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Freedom of Expression

October 8, 2008

I do not have the right not to be offended.

Ouch.  That hurts a little, but it’s true.

This past Saturday, the Centre for Inquiry Calgary was officially inaugurated and Monday the Lethbridge Freethinkers Society had it’s first event.  At both of these functions, Justin Trottier, executive director for the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, spoke about CFI’s “Campaign for Free Expression.”  What he said was certainly not what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear.  I like to think that it’s my scientific mind that allows me to admit I’m wrong when faced with incontrovertible evidence, but the fact still stands that I’ve been wrong.

Let me explain: I think most of us understand that the price of our own freedom of expression is the right for people we disagree with to have this freedom as well.  I begrudgingly admit that if I expect my student’s union to ratify a gay and lesbian group (or a Freethinkers group, for that matter), I have to allow that a pro-life group will also be able to ratify, hold events, put posters up, and have membership drives.  I will, however, pay extra careful attention to anything they say or do and report them if I think they’ve crossed the line into discrimination or offensiveness.

But here is the thing: I do not have the right not to be offended.  None of us do.  I have the right not to be discriminated against, but discrimination is associated with actions, not speech.

Just a few days ago an independent candidate in Sudbury, Ontario made headlines when he told a kid at an all-candidates forum held at a high school that all homosexuals should be executed, according to the Bible.  I, of course, was awfully offended and I applauded to hear he was being investigated for hate speech.  Now, though, I’m not so sure.  I used to think that there was a difference between “I hate gays,” “I think gays should be killed” and “let’s go kill some gays,” but I’m now thinking that as long as no one does go and kill any gay people, no crime has been committed.  I should be allowed to say and think as I choose, and so should anyone else.

According to this line of thought, I should actually be defending the candidate’s right to tell high school kids that all homosexuals should be executed.  In some ways, his ignorant jackass statement did my side a favour: now all those voters know his bigoted fundamentalist views and can vote accordingly.  While many people are opposed to gay marriage, not many favour executing even the blackest of black sheep in their families.  With views like this exposed, we can keep track of them.  They aren’t going underground.  Also, I bet more than a few families had gay marriage/gay rights talks with their kids that night.  I know it was all over the news.  Talking about stuff like this is always good.

Ideas should be aired so they can be supported and attacked.  Freedom of expression means that we have the right to express our views, what it does not mean is that our views have the right to be uncriticized.  If people I disagree with are allowed to state their piece, that gives me the ability to rebut their arguments, to argue my side.  This way, discourse isn’t limited by political correctness and we have the ability to grow beyond our current comfort levels.

Let me be clear though: I also think that just because we have the right to do something does not mean we always should.  I have the right to drink myself silly every day and night, but I know that this would cause great harm, so I choose not to exercise that right too often.  Yes, according to freedom of expression we had the right to publish the Muhammad cartoons back in 2006, but I think that once we realized that the ball court was one we were unfamiliar with (we have no analogous concept to the Muslim prohibition of images of Muhammad.  None.  We were in over our heads and refused to admit it), we should have judiciously chosen not to exercise it.  Sometimes peace is more important than victory.

This also does not mean I welcome the teaching of creationism in the science classroom.  This is not a matter of freedom of expression, it is a matter of making up “facts” and “evidence,” and covertly trying to change definitions so as to teach religion in science classes.  We do not teach Shakespeare in math class, not because we are closed-minded intolerants who are stifling the Shakespearian scholars, but because literature is not math.  Teach it in English class.  Teach creationism in religion class, along with all the other religion’s creation myths.  If creationists want to get their views represented in the science curricula all they have to do is follow the scientific process.  That’s it.

So that’s the painful truth that I came to during my intense weekend with rationalists and humanists in Calgary and Lethbridge.  It was fantastic to attend both events, there were many great speakers and great speeches given later over a few beers as well.  Justin Trottier, Cliff Erasmus, Scott, Ben, Ian, Jim, and all the rest of the leaders/organizers and participants were just fabulous.  I came away from the experience with a sligh feeling of having been chastened, and a whole lot of enthusiasm to get going on the next project.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Winawer permalink
    October 8, 2008 5:47 pm

    Interesting post. My feeling on the matter is that you’re subscribing to an implied false dichotomy: either we have free speech, or we have no free speech (which is something you see fairly often in the rhetoric of the staunchest “free speech” defenders). This is false, of course; nowhere in the world is there anything like “real” free speech, because even in the United States there are things that you just cannot say, like shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theater. So, there are various degrees of limitation to free speech based on a trade-off between public safety and personal freedom, which is the part of the same basic trade-off that government itself is founded on. Here in Canada, we have put into place laws which place slightly more restriction on what can be said in the interest of public safety, which here means preventing people from advocating the death of another person or group on the premise that the risk isn’t worth it.

