For those of you who are noticing an alarming trend in my writing, I will come clean: I really like Canada. So much so, that I can’t seem to shut up about it. I’d apologize, but a) I’m not sorry, and b) I know that this glut of Canadiana is a passing phase, and I’ll have a new pet topic in a few weeks for you to get sick of. Anyway, as I was saying, I really like my country. There is, however, one aspect of Canadian life that I wish was more, dare I say, American – our stupid approach to hate speech:
The country’s highest court heard arguments pitting freedom of expression against laws banning hate speech Wednesday, setting the stage for an eventual ruling on what is more in need of protection: groups targeted with hatred, or a citizen’s right to speak freely. It could take the Supreme Court months to decide on which side they fall in the case of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission versus William Whatcott. The commission is appealing a decision that overturned its original ruling against Whatcott, who published and distributed four anti-gay flyers in towns and cities in Saskatchewan in 2001 and 2002. They led four people to file complaints with the commission.
As someone who feels most at home talking about things that make polite society squirm – religion, racism, poverty, the idea that people can actually be wrong about things – I place a premium on free speech. Penn Jillette likes to talk about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution (the right of every citizen to own bear’s arms), saying that it’s the one that protects all the others. This, quite frankly, is militaristic nonsense. A gun doesn’t protect your right against unreasonable search and seizure – you pull a gun on a cop and that search all of a sudden becomes pretty fucking reasonable, amirite?
Mr. Jillette is pretty close to the mark, though. It is in fact their first Amendment that is the bulwark against infringement against any of the others. When speech, even speech that is critical of the government that is tasked with enforcing the rights of its citizens (and often especially then), is unrestricted any and all ideas can be debated and expressed. Rights can be fought for in the open, and public opinion can be swayed by the force of the arguments in those fights. It’s how all the amendments after the original Bill of Rights came to be.
Canada doesn’t have a free speech right in the same way that the United States does. Yes, our charter explicitly protects the practice of free speech, but it couches that right in the caveat that one’s speech can be restricted if it qualifies as hateful. No definition of hateful is provided – you’re just supposed to know what that means. For the most part, this means that liberals win and bigots lose. Sadly, it’s still the wrong position for a country to hold.
For a few months when I first started this blog, I went on a tear about free speech – my position hasn’t changed since then. I even led a talk with CFI Vancouver on the topic of Canada’s stupid approach to hate speech regulation. Until a consistent standard for hate speech can be identified and applied, I am worried that any speech that offends someone can be argued as ‘hateful’. I am more concerned that any speech that is critical of the political establishment can be branded as ‘hateful’, thus suppressing legitimate opposition.
The thing that I hate most of all about our candy-ass approach to hate speech is that it forces me to argue in defense of assholes like William Whatcott – a man who I wouldn’t even otherwise break stride to spit on. Canada’s Supreme Court is now going to have to wrangle with the intrisic hypocrisy of recognizing a right to speak the content of a free conscience, but to prosecute people if that conscience offends others.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there aren’t demonstrable harms to hateful speech. It is certainly the case that hateful speech has the effect not only of offending and hurting the target of the speech itself, but of alienating entire communities of people whose only crime is existing in a bigoted world. Hate speech should be roundly and vociferously condemned whenever it is uttered, and there should be a serious social penalty paid by those who would call for the mistreatment of any group, marginalized or otherwise.
It is also certainly the case that the content of Mr. Whatcott’s speech is hateful. I have little patience for the politic-speak of “he is simply expressing his religious beliefs.” Christians: if your beliefs tell you that your god hates fags, then your god is an asshole, and so are you for listening to him. Trying to obscure your bigotry behind the language of “well it’s not me, it’s that durn voice in the clouds” is the most transparently ridiculous attempt at scapegoating that I’ve ever seen. You don’t get to pass the buck for your idiocy to your imaginary friend – not if you want me to take you seriously.
That being said, I still don’t feel comfortable with the state regulating that certain ideas are allowed to be said and not others. The premiere of Saskatchewan is free to go up in front of the media and denounce Mr. Whatcott – a move that would certainly earn Whatcott a significant level of public condemnation – using the same rights to free expression that the rest of us have. That being said, speech is not a criminal issue, or shouldn’t be at least.
This is only the first breaking of the ice on this story, since the court hasn’t ruled on it yet. I will be keeping an eye on this, as I’m sure will be every asshole with an axe to grind in the country, but who can’t swing it around in public yet. If I had to guess, I’d predict that the court will uphold the laws banning hate speech. Maybe I’ll be wrong. How perverse is it that I hope I am?
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