Arming the rebels

The recent war/conflict/military police action in Libya has kind of overshadowed the fact that something really important is still happening in the middle east. Shit has seriously got out of control in Syria and Bahrain, and that’s disturbing enough. What is far more disturbing to me is what’s being discussed in Libya. Yes, the rebels are still fighting and NATO forces are becoming progressively more entrenched in what has become a full-blown civil war.

Many commentators in the United States (who you would think should know better than I do) are talking about providing weapons and training to the rebels. While they sorely need it, the USA doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to arming groups of insurgents. For reasons that surpass understanding are completely understandable, those rebel groups tend to use those weapons and that training to kill people that the US wishes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’re Americans.

But there may be other ways that the United States can arm the rebel groups – ways that are far less likely to get someone killed.

US Government invests in activist technology

The United States government is spending millions of dollars developing technology to help pro-democracy activists in the Middle East and China. Washington has begun to open-up about the projects which include a “panic button” that lets protesters wipe their mobile phones if they are arrested. State department official Michael Posner said that the US was investing money “like venture capitalists”. He also revealed that it was providing campaigners with technology training.

It’s hard to understand to those of us that wake up to technologies our grandparents couldn’t have possibly imagined, but there is a significant portion of the world that doesn’t have the kinds of access that we take for granted. That being said, cell phone technology has become pretty much ubiquitous, and with it has come new opportunities. As I’ve outlined as one of the central theses of this blog, the antidote to tyranny is free speech. By providing the ability for anti-government groups to communicate undetected, the United States hopes to keep any future governments from becoming tyrannical.

Who is this good for? As far as I can tell, only the people who live in the countries using the technology. There is no guarantee that this will work in the US’s favour, except insofar as democratic governments tend to be more motivated by trade and the opinions of the international community – both things that the United States can exert quite a bit of influence over. However, it is entirely possible that the technology will be used to overthrow pro-American tyrannical governments (like the one that just left got booted out of Egypt on its own terms after a huge popular revolt).

Sesame Street goes Pashtun

The United States is funding a Pakistani remake of the popular TV children’s show Sesame Street. In a new effort to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, USAID – the development arm of the US government – is donating $20m (£12m) to the country to create a local Urdu version of the show. The project aims to boost education in Pakistan, where many children have no access to regular schooling.

Just as free speech is a poison pill to tyranny, education is a poison pill to religion. The more educated the populace, the more likely they are to question the religious authority that controls them. Encouraging reading means encouraging critical thinking skills, which in turn encourages criticism. The irony is not lost on me that we have the religious establishment in Europe to thank for public education today. Once again, arming the rebels works for the rebels themselves (which would be us), but not so well for those that provide the arms. In the case of providing education to Pakistanis, the United States does indeed stand to benefit. The status quo there… isn’t exactly working out well for them these days.

There can be a benefit to arming those who are enemies of your enemies. However, despite what the cliche would have us believe, the enemy of my enemy may not remain my friend for long. It’s imperative that we take the long view when we provide powerful tools to those who share a common opponent, lest we someday find those same tools arrayed against us. By providing help in the form of non-lethal technology, we can ensure that at least we don’t have those tools fired at our heads. By providing help in the form of education, we can ensure that we find ourselves in a world filled with people who we can at least have a conversation with.

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The barbarians are still at the gates

Twenty-four years ago, a marginally-talented artist decided to make a statement about the way in which religious figures have been misrepresented by their religious organizations. A fine statement, all things considered. This artist decided to express this opinion by encasing a crucifix in a jar of his own urine and called it, somewhat uncreatively, Piss Christ. However lofty the sentiment may have been, the execution is somewhat juvenile and rudimentary. It’s the sort of “shock factor” statement that a high school student would make – like crudely drawing the Madonna fellating the Buddha or something like that. Considering the wide variety of ways in which religious iconography is shown disrespect, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is rather tame.

