my favourite quotes (which is actually a paraphrase, not a quote) is so commonly referenced that it has become almost cliché:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
This is, of course, famously attributed to Marie François Arouet, better known as the French philosopher Voltaire. It is probably the single greatest encapsulation of one of the most liberal of enlightened philosophies, that of Free Speech. Free speech is the hallmark of liberal, enlightened and modern societies; so much so that we often take it for granted. Of course, if you live in China, that’s quite another story.
Google China has had issues with the oppressive (use of this word is entirely opinion, since it’s an extremely relative term) censorship laws the government has forced on all internet use in the country. As a result, they recently moved out of China and is redirecting their google.cn traffic to google.hk, which for reasons I don’t quite understand is not subject to the same censorship. The Chinese government has reacted by accusing Google of pushing an ideological stance rather than respecting China’s repressive, backward and wholly counter-productive “Great Firewall” mentality. Understandably, the rest of the world has reacted by saying “Good on ya, Google.”
Free speech isn’t just a nice idea. Free speech allows the flow of information and the creation of new ideas. It accelerates discovery and ensures that tyranny cannot survive. This is the reason why the first thing a totalitarian regime does is crack down on critical press, and the reason why the writers of the US Constitution (a fantastic document despite one’s feelings about the USA) and the Canadian Charter made sure to enshrine free speech and free press as paramount. Free speech is more than simply a boon to the average citizen – it ensures the progression and long-term health of a society.
So here’s my issue: Ann Coulter. The absurd blonde dancing monkey (the media is calling her a ‘pundit’ – I will feign no such respect) was scheduled to appear at a conservative student’s association event at the University of Ottawa this past week. To digress for a moment – conservatives, why on EARTH would you associate yourself with Ann Coulter? That would be like liberals taking their cues from L. Ron Hubbard! Find someone less insane and eye-rollingly clueless to represent your cause. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Ann was supposed to speak to the UofO, and the president of the university sent her a letter reminding her that free speech laws in Canada specifically make exception for hate speech, and she should be careful in light of her previous statements that she can be prosecuted if she says something that advocates hate against a specific group.
Being the logical, moderate and insightful person that she is, Ann of course had a reasonable response: she said that she was the victim of a hate crime. I am almost tempted to say I wish a hate crime one day actually PERFORMED on everyone who cries “hate crime” inappropriately. Scratch that, I’m taking out the equivocation. You can quote me on this. I fervently hope that anyone who calls a mild rebuke, a conscientious disagreement, or a helpful letter of warning a “hate crime” is beaten senseless by a mob of skinheads or religious extremists. There, that takes care of any political ambitions I might have. A hate crime is a real thing, and misusing the word ‘hate’ makes a mockery of anyone who has legitimately suffered for a cause or as an accident of birth.
Some protesters showed up to Ann’s speech, she panicked, and chickened out, canceling the event. In true Chicken Little fashion, she cites the violence by the 2000 protesters who were there. Police estimates put it around 1000, most of whom were people trying to attend the event. She called UofO a “bush league” school (which may be warranted, but still… ouch!), completely unaware of the triple entendre (since she was very much part of Bush’s league, and due to the high quality/relative proportion of the female student body). She then ran lovingly into the arms of Calgary, bastion of ignorance and bigotry for Canada.
This story is not really a propos of anything, except that it highlights a glaring hypocrisy in Canada’s free speech laws. What it boils down to for me is that speech is either free or it isn’t. In my mind, there is no special status for hate speech – it deserves no special attention or regulation. Well-intentioned but philosophically bankrupt lefties are betraying the very idea of Free Speech by saying “your speech is as free as we decide it is.” I say this will full awareness of the fact that there are people out there who speak free hate against me and my parents’ marriage (for those who don’t know, my father is black and my mother is white). I have read their hate speech, I have read speech against LGBT people, Natives, immigrants (of which my father is one), Jews, Roma, any group under the sun. Not once have I ever said “they shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” There is a very good reason for this.
Speech is the way we express ideas. Ideas, once spoken, are subject to debate. Good ideas (women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights) prosper, while bad ideas (slavery, bigotry, anti-Semitism) fall by the wayside. It’s no accident that societies with free speech have better human rights and overall healthier societies – it’s directly causally linked. The bad ideas I listed before were all legally enshrined in the same countries that have free speech; however, over time the free flow of new ideas pushed the bad ones to the fringes. This is only possible when people are allowed to say what they think and be taken to task for their ideas. Prohibiting certain types of speech is not the answer to a progressive society; it actively retards progression. This is not to say that someone inciting violence shouldn’t be prosecuted for it, but prosecution should come on the grounds that it is violent, not because it’s “hateful”.
The side benefit to allowing bigots to speak their mind (aside from the fact that their writing is usually of such a poor quality that it is easy to identify and dismiss them readily) is that the bigots often represent a real dilemma bubbling below the surface. We’ve seen recently what happens when such resentment is allowed to go unchecked.
There are a few moments in history where conservatives are right and liberals are wrong. This, sadly, is one of them.