    I admit that viewing free speech as a continuum is harder; you can’t just say “No restrictions, ever!”, partly because that’s not true anyways, but also because decisions have to be made about where to draw the line. These decisions are not as simple as they would be if we draw the world in black and white, “free speech good” vs. “censorship bad”. Personally, I’m comfortable with the line being drawn at a point where you can’t advocate the murder of an entire group of people in public, and I’m *larely* comfortable with the protections and exceptions built into the statues. (Section 319 of the Criminal Code; I urge you to go read it). But as members of a democratic society, this is a question that we have to revisit again, and again, and again. It’s part of the price of the freedom that we *do* enjoy.

  2. October 9, 2008 9:19 pm

    I think advocating execution seriously crosses the line.

    It says every homosexual is committing a heinous crime, one equivalent in the United States to pre-meditated murder of another human being. This is also in the context of a country that _doesn’t_ even kill it’s pre-meditated murderers anymore.

    We also recognized that the death penalty doesn’t even serve as a deterent to other (actual) criminals, so when practised it is death for death’s sake.

    But chances are he won’t see even a day in court, as the hate crime legislation in Canada gives implicit permission for it if it is religiously motivated: “in good faith, he expressed or attempted to establish by argument an opinion on a religious subject.”

  3. October 14, 2008 10:26 pm

    I agree that people should have absolute free speech… but that doesn’t mean we should silently let people spew hate speech from the pulpit or political podium.

    Using a HIGH SCHOOL as a forum for such discourse is highly unethical and is evidence that he would not be able to think and help run the country effectively. Even though it exposed his bigoted beliefs and opens the doors for discussion, it also further legitimizes “hur heh, faggot!” bullying that most likely occurs at the school.

    Someone who thinks gays should be killed is not able to represent ALL citizens, since some of them are going to be queer.

  4. October 15, 2008 11:12 am

    Winawer: I guess part of the problem comes down to that distinction between saying something and doing something. You are certainly free to say “Fire” in a crowded theater (as in: “that fire sure destroyed their apartment,” or something) but to yell “Fire!” is different. It’s not the word that’s the problem, it’s that by yelling it out in a panicked way you are trying to get people to rush the doors. I suppose it’s somewhat like inciting a riot – when does it go from giving a passionate speech to being the cause of massive and wanton destruction of property and people?

    Mary: I completely agree with you that his comment is regressive, illogical, and completely at odds with our legal/judicial system. Just because an idea is wrong though doesn’t mean it can’t be stated, though. Advocating execution certainly crosses the line into hate speech, but he didn’t actually attack anyone or even tell others to. I don’t know, I’m torn. I mean, I obviously have a vested interest in homophobia and anti-gay violence, but if homos weren’t allowed to do and say things considered (at the time) wrong, disgusting, and societally harmful, we never would have fought our way to mainstream acceptance.

    nomoxian: I agree and disagree with you. 🙂 You are totally right that his beliefs mean he would make a terrible public officer, but I could probably list more representatives who don’t represent me than who do. Long live democracy. I agree with you that hate speech shouldn’t be allowed in public schools, but I don’t think that means it should be criminalized. Just because people have a right to something doesn’t necessarily mean they have a right to that thing always and everywhere. You can smoke if you want to, but not in my house. 18 year olds in Alberta can drink alcohol, but not at school. Similarly, I would totally support hate-speech bans at school for the reasons you mentioned and others, but still think that people should be free to be bigoted jerks elsewhere.

  5. October 28, 2008 5:12 pm

    Good post. I think the important thing to consider when it comes to hate speech is, how likely is it that someone hearing the message would sympathize enough to act on it? Not necessarily exactly what’s suggested, killing gays, but any kind of violence or increased harassment would count as harm. There is a line somewhere to be drawn somewhere on the speech issue, but I’d find it preferable to allow as much as possible, before the message causes direct harm.


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