Fourteen years later, Piss Christ is still generating controversy and outrage from idiots. This time, though, the idiots have hammers:

When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ, he said he was making a statement on the misuse of religion. Controversy has followed the work ever since, but reached an unprecedented peak on Palm Sunday when it was attacked with hammers and destroyed after an “anti-blasphemy” campaign by French Catholic fundamentalists in the southern city of Avignon. The violent slashing of the picture, and another Serrano photograph of a meditating nun, has plunged secular France into soul-searching about Christian fundamentalism and Nicolas Sarkozy’s use of religious populism in his bid for re-election next year.

It is so common as to be cliche at this point: someone uses an art medium to criticize a religious subject, and the followers of the “Religion of Peace” du jour decide that their hurt feelings are justification for that work’s destruction. As though the argument hasn’t been forward literally thousands of times that the way to fight art you don’t like is to ignore it, and to encourage others to do the same. Suppression of ideas is a giant waste of time, and so counterproductive as to be almost comical.

Perhaps more frightening is the fact that this complete abdication of reason is being actively stoked by a political entity to gain support. In a country like France, where secularism was literally purchased with blood, it’s chilling to see someone fanning the flames of the conflict between religious people and secular society, especially for something so craven as re-election. It is one thing to discuss and point out differences of position, it is another entirely to turn it into a “they are coming to burn your bibles” situation, as Sarkozy appears to be willing (if not eager) to do.

I am not interested in defending the Piss Christ. I don’t think it takes much talent or imagination to submerge an object in urine. I don’t really see the connection between exhibiting a urine-soaked crucifix and the ostensible message criticizing the misuse of religion. I think there are far more clear and creative ways to get that point across. To my eye, this is the equivalent of a radio shock jock using racial slurs to gin up controversy. However, with their trademark inability to appreciate irony, the religious mob has decided to prove the exact point that the installation is criticizing.

Of course, this is the smashing of a plexiglass container of urine. Anyone wishing to replicate this priceless work of art can send me 50 bucks, a Powerade, a mason jar and a crucifix – I’ll happily provide the rest. While the original work has been destroyed, the statement is alive and the artwork itself is simple enough to reproduce if need be. Smashing it is a shitty thing to do, but it’s not as though the world has lost Michaelangelo’s David or Picasso’s Guernica – if we were really concerned about this priceless treasure, we could make another one, and unless you knew the story of the original you wouldn’t know the difference.

No what is truly frightening is the prospect that there are people who won’t stop at simple destruction of property to express their outrage at whatever imagined light was perpetrated against their Collective Delusion. There are people who are so god-bothered that they feel they have the divinely-granted authority to kill human beings for saying things they disagree with. This is the system that people say humanity can’t possibly do without.

The fact is that rationality has surpassed our need for imagined explanations and intuitions  to govern our society. We can govern ourselves based on secular reason – furthermore, those regions that do this more are doing much better than their less-reasoned brethren. Those who would react to an idea by trying to destroy it, and those that think it, must not be the ones to rule us. They should be thought of, in our walled palace of reasoned thought, as barbarians banging at the gates.

The barbarians are at the gates, and they’re armed with bibles.

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Special feature: The Hate Speech Debate

Many of you know that I am a volunteer with the Vancouver branch of the Centre for Inquiry. One of the regular events that CFI Vancouver hosts is called Cafe Inquiry, which is a moderated group discussion on a variety of topics. This past weekend, I was honoured to be asked to moderate a discussion on a topic of my choosing. Given that I’ve previously given a presentation on the subject of racism and skepticism, I thought I would try and tackle one of the other tent-poles of this blog: free speech.

The issue I chose to present for discussion was Canada’s hate speech laws, and whether or not they are a good thing. This is a topic for which there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and I thought it was particularly well-suited to a group discussion rather than a didactic presentation. I brought this question to the group, as well as a number of other questions that were of particular interest to secularists and atheists.

