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‘Free speech’ – as long as it doesn’t offend anyone

By Ulli Diemer


“Some want a full censorship, others a half censorship; some want three-eighths freedom of the press, others none at all. God save me from my friends!”
- Karl Marx

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Last April Fool’s Day, I added my two cents’ worth to the ongoing debate about ‘Israeli apartheid’ by writing and distributing a statement purporting to come from an organization called ‘Alumni for Responsible Speech’.

As part of my work with Connexions (www.connexions.org) I maintain an online compilation of resources on Israel and Palestine, so I have become quite aware of the extent to which the tactics of the pro-Israel lobby are now aimed at shutting down criticism of Israel, rather than attempting to rebut it.

I have tended to see this as an indication that they know they are losing the debate. Faced with declining support for Israel’s behaviour even among Jews, and finding it increasingly difficult to come up with plausible arguments to defend Israel’s human rights abuses and violations of international law, they are resorting to straightforward attempts at intimidation and censorship – including the old stand-by of labelling any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.

The ‘Alumni for Responsible Speech’ satire took particular aim at recent developments at several Canadian universities, where administrators and faculty who like to pose as valiant defenders of academic freedom and free speech were showing themselves to be proponents of prohibition and censorship when it comes to ideas which they – or the university’s funders – find unpalatable.

At the University of Toronto, for example, pro-Israel faculty took out a full-page ad in the National Post urging the university administration to ban ‘Israeli apartheid week’ events from the campus. The U of T administration tried to get the Toronto police to do their dirty work for them by soliciting a ruling on whether it is ‘hate speech’ to accuse Israel of practicing apartheid. This craven eagerness to abandon the university’s responsibility to defend freedom of expression backfired when the cops proved to be more liberal than the university’s bureaucrats, telling the university that they saw no problem.

At McMaster University, the administration tried to ban the very use of the term “Israeli apartheid” on campus. This led to vigorous protests, including one from the student union at York University (which was also hosting Israeli Apartheid Week events) calling for the ban to be rescinded “in accordance with a basic commitment to freedom of expression and organization in the democratic context of the public university.” They went on to state that “This strange and unprecedented ban is a blatant violation of democratic freedoms of speech and dissent, and an attack on students’ right to organize. It is the position of the YFS and GSA that universities are sites where discussions and debates about difficult geopolitical questions should be promoted, not stifled. International controversy about use of the phrase ‘Israeli Apartheid‘ cannot be resolved through repression, but through ongoing intellectual exchange.”

My Alumni for Responsible Speech “statement,” on the other hand, mischievously took the position that universities should “tolerate free speech” only “as long as it doesn’t upset anyone.” It called on university administrations to “protect students and faculty from being confused by exposure to incorrect or harmful ideas” and suggested a number of pro-active measures (largely inspired by George Orwell’s 1984) including a University ‘Department of Acceptable Truths’ “to ensure that only safe ideas are taught”, as well as strong measures against “thought crimes”.

“The Alumni for Responsible Speech” satire made the rounds on the Internet, circulated on number of campuses, and received praise from people who enjoyed the way it skewered people who ‘support freedom of speech’ only for views they agree with.

Beyond satire

In our times, however, satire has little chance of competing with reality. The battle over ‘Israeli apartheid week’ on campus had barely subsided when the York student union quoted above (“universities are sites where discussions and debates about difficult geopolitical questions should be promoted, not stifled”) waded back into the free speech fray. This time round, the same people who had fulminated about the “democratic freedoms of speech and dissent” and condemned those who would infringe “students’ right to organize” were deciding, by a unanimous vote, to prevent anti-abortion groups or individuals affiliated with them from organizing, leafleting, speaking, holding meetings, or engaging in other anti-choice activities. “Such activities,” they elaborated, “would be defined as any campaign, action, distribution, solicitation, lobbying efforts, etc., that seeks to limits the individual’s right to choose what they can or cannot do with one’s own body.” Explaining the apparent inconsistency in the student union’s position on free speech, the vice-president explained that “We think that these pro-life, these anti-choice groups, they’re sexist in nature... Is this an issue of free speech? No, this is an issue of women’s rights.” So much for the individual’s right to choose what she can or cannot do with her own mind.

Anyone who has followed the censorship wars knows that this blatant display of double standards is no isolated incident. It is, on the contrary, typical of much of the left as well as of the right.

