Law and Disorder

Occasionally, events conspire to force me to subtly shift the focus of this blog. What started as a forum specifically for issues relating to race, free speech and religion has since expanded to include feminism, LGBT, law, politics, psychology, and secularism. To this litany of overlapping topics I am about to add a new one: crime.

As you may know if you pay attention to those sorts of things, Vancouver recently had a riot that followed a hockey game. Windows were smashed, people were stabbed, cars were lit on fire – it was a real shit show. It is inaccurate to label them as ‘hockey riots’ though, because they had nothing to do with the result of the hockey game. People came to the downtown area from surrounding municipalities with the sole purpose of causing damage – they brought rocks, gasoline, and masks to hide their identities from cameras.

Of course, such an event necessarily included response by law enforcement, who have been taking quite a bit of criticism for failing to react faster, or more thoroughly, or taking whatever steps were necessary to prevent widespread violence:

Vancouver police are defending the number of officers on the street during last week’s riot, saying it was about the same during the gold-medal hockey game in the 2010 Olympics. “It is true that about 5,000 officers were brought in from other jurisdictions for the Olympic Games, but those officers were for deployment by the Integrated Security Unit inside venues from Richmond to Whistler.

The Vancouver Police Department policed the streets of Vancouver, with some assistance from the ISU in the final days,” said a statement issued by police on Thursday. The force is continuing to refuse to release its tally of feet on the street, saying even if it did, it wouldn’t matter anyway because there will always be debate over how many officers would have been enough.

This more or less agrees with my take on the situation. When you have a crowd of 30,000 people involved in a massive orgy of destruction, there’s very little that having more police there can do. This particular paragraph resonated strongly with me:

“The fact still remains that the number of police on the street the night of June 15, correct or not, quelled a violent crowd of 30,000 people in three hours without major injuries or a single complaint of excessive force or unlawful arrest. Our goal once the riot began was to protect lives, end it as quickly as possible.”

This is the role that police are supposed to perform: protect lives and property (in that order of priority), and to respect the constitutional rights of even those that are committing crimes. The response from the VPD was measured and lawful, and as a result they are enjoying a great deal of public support (the criticisms and questions notwithstanding).

Either police chief Jim Chu is particularly forward-thinking and enlightened, or his policy just happens to coincide with those kinds of principles. At any rate, the VPD’s behaviour seems to reflect an understanding of the fact that the most powerful tool that the police wield is the respect and trust of the people  they are sworn to serve and protect. Respect for the law and those that uphold it is not something that can be legislated or purchased at the point of a gun.

When police behave well, they reap the benefit of not having to work as hard. The immediate response of the people of Vancouver following the riots was to submit photographs and videos to the police department, in the hopes that the police would be able to ferret out those that attacked the city. That is what respect and trust buys you. The other side of this is what happens when people don’t trust you:

Newly released G8/G20 summit documents reveal the RCMP and various Ontario police forces spent several months infiltrating anti-war, anti-globalization and anarchist groups with the use of undercover officers ahead of last June’s summits in Huntsville and Toronto.


“A large number of the people charged with conspiracy were arrested prior to anything happening on that Saturday demonstration,” [Laurentian sociology and history professor Gary] Kinsman told CBC News, saying he himself was among the peaceful demonstrators at last year’s Toronto summit. “So the evidence collected from the people who infiltrated the activist groups was basically used to criminalize the organizers, prior to anything actually taking place.”

Using police power to criminalize dissent itself, rather than actual breaking of the law, increases scrutiny and suspicion of police officers. The RCMP and Ontario police’s borderline-illegal (of course, if the police do it, it’s not illegal) behaviour during the G20 summit in Toronto is a prime example of when police overreaching undermines their own credibility. People lose trust in the institution, and begin to demand answers. And, as sure as night follows day, incidents of police corruption are never isolated.

I disagree with anarchist groups, I disagree with anticapitalist groups, I disagree with antiglobalization groups. However, provided they are not breaking laws or conspiring to break laws (which is itself against the law, so maybe that phrase is redundant), I think they have the right to exist. After all, if the measuring stick against which we decide which groups are allowed to exist is whether or not I personally agree with them, then we can just go ahead and disband the Republican North Party right now.

When we allow police officers to infiltrate groups because they don’t like them and arrest people with no evidence of a committed crime, we open the door to criminalizing any political dissent. We have absolutist states in the world where political dissent is illegal – trust me, you don’t want to live in them.