My purpose at this event was to moderate a discussion rather than to present my own personal opinion. While I do have a position on this issue, it was not my place to defend that position to the group, although I was prepared to be the only one in the room to advocate it. Luckily, there were an abundance of opinions on both sides of the issue, allowing me to fulfill my role as facilitator rather than partisan. I gave a brief presentation outlining the parameters of the debate, and then tried to step back and let the discussion take its course.

I’ve posted the video of the discussion, which took place over 2 hours. The battery on our camera died before the end, but I will summarize the group consensus. You can see the slides here. (Please note: Having problems with Youtube, and have to re-up all my videos. Process is taking longer than I would have liked – hopefully it will be resolved by the end of the day, but my apologies for the fact that this isn’t ready on time).

Overall, I was very happy with how the discussion turned out. I was disappointed that the group didn’t spend more time talking about the effect that hateful speech can have in terms of discrimination, but other than that I think we hit all of the high points. We took an informal poll at the beginning, asking people whether they supported laws against hate speech. As I suspected, the number explicitly supporting them dropped from 6 to 4 (out of about 20 people) – many people maintained that they were “fence sitters”, which is really the only logical position to have in a discussion that has such depth and difference of opinion. The argument that seemed to hold the most sway was the open question of whether or not hate speech laws actually reduce hate speech, or if they are redundant with the social pressures that do a pretty good job of accomplishing that already.

While I am a proponent of unrestricted free speech, even hateful speech, I am cognizant of the fact that there are a number of reasons why it is desirable to reduce the amount of hate speech in society. Primarily, we have to be concerned with the safety of others, and hateful speech can and does lead to hateful actions against people. Secondarily, hate speech leads to systemic discrimination, which violates the idea of the rule of law. Finally, hate speech is morally wrong, and those who violate moral precepts should be punished.

My problem with outlawing unpopular speech is that it often doesn’t work – by setting up “dog whistle” phrases for certain prejudiced attitudes that don’t qualify as “hate speech” but communicate the same ideas, we drive attitudes underground where they can fester. Putting bigotry out in the open allows us to deal with it, and gives us opportunities to learn from it. Secondarily, I am concerned by the arbitrary way in which we select which groups are protected by these laws. I can see the same arguments about “hateful speech” used to censor legitimate criticism of religion, or criticism of any majority group just as easily as a minority group. The ‘victim card’ that majority groups like to play to cast themselves as on the receiving end, rather than behind the wheel, of discrimination will surely see them deputize hate speech laws in this way. I am not comfortable with legitimate criticism being cast as hate in any circumstance, and I am concerned that these laws will be used to accomplish this.

Anyway, all that being said, I think it was a great event and I really enjoyed being part of the conversation. Enjoy the video.

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Join me in person tomorrow at SFU!

Hey all,

I realize this is last minute (stupid me for not giving you a heads up) but I will be leading a discussion on hate speech laws in Canada tomorrow morning (Saturday, April 16th) at 11:00 at the SFU Harborfront Centre. Here’s the event blurb:

Hate speech laws remain a controversial issue in Canada. When contrasted with the very libertarian First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Canada’s free speech laws are curtailed in such a way that permits the prosecution of hate speech beyond specific incitement of violence. Advocates of unrestricted free speech point out that such restrictions are arbitrary and prone to subjectivity. Proponents of hate speech laws point to events like the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda as examples of times when hate speech directly led to horrific violence.

Do hate speech laws protect minorities, or simply drive controversial ideas into the underground? As a minority group, are atheists/agnostics/humanists more likely to benefit from legal protection, or be prosecuted for speaking out against religion? Do skeptics have a particular responsibility to advocate or oppose restrictions on speech? Is there a role that science can play in this discussion? Is there a difference between anti-blasphemy laws and anti-hate laws?

Many of you are already attending, but maybe there are some lurkers or non-CFI members who’d like to come out of the woodwork and participate in the discussion in person. I am going to try and get video to post online, but since most of the talking will be done by those attending the event (rather than yours truly), it may not be worthwhile.

