Erna Paris has won numerous awards in the free-wheeling genre of literary non-fiction. However, she’s hardly free-wheeling about freedom of speech.
The Canadian Supreme Court is being asked again to determine whether freedom of speech can be restrained in order to restrain hateful public attacks on minorities and their beliefs. There’s no dispute that being free to express yourself doesn’t include libel, slander, and incitement to attack other individuals violently. However, a growing number of Canadians worry whether it’s possible—and proper—to limit freedom of speech in order to protect other public virtues.
Paris isn’t squeamish about this task. She sees freedom of speech as one “public interest” that can be qualified in order to respect others. Her claim that freedom of speech should pay obedience to the “Canadian zeitgeist” of respectful, harmonious discourse would, however, transform an individual right into nothing more than another good thing in our basket of collective virtues.
Paris singles out writers Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn as “free-speech extremists.” Amazingly, she elaborates by saying “Both these authors have tried to shift the Canadian consensus by normalizing previously unacceptable levels of speech.”
This is velvet totalitarianism. The Canadian consensus in Erna Paris’s head—and conceivably in the heads of a winning majority of fellow citizens—is not in the Constitution or should not be the business of the Supreme Court.
Free speech, itself, is an extreme idea and is practiced everywhere to shift the consensus of the day. Levant and Steyn may be singleminded about insisting that Muslims suck it up and accept Mohamed doesn’t govern on this continent or prescribe the liberties of Canadian women and magazines of opinion.
Paris’ op-ed starts by making this radical assertion: “Given Canada’s multicultural fabric, it’s naïve to assume that our mythologized consensus over tolerance can’t be easily eroded by hate speech.” She concludes her op-ed piece by saying:
“It has been more than 20 years since our Supreme Court last wrestled with this issue, then upheld Canada’s hate-speech provisions by ruling (narrowly) that James Keegstra, an Alberta teacher who quizzed his students on their “knowledge” of his anti-Semitic views, was wilfully promoting hatred of a Canadian minority. The Canada we live in today is considerably more fragile than it was in 1990. Freedom of speech must be balanced with freedom from the destabilizing effects of public hatred in this, the world’s most heterogeneous society.”
Click on: www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/there-are-limits-to-free-expression/article2216380/
Setting aside the arguable proposition that our society is less fragile than it was in 1990, this concern for social harmony is reactionary and ironic. One of the reasons Canada and the United States are the most popular destinations in the world for minorities and eccentric is that their governments don’t use the term “harmony” and “respect” to silence, arrest and persecute those who thumb their noses at official ideologies and gods.
Canada is multicultural because it’s a safe place to be free to be yourself. It’s crazy to suggest we need to be less free to remain a heterogeneous society.
Maybe Immigration Canada should add something like this to primers for prospective immigrants: “In Canada, you are free to practice your religion and traditions and spread your beliefs. However, you must be prepared even to be laughed at by others who think you’re ideas are wrong.”