To protect and serve… kinda

I have a difficult relationship with police officers. First of all, I recognize that they are tools of the state, which has its own plusses and minuses. When the goals of the state are bound to the benefit and protection of the people, then a strong police presence is a good thing. We saw this in last week’s riots in Vancouver – police were more interested in protecting people and minimizing harm and loss of life than they were concerned about protecting private property. However, when the will of the state is opposed to the welfare of the people, police have carte blanche to abuse civil rights and become an essentially-unchecked force of oppression. We saw this at the G8/G20 protests in Toronto – the legitimate right of people to voice opposition was met with boots and truncheons.

The second part of my cop conundrum comes from the fact that police officers are still human beings, which also has its negative and positive aspects. Individual police officers are capable of great compassion, discretion and empathy. I remember during the Olympics seeing smiling police officers talking to enthusiastic tourists and locals, joking and posing for pictures. I’ve had several positive interactions with police officers where they have revealed themselves to be human behind the badge. Then again, being human means that they have all the failings of individuals (pettiness, panicked responses to threats, abuse of power), and demonstrate the mean stupidity of groups. A reader sent me a story that I think illustrates how fraught these conundrums are particularly well:

Chris Cochrane, an entertainer who goes by the name Elle Noir, is recovering from a gunshot wound to her right arm. She said her attackers yelled homophobic slurs as she was hit with gunfire at her Fairview apartment early Tuesday. She said she believes they intended to kill her.

“They were yelling, ‘Tranny faggot, open the door, let us in, let us in,’ which leads me to believe they knew who I was. I’m in a second-floor apartment. You know, you have to have a security key to get into the building. Obviously it was 100 per cent hatred.”

So we have the victim’s statement, that armed men shot through her front door with handguns and a shotgun(!) after accosting her verbally. There was no reason for the intruders to pick that apartment at random, since there was no drug activity. There is a long and sordid history of violent assault against transpeople (that is, people who identify as a sex other than the one they were born into – someone please let me know if I worded that incorrectly), and this has all the hallmarks of a hate crime.

The police reaction?

Halifax Regional Police interviewed Cochrane on Wednesday. After speaking with witnesses, investigators doubt her claim that the shooting was a hate crime, said a police spokesman. “We believe this particular unit at least — while not saying this particular victim — was targeted specifically,” said Const. Brian Palmeter.

“Certainly we don’t believe this was a hate crime based on the information that we have so far… There may have been other reasons at play why this might have occurred.” Palmeter refused to elaborate on what those reasons might be.

And immediately the skepti-shields go up. Police would like us to believe that a group of armed men broke into a building, targeted the apartment of a publicly-transsexual person and shot their way in. They did this, according to police, for reasons that have nothing to do with the gender identity of the inhabitant. To persuade us of this highly dubious set of circumstances, police are offering us the iron-clad reassurance of “there may have been other reasons at play”.

It seems to me that there are two things that could potentially be happening here. The first comes from my cynical side: Halifax police aren’t interested in investigating a hate crime. Crimes against transpeople often go unreported and poorly-investigated (I offer no evidence for this assertion – it is based on the testimony of every transperson and gender equality speaker I have ever heard/read). It is trivially easy for the Halifax police to sweep the motivation for this crime under the rug, especially since it happened in an area known for drug involvement. The police force may be acting like a person – allowing their biases and transphobia to bubble to the surface in such a way as to preclude Ms. Cochrane from seeing justice.

The second possibility I can see is that Ms. Cochrane is mistaken about the nature of her assault. She lives with a roommate – perhaps the roommate was involved in the drug trade unbeknownst to Chris herself. Maybe she misheard what the attackers said at the door – hearing “tranny faggot” in her panic when something else entirely was said. The police are suggesting another option but are being intentionally vague (which is their usual way of doing things when evidence collection is ongoing) – maybe the neighbours are privy to some knowledge that Chris herself isn’t, something perhaps to do with her roommate.

Regardless of what the reason for the cagey response from police, this kind of reaction sends a chilling message to transsexual and transgender people living in Halifax and elsewhere: despite the fact that you are more victimized than cissexual people, police will absolutely refuse to take that fact into account. At the very least, Halifax police could have said “we are concerned about the hate component, and even though at this moment we don’t have evidence to suggest hate was a factor, we are cognizant of the fact that transpeople are singled out for special treatment by their assailants, and so we will give the matter our own form of special treatment.”

I am curious to see how this whole story shakes out.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

Guilty of hate speech; guilty of crime?