Anyway, hope to see some of you tomorrow!

Well India is apparently stupid too

In case you were wondering, it turns out that India is also stupid:

A controversial book on Mahatma Gandhi has been banned by the government in his native state of Gujarat. Chief Minister Narendra Modi said that its contents were “perverse and defamed the icon of non-violence”. The book by Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph Lelyveld contains evidence that India’s independence hero had a homosexual relationship.

I’m not a fan of religion. I am irritated by conservatism. I detest racism, sexism and homophobia. I hate book bans. They have got to be the least useful, most reactionary response to an idea in existence. The entire span of human history is testament to the fact that book bans are a horrible idea. Especially for such petty and transparently ridiculous reasons.

Those of you who know me well know that I am a huge fan of a show called Clone High. It was a one-season Canadian show that caricatured teen shows, through the lens of a high school populated by clones of famous historical characters. The humour of the show came from its completely irreverent humour and fast-paced weirdness:

One of the main characters was a clone of Mohindas Gandhi, re-imagining him as an extremely hyperactive, self-aggrandizing misfit whose entire driving force was to be accepted despite his zany behaviour. Anyone with even faint knowledge of the life of Gandhi knows that this characterization is completely opposite from the actual living person, wherein lies the funny. However, when the show left Canadian television and was rebroadcast around the world, Indians were up in arms over the desecration of their national hero.

And now someone said he was GAY! OMG U GUYZ!

Here’s the thing: as much as India likes to behave as though it is a secular country, many parts of India cling strongly to “traditional values”, meaning hatred of gays and other strog out-group hostility. While we think of India as a single country, it is perhaps better understood as analogous to ancient Greece – a collection of nation-states that are affiliated but by no means homogeneous. Understanding this fact perhaps gives some insight as to why suggesting that Gandhi was anything less than a macho macho man is likely to raise some eyebrows. The fact that they’re talking about Gandhi, someone whose hero worship goes beyond the man himself and takes on a religious fervor just compounds this.

So fine, I can understand people being upset. I can understand people being so upset that they don’t buy the book, or they protest the book, or they produce scathing critiques that show the poor workmanship and revisionist history that went into writing the book. Instead, they chose to try and ban it.

Now I’ve said that banning is a stupid idea, but I haven’t bothered explaining why. Quick show of hands: who would have heard about this if the government hadn’t banned it? Okay, you can put your hands down now – I can’t actually see you. The point is that elevating this book to the level of controversy that it begins to make international headlines only serves to accomplish the exact opposite of what you’re hoping to do with the ban. If the goal of banning the book is to keep people from hearing about the idea, it is an epic level of fail – one of hundreds of biographies of Gandhi has now jumped to the top of several reading lists.

The worst part of this story, incidentally, is the fact that the author actually didn’t say any such thing:

The author of a book on Mahatma Gandhi has said it is “shameful” that it has been banned in India’s western state of Gujarat. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Lelyveld said the book was banned on the basis of newspaper reviews. He said the reviews had sensationalised his account of Gandhi’s friendship with a German man, who may have been homosexual.

And it seems like the family doesn’t care, even if he did:

Indian writers and relatives of Mahatma Gandhi have protested against the ban. Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi said he was against banning of books, and that it did not matter “if the Mahatma was straight, gay or bisexual”. “Every time he would still be the man who led India to freedom”.

Writer Namita Gokhale said she was saddened by the ban. “Every time a book is banned, it saddens me because you simply cannot ban ideas, you cannot ban thoughts.” she said. “In India a democratic space for ideas is a gift and I think banning a book is the most pointless exercise.”

Book bans not only violate the principle of freedom of expression, they also don’t fucking work. It is basically just setting up a giant flag that says “warning: moron approaching”.

And it seems that Canadians are just as stupid:

A Saskatchewan First Nation has banned performances of an acting troupe’s adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy because one of the characters in the play is a corrupt chief. She said she believes her adaptation of the 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy Antigone offended the leadership of the Poundmaker First Nation.