On the one side of the political spectrum, the right constantly proclaims its devotion to freedom of speech, and never tires of denouncing those who, so they claim, infringe on freedom of speech in the name of ‘political correctness.’ Meanwhile, they engage in constant campaigns to censor dissenting voices.

On U.S. campuses, they have orchestrated a series of attacks on the academic freedom of scholars who have dared to criticize Israel. One of the most notorious was DePaul University’s outrageous politically motivated denial of tenure to Prof. Norman Finkelstein, a leading scholar in his field whose crime is that he is an outspoken critic of Israel’s exploitative treatment of Holocaust survivors as well as its oppression of Palestinians.

Here in Canada, the CanWest media empire launched a nasty lawsuit against activists who distributed a parody of the Vancouver Sun which satirised CanWest’s extreme pro-Israel bias. This is a well-known technique known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) used by corporations to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense that can bankrupt them.

At the same time, CanWest has also been busy defending itself against multiple complaints to various human rights commissions across Canada – the equivalent of several SLAPP suits – brought against it by a group of law students from York University’s Osgoode Hall. The students want the human rights commissions to punish Maclean’s and journalist Mark Steyn for publishing an article by Steyn that portrayed Muslims in a negative light. Perversely, some of the same individuals who spoke up to defend the publication of the Vancouver Sun parody have expressed their approval for the attack on Maclean’s right to publish what it wishes.

Pleading with the state to censor us

‘Progressive’ apologists for censorship like to make the point that some people – the owners of the corporate media and the commentators they employ, for example – are more able to make their views heard than ordinary citizens, and that therefore our ability to exercise our right to free speech is limited in any case. That’s true enough. But how on earth does that lead to the conclusion that we should therefore invite the state to impose even more limits on what we can say or write? Wasn’t there a time when progressives saw their role as mobilizing people to fight for their rights, rather than pleading with the state to censor us?

At first blush, it may seem that those who passionately support freedom of expression one day, and just as vehemently oppose it the next, are simply hypocrites. But really it’s more than that: it’s what George Orwell, in 1984, called doublethink: “holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

The truth is that on this issue most of the right and much of the left are in agreement, and so too are many liberals, activists, and human rights apparatchiks who can’t properly be labelled as belonging to either the left or the right. They hold essentially the same position on freedom of expression – they are for it ‘in principle’, but only so long as it isn’t used to express views that they find unacceptable or offensive.

What they disagree about is merely who gets to decide what ideas are unacceptable, i.e., who gets to censor who.

Wannabe totalitarians left and right

This in fact is the classic position of wannabe totalitarians everywhere, including the ‘progressive’ ones: people can’t be trusted to think ‘correctly’, so we, the superior ones, the ones who always know best, have to suppress anything that we consider to be offensive or dangerous.

The trouble is that this condescending and cynical attitude amounts to a betrayal of everything that progressive people should stand for. In the York University case, how can you defend ‘choice’ by denying people the right to choose what opinions and debates they will listen to? What could be more insulting, and more anti-woman, than the attitude that women have to be protected from being exposed pro-life propaganda because they aren’t smart enough or strong enough to think it through and reject it on their own?

The glaring lack of respect for the intelligence of other people comes through loud and clear, of course. It is a very effective way of communicating two unintended messages. One, that there must be something very compelling about the censored views, otherwise ‘they’ wouldn’t be seeking to ban them. And two, ‘they’, the censors, don’t have any effective arguments against the banned views, which is why they have to resort to censorship instead.

The effect is almost invariably to increase the allure of whatever is being banned, and to greatly increase the traffic of the Internet sites where it can be found.

Handing our enemies more weapons to use against us

What it also does is to hand our enemies more weapons to use against us. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s ‘progressive’ pro-censorship people targeted pornography. Future historians will be amazed to learn how much energy was devoted to attempting to regulate what images and fantasies men should be permitted to contemplate while they masturbate. The Internet more or less put that debate on the back burner, but not before the anti-pornography laws were put to exactly the use that opponents had predicted: harassment of gay bookstores like Little Sisters and Glad Day, and persecution of artists who depicted the wrong kind of sex in the wrong way.

The frame of the censors has now shifted to identity politics. The new sin is to say anything that might be ‘offensive’ to any identifiable group, be it an ethnic group, a religion, people with a disability, sexual orientation, etc.