For all my bluster and polemic, I am tormented by a fundamental uncertainty when it comes to hate speech laws. My position on hate speech is unequivocal – I am against it. Spreading hate is abhorrent, and its effects tend to move beyond the words themselves. I am particularly aware of the fact that anti-gay hate speech is part of what is considered civilized discourse in this part of the world, and that the prevailing anti-gay attitude is resulting in serious and often deadly consequences for gay people.

The situation is much worse in Africa:

The South African ambassador to Uganda, a former columnist for South Africa’s Sunday Sun paper, has been found guilty of hate speech for an anti-gay article. South Africa’s Equality Court fined Jon Qwelane $14,450 (£8,920) and ordered him to apologise for promoting hatred in the column published in 2008.

Regular readers will need no reminding about how serious the problems for gay people are in Uganda. Anti-gay hatred has reached the level where people are attempting to pass legislation that would make being gay a jailable offense, with bonus death penalty for ‘repeat offenders’. This is the level where simple hatred has gone beyond privately-held beliefs and entered into the realm of bigotry with the force of law behind it.

However, I am still conflicted over the outcome of this story. The issue with criminalizing speech – any speech – is that it tends to slowly creep toward criminalizing unpopular speech under the guise of labeling it ‘hate’. Many people would label the kind of vociferous criticism of religion that appears on this and other atheist websites as ‘hateful’. Much of this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ‘hate’, some of it comes from the inability to separate a criticism of ideas from a criticism of those that hold those ideas, and some of it is the knee-jerk reaction that happens whenever religious is lampooned.

My concern, therefore, is partially selfish. Even if I were given the opportunity to explain the difference between criticism of sacred ideas and ‘hate speech’, it’s unlikely that judicial authority or the court of public opinion would buy the argument. Popular ideas need to be criticized, because they are the ones that are most often accompanied by legal authority, even when they are wrong or harmful. They are also the least likely to be examined critically by those that agree with them a priori. Punishing those that express criticisms serves to chill fair and open-minded scrutiny.

This example, however, is not a question of fair and open-minded scrutiny. It is a question of victimizing a group of people based on intentional lies and distortions of a segment of humanity whose ‘critics’ don’t want to understand the other side of the story. Those kinds of criticisms are not the kind of thing we think of when we talk about protecting free speech – we think of it in terms of ensuring that police forces aren’t allowed to shut down protest against a corrupt government. However, that idea assumes that popular opinion is on one side of the issue, and the authority is on the other side. I have no doubt that Mr. Qwelane sees himself as standing up against the ‘gayification’ of Africa, and thinks that his is a noble cause.

There is another issue that doesn’t seem to filter into the discussions of hate speech laws – the issue of whether or not they work. This is a real scientific question I’d like to see answered: does the existence of legislation against hate speech reduce its incidence or effect? I’m inclined to think that while fines or prison terms might prevent people from going out in the public square and screaming hateful things in front of police officers, it will not meaningfully reduce the amount of hateful speech spoken among individuals or in groups. We know from observation that while explicitly racist speech is wildly unpopular, there are other ways of conveying the same ideas without saying the words themselves.

I can see the appeal in banning hate speech, because it seems like a tidy way of disposing of a problem. However, there are no quick and easy solutions to systemic problems such as anti-gay homophobia or racism. Hate speech laws are very tempting to abuse, especially since they can be ushered in with high public approval ratings. After all, they are brought in with the very best of intentions:

“We are hoping really that this finding will send a message to community members, a message that says gay and lesbian people have an equal right to the protection of their dignity,” said Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, which initiated the complaint against Mr Qwelane.

But there is no real evidence that, beyond donating the proceeds from the fines to LGBTQ advocacy groups, criminalizing hate speech reduces it. More likely, it just makes the identification of hate speech more difficult as bigots learn to adjust their language. And then, as the lines become more and more obfuscated, more and more types of speech are classified as “hate” until even legitimate criticisms are subject to punishment.

My conclusion on this is that, absent of empirical evidence that hate speech laws reduce the amount of hate speech or have a meaningful impact on the climate of hate, coupled with their potential for abuse and the fact that they violate human rights to free speech, I cannot support them. However, I think there is value in identifying hate speech and making it clear that governments and other large organizations aren’t okay with it. Like when Laura Schlessinger did, well… whatever you want to call it… she wasn’t sanctioned by the government or fined – she was just made to leave.