Psst… Chief Antoine… want to know how to make people suspect that you are corrupt? Take global criticisms of corrupt chiefs personally! I’ve performed an adaptation of Antigone (many many years ago), and done some literary analysis of it. It’s a great story that well encapsulates many of the issues of governance and how personal conflict enters into discussions of principle. It’s a literary classic that has lots of parallels to band governance, regardless of whether or not a given chief is corrupt. However, standing up and banning it is a glaring sign that the criticism hits too close to home, and elevates that criticism to the national level.

Book bans – they do the exact opposite of what you want. Learn it, remember it.

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My cup of dissonance overfloweth

As a thoughtful person with strong convictions, it is inevitable that I find myself conflicted over some issues. For example, I’m not 100% confident in my stance on free speech, I sometimes have trouble  drawing the line in racial issues, and I continue to struggle with my feelings about Anonymous.

This story doesn’t help:

A U.S. military base is the latest target of the online activist group known as Anonymous, which has taken up the cause of Bradley Manning, the U.S. army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. The group’s objective is to “harass” the staff and disable the computer systems at the Quantico, Va., marine base where Manning is being held, Anonymous spokesperson Barrett Brown said in an interview with MSNBC. The group plans to reveal personal information about base officials and disable the base’s communication networks in protest against how Manning is being treated at the base, Brown said.

Here’s my issue. On the one hand, I abhor what the United States military and government are doing in response to what is being called “Cablegate”*. Bradley Manning broke the law, and I do not dispute that (although it hasn’t been demonstrated in the court of law yet, let’s just stipulate that he didn’t confess to a crime he didn’t commit). As a result of breaking the law, it is entirely right to try him and punish him. Furthermore, hacking the U.S. military is no joke, particularly when they have active agents in the field. If such actions were undertaken by a foreign government, it would surely be interpreted as an incitement to war.

However, Manning has not been formally tried, but has been kept in solitary confinement. He is not a danger to anyone; he’s only threatening to the careers of politicians. The level of punishment far outweighs the crime. Considering that soldiers that are accused of war crimes have more freedom and privileges than Private Manning, his arbitrarily-harsh sentence reflects what the clear priorities of the military are – protecting their own asses. Considering also that the United States has set itself up as the ‘shining example of freedom’ for the rest of the world, their blatant hypocrisy in dealing with their military’s shortcomings and human rights violations is also a matter of national security. Also in light of the fact that freedom of speech is being suppressed by autocratic governments worldwide (and being met with overwhelming protest), it is entirely in the spirit of the Jasmine Revolution for a group to lodge protest against the suppression of free speech here in America.

So is Anonymous a cyber-terror organization, or a staunch advocate of free speech and a punisher of the iniquitous? At the present moment, I’m inclined to lean toward the latter definition. Their targets have been, up to now, unfailingly deserving of the negative attention. And it seems that their particular brand of internet policing is coming none to soon:

Last year on May 21, the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) reported reaching initial operational capability, and news stories abound of US soldiers undergoing basic cyber training, which all point to the idea that traditional super powers are starting to explore this arena. Recent activities with one government contractor and Anonymous, however, show clearly that cyber operations have been going on for a long while, and that the private sector has been only too ready to fill the cyber mercenary role for piles of cash.

While I am wary of a disorganized mob of vigilantes hacking various websites, I am far more threatened by the collusion of government and private interests conspiring behind closed doors to spy on computer systems. Anonymous’ activities are done in the open, with a reasoned and defensible justification posted for all to read. The government and military have shown their duplicity for decades when it comes to covert operations. The strength of democratic government is predicated on its openness – the people must know exactly what they are voting for so they can know when a regime must be voted out.