What is at stake here is not good manners – being civil, treating people respectfully even while disagreeing with them, etc. – admirable precepts, but surely not ones to be enforced by the state. No doubt it would be good if we all tried, as a matter of common decency, to avoid giving needless offense to others, and the level of debate would certainly improve if people recognized that the rudeness and nastiness which characterize so much of the blogosphere, for example, are counterproductive and inconsistent with principled political debate.

The right to express offensive opinions

However, principled political debate does mean criticizing ideas, ideologies, social structures, cultural practices and behaviours which, in our view, are harmful or wrong. In fact, criticism of what exists is essential to all movements for social change. If we are serious about working for social change, we are obligated to criticize what exists, even though some people will inevitably find our opinions offensive. They are free to criticize what we say if they don’t like it. That is what free speech is all about.

Yet today, many people have come to believe that it is unacceptable to express opinions that some group may find offensive. This is the issue in human rights cases brought against Mark Steyn and Maclean’s: Steyn’s article said things about Muslims that some people found offensive, and which, they claim, therefore violated their supposed human right not to be offended.

Of course, not all Muslims share this view. As Sohail Raza said on behalf of the Muslim Canadian Congress: “This is Canada, not Sudan, Egypt or Pakistan, where the press is stifled. There is absolute freedom of expression and people have an opportunity to voice their opinion.”

However, one of the consequences of the idea that it is wrong to give offense to any group is to strengthen the most reactionary conservative elements in those communities at the expense of the more progressive currents, since the reactionaries are always the ones who can be depended on to be offended by any criticism, including criticism from dissenters within their communities.

What we all need to understand is that the right to express offensive views is at the very heart of the principle of freedom of speech. As Fran Liebowitz says, “being offended is a natural consequence of leaving the house” when you live in a modern society.

The truth is, every conceivable opinion about every important subject will be always offensive to some people. Evolution, feminism, gay rights, criticism of Israel, atheism, secularism, anti-capitalism – these are all extremely offensive to many people. Do we want to encourage those who find them offensive to appeal to the human rights commissions to suppress those ideas? Is that the precedent we want to set?

I don’t think so. As George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The way to deal with offensive ideas is to argue against them and attempt to refute them, not to ban them.

The problem of hate speech

There are those who would agree with much of what I have written above but who argue that ‘hate speech’ is a special case that does require censorship. Hate speech is a particularly troubling issue, and I don’t want to dismiss it lightly. Certainly clear threats of violence or incitements to violence should be treated as crimes. I also believe it is appropriate for institutions and organizations to implement their own individual policies against hate speech, e.g. for an organization to refuse to rent space to a speaker or group that promotes hatred, or for a website to refuse to post submissions promoting hatred. But that is different from laws against hate speech. These are almost invariably misused – for example, the current attempts to suppress criticism of Israeli apartheid as ‘hate speech.’ I think the reasons for denying the state the power to regulate speech greatly outweigh the arguments for wanting to hand the state that power.

One also observes that laws against hate speech usually serve only to catch (and provide free publicity to) marginal cranks: the smart hatemongers know how to code their message in ways that don’t cross the line while still making the intent clear. The British National Party, for example, has taken to packaging its message in the fashionable language of identity politics: i.e., ‘every culture is unique and has a right to its own values and autonomous existence, and that includes white European values and white European culture.‘

I think the answer to hate speech has to be political, i.e. exposing it, refuting it, and organizing politically against the hatemongers. The state is far too blunt and dangerous an instrument to be used to legislate our individual and collective responsibility to treat others with respect and decency. We can’t let hate speech serve as an excuse to expand the repressive powers of the state.


This article was first published in the January-February 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension.

Related:
Free Speech and Acceptable Truths
Free Speech for me – you shut up
Opposing Censorship
Absolutely disagree

Resources/Websites:
Canadian Centre International PEN
Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Connexions: Focus on Human Rights and Civil Liberties
Index on Censorship
Kenan Malik
Seriously Free Speech Committee
Sources Directory: Censorship Contacts


Ulli Diemer
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Subject Headings: Abortion Rights - Academic Freedom - Censorship - Civil Liberties - Double Standards - Free Speech - Freedom of Expression - Identity Politics - Israeli Apartheid - Palestine - Religious Criticism - Universities


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