As I said, I recognize that there are many weaknesses in my position, and I am open to evidence showing that laws against hate speech are useful or warranted, but I suspect such proof won’t be forthcoming.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

Today’s word boner…

Is brought to you by guitar legend Carlos Santana:

“This law is not correct. It’s a cruel law, actually, This is about fear. Stop shucking and jiving. People are afraid we’re going to steal your job. No we aren’t. You’re not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy. Who cleans the sheets? Who cleans the toilets? Who babysits? I am here to give voice to the invisible.”

It’s not so much what he said, it’s more where he said it – at an Atlanta Braves baseball game commemorating the civil rights movement. In front of a crowd of thousands, Mr. Santana had the courage and poise to call out not only Major League Baseball, but the fans sitting in the bleachers, for turning a blind eye toward racism happening right now and choosing instead to pat themselves on the back for how tolerant they’ve been.

He had more:

“Most people at this point they are either afraid to really say what needs to be said, this is the United States the land of the free. If people want the immigration law to keep passing in every state then everybody should get out and just leave the American Indians here. This is about Civil Rights.”

He then proceeded to shred the guitar so hard that all the women in the audience became pregnant [citation needed].

While I don’t usually care about the political positions of celebrities, I am impressed with what it takes to stand up in front of thousands of people and point out their complicit hypocrisy. It helps that he’s right, too.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

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.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

Systematic abuse? Not our problem…

I’ve spoken before about the value of official apologies for historical wrongdoing. While those on the right will squawk that it’s just a drummed-up excuse to make (group X) feel guilty for being (X), the real consequence of apologies is to take an opportunity to own one’s past. There is the old aphorism that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – basically the longer we continue to deceive ourselves about what is in our history, or try to pave over the bad things, the more likely we are to make the same mistakes again.

But then there are those times when we actively refuse to deal with history:

The government cannot be held legally liable for abuses during the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya, a court has heard. Ministers want a claim for compensation from four elderly Kenyans struck out by the High Court in London. The claimants say they were assaulted between 1952 and 1961 by British colonial officers in detention camps. The Foreign Office says Kenya had its own legal colonial government, which was responsible for the camps.

This is the kind of legal jiu-jitsu that only a mob lawyer could really feel good about. The court did not deny the abuse took place, or that the men were victims of the abuse. They just think that the men should go after the real culprit – the colonial government that no longer exists. Never mind that the colonial government was established by the British Empire, for the sole purpose of stripping Kenyans from the right to self-government. Never mind that it is impossible to sue the colonial government since Britain relinquished control of the colony. No, these aren’t relevant details to the case.

What is relevant is that England can avoid having to own up for its shocking history of colonial atrocities committed against military and civilians alike. It’s like something out of The Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Defresne creates a legal identity for a fake person that can never be prosecuted, because he never existed. The colonial government, under the direction of Britain (I can’t, in this context, bring myself to refer to them as Great Britain), committed abuses and was then dissolved at the end of the colonial era. Nice and tidy way of evading culpability, innit?

The judge heard Mr Mutua and Mr Nzili had been castrated, Mr Nyingi was beaten unconscious in an incident in which 11 men were clubbed to death, and Mrs Mara had been subjected to appalling sexual abuse.

Not relevant.

David Anderson, professor of African politics at Oxford University, who has examined some of the withheld documents, said the files proved Whitehall not only knew what was being done to Mau Mau suspects but also had a part in sanctioning their ill-treatment.

Not relevant.

The government says too much time has elapsed since the alleged abuses.

Ah, now see that’s a reasonable argument! Crippling and ongoing psychological trauma? Not our problem – that shit’s old news! Oh wait, you want an apology? Yeah… take it up with the colonial government – that’s who did it, right?

Oh wait, they don’t exist?

Not relevant.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

Freedom of religion… inherently contradictory?

Okay, not usually, but maybe in this case?

A polygamous society “consumes” its young. It hurts people. It hurts society. Because of that, polygamists ought to be criminally prosecuted, not shielded by constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, expression or association. That’s the position laid out by the B.C. attorney general’s lead lawyer Monday as the reference case to determine whether Canada’s 120-year-old criminal law against polygamy ought to be struck down entered its final phase in B.C. Supreme Court.

I’ve tried to avoid commenting on the polygamy case thus far, because I wasn’t sure what there was to say about it other than the obvious, but I’ll try to wade in a bit here. For those of you that haven’t been following the case, a group of religious fundamentalists in Bountiful, British Columbia are before the Provincial Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Canada’s ban on polygamy. They are claiming that they should be exempt from the law on grounds of freedom of religious expression, a claim which obviously irritates me to no end. If your religion commands you to break the law, it’s not the law that must change, it’s your religious practice. Canada is a secular country that allows people to believe however they want – that courtesy is not extended to behaviour.