Nobody voted for Anonymous, and it seems as though they/it are/is self-policed and limited only by its own ambition and the complicity of its individual members. There is no auditing Anonymous, no way to check its power, no way to punish it for abuse. In that sense I prefer government. I can show up at my MPs office and voice my displeasure. If I try to do that to Anonymous, I am likely to have my e-mail accounts flooded with child porn. There is no mechanism by which one can defend her/himself from a headless organization – no courts can protect you, no lawsuits can be filed, no restraining order can be put out. As we know, humans given great power and no mechanism for controlling it almost inevitably abuse it.

And so my mind is still not made up. I applaud Anonymous for making the U.S. military deal with the consequences of their treachery and their betrayal of human rights, but I fear what may happen if Anonymous decides that fighting the good fight no longer provides the necessary amount of lulz.

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*The -gate suffix is really stupid. The Watergate scandal, upon which all other ‘-gates’ are based, was based on a hotel called “The Watergate”. It was not a scandal that was related to water, and adding the suffix is therefore completely nonsensical

U.S. shows its hypocrisy over free speech

Sadly, with this whole free speech thing, sometimes this is what it looks like when your side wins:

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a grieving father’s pain over mocking protests at his Marine son’s funeral must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech. All but one justice sided with a fundamentalist church that has stirred outrage with raucous demonstrations contending God is punishing the military for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. The 8-1 decision in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., was the latest in a line of court rulings that, as Chief Justice John Roberts said in his opinion for the court, protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Yeah… fuck. Possibly the worst scum of the earth, Fred Phelps, has been granted a landslide license from the Supreme Court of the United States to picket military and private funerals, spreading his ludicrous doctrine. In the name of free speech, he’s allowed to cause widespread suffering to grieving families who have done nothing to deserve such hateful condemnation from a group of people they’ve never met.

I’ve never been less happy to win.

Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps and director of Centre For Inquiry’s Calgary branch is, understandably, opposed to this ruling:

It has been my contention all along that protesting at a funeral is unconscionable. For the Court to give greater consideration to Free Speech, at the expense of a citizen’s right to bury a loved one in peace, is a dangerous travesty of justice… If ever there was a just reason to limit the time and place that a person can exercise their First Amendment right to free speech, this would be it.

I admire Nate a great deal, and his journey away from his family cannot have been an easy one. Forever being known as the son of that crazy hate preacher must be incredibly tiresome. It is therefore with some trepidation that I must disagree with him in principle. First of all, there is no law in the national constitution or any state constitution that grants an explicit right to bury a loved one in peace. To be sure, privacy isn’t a guaranteed or delineated right in the US Constitution either, so there is an argument that can be made over explicit and implicit rights. However, an implicit right cannot trump an explicit one, and the right of free speech is an explicit one. While it is certainly not a good thing to picket funerals, the rule of law dictates that we must prioritize rights that are codified over those that we wish were codified.

Secondly, there are far better reasons to curtail the right of free expression. From the government’s perspective, vibrant and wholesale protestation of the actions of government officials is dangerous. It could in fact be dangerous to the safety of citizens to have certain ideas made public or encouraged openly. Curtailing that kind of free speech would be far more justified than telling a tiny group of zealots that they’re not allowed to wave ugly signs at a funeral. However, the government is specifically enjoined from banning such demonstrations of lawful speech, and so by the literal interpretation of the law, the WBC slides in.

That being said, since the United States government is more than happy to curtail even legitimate free speech, it seems incredibly hypocritical of them to give the WBC a pass. Apparently it doesn’t violate the constitution to lock political protesters into fenced-off areas, but when those protesters are only harassing innocent civilians, it’s an 8-1 matter for the SCOTUS? Not to mention that since the content of the protests are personal in nature, a legitimate argument could be made that these protests are tantamount to criminal harassment, which is against the law. Not to mention the fact that even if they are not harassment, they are certainly disturbing the peace (another crime). It seems as though these protests can be moved on other legal grounds.