The contradiction doesn’t come from their central claim:

What [Canadian historian Sarah] Carter wrote was that protection of women was “a central rationale” for outlawing polygamy and that “Anti-polygamists claimed that polygamy meant unmitigated lives of slavery, bondage and horror for the wives.” “The child brides smuggled across borders to serve as compliant wives to middle-aged men they have never met, the boys expelled or sent to work camps without an education, the harsh mechanisms of control, the grotesque subjugation of women and girls, these are not discrete harms [of polygamy] that are simply coincidental,” [attorney general’s lawyer Craig] Jones said.

It comes from the idea that telling someone they aren’t allowed to enslave children is a violation of that person’s freedoms. Now they may not see it as slavery, but the disgusting way in which they treat these supposed ‘brides’ is medieval and undoubtedly falls under the umbrella definition of slavery.

If I can read the judicial minds of the Supreme Court, I’d imagine that this case will not be granted as argued – there is no Charter protection of compulsory servitude for life, nor does punishing the violation of both the law and common decency amount to religious persecution. However, the attorney general is attempting to demonstrate that the abuse and depravity that is systemic in the Bountiful group is a necessary product of polygamous relationships. In this attempt, I think he will fail. While there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the particular kind of polygamy practiced in Bountiful and other fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints churches (as well as some branches of Islam) is inherently exploitative, that fact is insufficient to justify a wholesale ban on polygamy.

The claim that polygamous marriage would disrupt society is certainly a true one. The definition and practice of marriage would become unbelievably complicated if groups of people were allowed to marry. Marriage has specific legal implications, and making changes to that would have broad societal ramifications. However, I remain unpersuaded by this argument, simply because a different formulation of it was used to prop up racial segregation and to bar women from getting the vote. Constitutional freedoms should not hinge on whether or not their are convenient – the whole point of having guaranteed human rights is that sometimes they are wildly inconvenient. We have to find a way to work around them.

However, there is one argument now being made that I find particularly interesting:

“We’ve seen the extent to which religion is used as the control mechanism, as the enforcement mechanism that magnifies the harms of polygamy,” Jones said during his third day of final submissions at the constitutional reference case being heard by the B.C. Supreme Court. “The evidence that has emerged from expert and lay witnesses alike is that the greater the religious fervour with which polygamy is intertwined, the more harmful it can be expected to be. There is something significantly harmful about the religious manifestation of polygamy.”

It is entirely possible, and seems to be supported by the testimony, that when religion is used as the justification for polygamy, that’s when the whole host of other abuses begin to manifest. As an anti-theist, this certainly gels with my view of what religion does – takes a perfectly decent thing like community or charity and distorts it into something sinister. That being said, banning things because they are religious sets a dangerous (and, frankly, ridiculous) precedent. If we say that polygamy is allowed for secular reasons but not religious ones, we are simply tipping the “freedom of religion” argument to the opposite extreme. We cannot begin outlawing things because they are religious, just as we cannot permit things on the same grounds. We should be making our legal decisions on grounds that entirely ignore their religious justification.

The abuses that occur in these polygamous groups are criminal. Child neglect, emotional abuse and imprisonment are all horrible acts that we should fight vociferously. However, they are not necessary outcomes of a man married to several women, even if such marriages are done for religious reasons. While the men of Bountiful should not be allowed to abuse their child brides because their imaginary friend said it was okay, it is illiberal and anti-democratic to punish them for such delusion. The harm of polygamy manifests itself as abuse – when that happens the abusers should be punished. In absence of abuse, there are no grounds to ban polygamy that are not just as arbitrary as the arguments against gay marriage, interracial marriage, or allowing women to vote.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

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…

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

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).

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

In defense of the “weaker sex”

Note: This article first appeared on Monday, February 28th on Canadian Atheist. While it is CA policy not to cross-post, I felt that this case needed to be made on as many outlets as I could.

A good friend of mine posted a story on my Facebook wall last week about a police officer who fell victim to the arch-stupidity of the “she was asking for it” argument:

A police officer who suggested women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts” has apologized, saying he is “embarrassed” by the remark and that assaulted women are “not victims by choice.”