But of course, it is definitely too much to expect consistency from the United States. Free speech is a fundamental right! Well, unless it’s speech we don’t like:

The US army has filed 22 new charges against the soldier accused of leaking thousands of classified documents published by the whistleblower website, WikiLeaks. Bradley Manning is facing life in prison if found guilty to the charges which include aiding the enemy. Manning, 23, had previously faced a host of charges including downloading and transmitting to an unauthorised person a classified video of a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters employees.

I am well aware that Private Manning has broken military law and is subject to prosecution as a result. However, his ongoing imprisonment and his treatment as a hostile combatant is both cruel and unusual (there’s that pesky constitution again!). Considering that “the enemy” hasn’t been defined, and that Private Manning didn’t release the information to any specific foreign government or terrorist group, the charge of “aiding the enemy” is as ridiculous as it is transparently a ploy to torture someone who caught the US government with its pants down.

While politics, particularly (it seems) in the United States, is a breeding ground for hypocrisy, this kind of double-speak is particularly egregious. Free speech is important to uphold for hate groups who persecute grieving families, but speak against the government and your rights under the constitution are shredded. Land of the free and home of the brave indeed…

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Flirting with free speech

There’s an interesting wrinkle in the debate over free speech, which has to do with the issue of truth. If I say that Stephen Harper is the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had, that falls under the category of political criticism and opinion, which is protected speech. However, if I say that Stephen Harper raped a 12 year-old girl in 1997, that falls under the auspices of defamation and is punishable under law (where I would have to produce some evidence or face a legal repercussion). Both of these things are reasonable statutes – while we should be allowed to criticize our political leaders (and each other), it would certainly be harmful to society as a whole if people were allowed to level damaging accusations at each other without restraint.

There is, however, a large middle ground where the line between these two things blurs. If I say, for example, that Stephen Harper seems to me like a guy who would rape a 12 year-old child, that’s still my opinion, but it’s definitely defamatory. What if someone tells me that they heard that Stephen Harper did something like that, and I repeat their lie based on faulty information? Is that my fault? What if I am a prominent public figure? Does my position as an opinion leader impart on me some responsibility to check into the factuality of claims that I make before I repeat them?

What about if instead of being a singular opinion leader, I am a news organization? Do I have a duty, both to the public and to the rule of law, to ensure that the things that I report are based in fact? The CRTC seems to think so:

The CRTC has withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have given TV and radio stations more leeway to broadcast false or misleading news. Indeed, the broadcast regulator now says it never wanted the regulatory change in the first place and was only responding to orders from a parliamentary committee. The committee last week quietly withdrew its request for regulatory amendments in the face of a public backlash.

The CRTC has been in the news quite a bit recently for its approach to telecommunications, the Fox News North issue, and now once again for its withdrawal of its own proposal over false news.

There are two issues to consider with this move. First, it is notoriously difficult to establish a standard for “truth” outside the realm of science. If we look at what is happening in Libya right now, it is both a populist uprising against a brutal dictator, and a band of anti-government rebels using unlawful force against the legitimate ruler of the country. Both of those completely contradictory claims are completely true, depending on the editorial position one takes. How could one determine which of these claims, if made from a media outlet, would be considered “false or misleading”? Are the Democrats in Wisconsin bravely refusing to capitulate to an over-reaching and clearly corrupt governor, or are they fleeing the legitimate government and abdicating the legislative role they vowed to uphold? Again, these are both completely true claims, and if station A adheres to the first, while station B trumpets the second, which one is lying? Both? Neither?

The second issue to keep in mind is that, thus far, this has never been an issue in Canada. The CRTC has never had to prosecute or fine a television or radio station for broadcasting false or misleading news. There’s a great diversity of opinion among the various outlets, save for the fact that we don’t have an outlet that specifically caters to the bizarro-nut right wing (we also don’t have one that caters specifically to the bizarro-nut left wing, if that helps). It’s a sort of non-issue that, if the CRTC is to be believed, was raised about 10 years ago (before the days of the Harper government) and was quietly shelved for most of that time. Given that there’s never been a challenge to the ruling, it’s hard to claim that this is an unreasonable restriction of free speech.