“I made a comment which was poorly thought out and did not reflect the commitment of the Toronto Police Service to the victims of sexual assaults,” Const. Michael Sanguinetti wrote on Thursday to Osgoode Hall Law School where he made the comment. “Violent crimes such as sexual assaults can have a traumatizing effect on their victims. . . . My comment was hurtful in this respect.”

It’s a tired trope that is almost guaranteed to come up in any discussion of women and sexuality – if women didn’t make themselves so open to sexual predators then they’d be safer. It is due to the privilege of being male that this argument offends me only intellectually, since I will never be the target of a sexual assault. I will never appreciate the visceral part of the feminist response to this argument, try as I might. The reason this particular friend posted the link on my wall is that she and I have gone 9 rounds on it in the past, with me articulating the “personal responsibility” position. Don’t worry – I got better.

However, a second friend of mine saw this and posted what he thought was an entirely reasonable response. His response (I’ll call him “Billy” just so we can avoid pronoun confusion) was that the story failed to take the police officer’s side into account. It is a fact, said Billy, that women will be less inviting targets for assault if they are dressed more conservatively and hide their sexuality. Billy didn’t understand why this was such a controversial statement, and was taken aback with Sheila’s (again, for the same of pronoun confusion) full-throated and confrontational response. Billy messaged me afterward to apologize for starting a fight on my wall, and confessing that he couldn’t really understand what he had said that was so inflammatory.

The problem with this “she was asking for it” argument, aside from the fact that it isn’t true (sexual assault is just as common in Muslim countries where women have to stay covered and none of them dress sexy for fear of being arrested, beaten, or scalded with acid), is that it completely misses the point, and tries to derive an “ought” from an “is”. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. The solution to the problem is not for women to “dress less slutty” (a phrase which is provocative enough on its own), but for men to realize that a woman’s choice of dress is not an open invitation to sexual assault.

It seems as though this seemingly-obvious (once explained) argument still has yet to suffuse through common consciousness:

A University of Manitoba law professor has concerns about a judge’s comments at a sexual assault sentencing. Karen Busby said the remarks by Justice Robert Dewar are a legal throwback to the time when how a woman dressed or acted could be treated as implied consent to sex. Dewar said “sex was in the air” when he spared a man jail time by handing him a two-year conditional sentence instead and allowing him to remain free in the community.

During the sentencing, Dewar also commented on the way the woman was dressed and her actions the night she was forced to have sex in the woods along a dark highway outside Thompson in 2006. The man and a friend met the 26-year-old woman and her girlfriend earlier that night outside a bar under what the judge called “inviting circumstances.” He pointed out the victim and her friend were dressed in tube tops, no bras, and high heels and noted they were wearing plenty of makeup. Dewar called the man a “clumsy Don Juan” who may have misunderstood what the victim wanted.

On a Facebook wall, the kind of statement that Billy made (although, to be sure, he didn’t intend to suggest that it is a rape victim’s fault for being assaulted and he went out of his way to say so) is merely annoying. When it comes from a judge’s mouth, it carries behind it the force of law. I do not wish to derogate Justice Dewar’s abilities as a jurist – perhaps he would have handed down an identical sentence if the victim’s clothing had not been a factor. One cannot guarantee that this would have been the case for all judges, although it certainly should be.

And certainly, this kind of cavalier attitude toward sexual assault does appear in other places:

Reports that women are being sexually assaulted at a Downtown Eastside shelter are being ignored, a coalition of women and women’s groups is charging. But the agency that oversees the First United Church co-ed shelter at Gore and Hastings says it has had meetings with both police and women’s groups on the matter and is actively working to address it. “The safety and security of people using provincially funded shelters are our top priority,” said a statement from BC Housing, which funds and has an operation agreement with the shelter. “We will continue working together to make sure the shelter is a safe place to stay.” But Harsha Walia, a coordinator at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter, said women have reported sexual abuse to front-line workers, police and staff at the shelter, and nothing has been done about it.

When it is a woman’s fault for being assaulted, when her mere presence is provocation enough to justify some kind of violence against her, we know something has gone terribly wrong. When we turn a blind eye to women being assaulted, we cannot call ourselves a society where women enjoy equal or sufficient rights under the law. And because language like “she was asking for it” or “don’t dress like a slut” only serves to reinforce the casual tolerance of violence against women that leads to assault, it is the job of every feminist to speak out against it whenever it comes up. It will forever be a source of chagrin for me that I didn’t always speak this way, but I bloody well will from now on.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!