These two issues aside, there is still an underlying conflict at the centre of free speech when it comes to truth. Since truth is always a shifting target outside of science, banning false or misleading news is a tricky issue. By any objective standard of truth that we could agree on as a society, religious statements are all false and misleading, as are ghost stories and UFO sightings. Clearly we are not comfortable banning those statements. What do we do when someone does make a blatantly false claim in a news outlet, given that we have no precedent? While we can trumpet “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” until the cows come home, can we turn that into a general rule for the state to follow? Or must we let the liars continue to lie, with our only recourse being to counter their false speech with true speech?

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What does religious oppression look like?

I’ve spoken at length before about how, in this country at least, claims of “religious persecution” is more often than not just a complaint based on loss of privilege. To be sure, occasionally there is actual oppression that happens on religious grounds (I have an example of that going up for Movie Friday), and that is certainly deplorable. However, most of the crying that happens over “religious persecution” in Canada doesn’t even glancingly resemble actual persecution.

So what does religious persecution look like?


Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has been shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad. He was travelling to work through a residential district when his vehicle was sprayed with bullets, police said. Mr Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws.

To be clear, Mr. Bhatti was not killed because he is a Christian. Mr. Bhatti was killed because he has spoken in opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law – the same law that claimed the life of another minister. Mr. Bhatti was not killed because he blasphemed against Islam (which, despite being a stupid thing to have a law about, is still law in Pakistan), but because he had the temerity to point out the fact that the blasphemy law was used to persecute religious minorities and settle political scores.

Tehrik-i-Taliban told BBC Urdu they carried out the attack. “This man was a known blasphemer of the Prophet [Muhammad],” said the group’s deputy spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan. “We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same.”

While I hate the all-too-easy conflation of Islam and terrorism, this is undeniably a case where Muslim religious orthodoxy is being used to fuel terror. This isn’t a group making a political point and using religion as an excuse, which is the default go-to excuse of people who wish to excuse religious fundamentalism; this is a group executing people and promising to execute more until their religious beliefs carry the force of law. This is terrorism, pure and simple.

If this wasn’t enough of a reason to oppose blasphemy laws, Indonesia is reminding us of the principal reason:

Authorities in Indonesia’s West Java have issued a decree which severely limits the activities of a small Islamic sect called the Ahmadiyah. Members will not be able to publicly identify themselves and are being urged to convert to mainstream Islam… Lawyers for the Ahmadiyah say the decree violates a law protecting people’s rights to worship how they choose. But hardline Islamic groups say the order is perfectly legal, claiming that the sect’s beliefs deviate from the tenets of Islam and therefore violate the country’s rules against blasphemy.

Consider for a moment the torturous contradiction of the idea of a country that simultaneously a) promotes freedom of religion, and then b) outlaws a group for deviating from religious tenets on grounds of blasphemy. Religious heterodoxy is an inevitable product of a religiously tolerant society – belief can only be constrained through use of force, and allowing people to believe what they want means that you may not force anyone to believe as you do. By telling the Ahmadiyah (who Christians would probably like since a lot of their diversions from mainstream Islam have to do with Jesus) that their beliefs are illegal, Indonesia is putting to the lie any claim they might have of being religiously tolerant.

Blasphemy laws, like any law banning freedom of speech or expression, will always lead to human rights abuses. When the religious establishment commands state power, blasphemy laws are a thin veil that fails to mask the naked ambitions of the orthodox to punish anyone who thinks differently. As I’ve said before, freedom of religion is good for everyone, not just the non-religious. I am incredibly saddened by the death of Mr. Bhatti, and am depressed by the continued stupidity of the people of Indonesia. I am, conversely, more impressed with Canada’s ability to forebear from actual religious persecution (by and large).

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