Dear Ms. Coulter:
I am writing to inform you that we have stringent laws in Canada (unlike the gap-toothed-hillbilly backwater you come from) against hate speech…In Canada (unlike Amerika), we value and celebrate diversity…tolerance…mutual respect…for every culture, religion, political philosophy…moderation…civil public discourse…verbal restraint….Therefore, you fascist neo-con blond bi___, bi___(pardon my French; I mean) bimbo, if you even think about opening your bigoted fundamentalist-Christian gay-bashing Islamophobic anti-women’s-reproductive-health war-mongering American mouth, we’ll have you in the slammer before you can say Miranda. I hope you can see from the even-handed and moderate tone of my thinly-veiled threats that in Canada (unlike Amerika) we value…diversity…mutual respect…tolerance for those of every culture, opinion…civil public discourse.
With the greatest respect,
Francois Houle, Provost, University of Ottawa
I admit that M. Houle did not use these words, exactement. But I think we all caught his gist. The U. of O. students and faculty who share his high-minded hatred of “hate speech” certainly did, when they were moved (incited?) by his premonitory email to spontaneously assemble into a howling mob, whose angry denunciations and threats of physical violence against Ms. Coulter led to the cancellation of her speech. Hiding behind another rhetorical nicety, security officers emphasized that they had merely advised Ms. Coulter’s handlers that they couldn’t guarantee her safety, and that it was Ms. Coulter herself, not the University, who decided to call off the event. Presumably, had she determined to soldier on (literally, in this case), they would have been perfectly happy to let her speak and be beaten to a pulp by the tolerant, respectful mob. But clearly, the University called it off. As George Jonas quipped in the National Post, “Will it start a trend? Will police call off property rights at the scene of robberies-in-progress? ‘Look, lady, it’s just a cash register. If they want it so badly, how about letting them have it?'” But Jonas’ future trend has already become the practice of Canada’s “law enforcement” agencies: vigorous and forceful intervention in the presence of merely potential impolitesse; detached and passive neutrality in the presence of actual, ongoing violent crime (cf. Caledonia).
To describe the Canadian concept of hate-speech as Orwellian is like describing Moliere’s Tartuffe as “given intermittently to hypocrisy”. Let us say, hypothetically, that I were a right-wing reactionary anti-women’s-reproductive-health homophobic bigot, like Ms. Coulter (except without the shapely gams and voluminous hair); and that I had spent my life wandering the streets of my home town looking for a mob to join as part of which I could scream profanities and threats of violence against any of Canada’s visible minorities. Imagine that when AIDS became a world-wide epidemic, I was there. Following the release of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion, I was there. After a young white girl was gunned down in the cross-fire between rival black gangs in downtown Toronto, I was there. Then picture me alone, disappointed, and muttering to myself. Surely fundamentalist Christians should have gathered menacingly at Church and Wellesley and perhaps rousted some of the godless sinners out of the bathhouses; surely those same bigoted Christians should have poured out of the movie theatres, and marauded through Jewish neighbourhoods, rounding up the murderers of their Lord; surely a posse of White Supremacists should have assembled and marched uptown to Jane and Finch, randomly pitchforking Jamaican immigrants. But just as surely, nothing happened. (Or rather, Christians reached into their charitable pockets to contribute to AIDS research and outreach programs for the urban poor.) No, if you want to see old-fashioned incitement to riot in the flesh; to witness an angry lynch-mob spewing hate and smashing things, you must attend a G-8 conference, or an environmental protest, or better still, venture onto one of Canada’s elite university campuses, preferably just prior to the commencement of a speech by a dissenter from liberal political orthodoxy. Had someone really aspired to say hateful things about minorities from within an oppressive power structure, he would have been obliged to become a liberal.
As we now know, the only hate speech audible on the U. of O. campus where Ms. Coulter was scheduled to appear was that of the rioting mob hurling insults at her. They called her bad names (often beginning with the letter b, as I understand); dismissed her as an empty-headed blond, as though attractive women are incapable of subtle ratiocination (where are the feminists when you need them?); were openly contemptuous of her Christian beliefs (try that with the followers of Mohammed and you’ll have a bounty on your head); regularly impugned the heritage of the nation in which she was born (and to which, echoing the sort of crude xenophobic rhetoric of those who oppose open immigration, they invited her to return). I can hardly believe that M. Houle would have approved of such incivility! How shockingly illiberal–i.e. perfectly liberal–of them!
But then, M. Houle’s real intention in warning Ms. Coulter about Canada’s hate laws was hardly to persuade her to moderate her tone. It was to publicly proclaim his liberalism (as it is currently defined) and thereafter bask in the approbation of those other moral Narcissists who, like himself, stake out a position because it makes them feel good about themselves. His secondary purpose was to incite an angry citizen militia of hate-speech vigilantes who so honour diversity of opinion that whenever they encounter it they terrify it into silence. That, of course, is how Canada’s guardians of diversity and civil discourse work: they threaten those with whom they disagree with the prospect of financial ruin, physical injury, or incarceration (whether dispensed by mobs, human rights tribunals, or the courts). In most cases, their opponents decide prudently that the abstract ideal of freedom of speech just isn’t worth the risk to life and limb, and they go away quietly. Nobody gets hurt. But three foundational principles are grievously wounded in the process: that might does not make right; that every citizen is free to speak his mind; and that every citizen has a right to hear what his fellows have to say.
In the spirit of fairness, I wouldn’t have you think that members of the U. of O. mob didn’t also mount several carefully reasoned, elegantly crafted, and profound philosophical arguments, in keeping with their high level of education, and worthy of their deep-thinking academic heroes, as to why Ms. Coulter shouldn’t be allowed to speak. For instance, many of the protesters opined learnedly, “Fair speech, not free speech.” (Now, I know what you’re thinking. They ripped that off that from the labour movement’s slogan, “Fair trade, not free trade.” But that would be plagiarism, and we all know that university students never plagiarize. Heck, they graduated from high school, where they learned above all to think for themselves.) Of course, fair speech is not the same as free speech, as my fellow under-educated reactionaries so tiresomely point out. (Duh. That’s the meaning of the negative conjunction “not”, you under-educated reactionaries). I realize, besides, that precisely who decides what speech is fair and what is not is problematic. Still, I think the “fair speech” idea deserves a respectful hearing.
Imagine, if you can, that instead of the earnest liberals on Canada’s campuses and human rights tribunals, we allowed the dictionary to decide the meaning of fairness: viz., the same rules must apply to all the players in the game. Imagine that we set up those rules as far away from the untrammeled laissez-faire American “free” end of the linguistic spectrum and as close to the regulated Canadian “fair” end as possible. We proscribe, that is, all speech that satirizes, ridicules, criticizes, disrespects, or might offend any individual, any group, any nation, any race, any religion, any political or economic school of thought, any moral or cultural tradition. Could you live with that? I could. But liberals surely could not.
Michael Moore and his Hollywood co-religionists would be forced forthwith to cease insulting captialists as greedy and dishonest profiteers; and they’d cease to make enormous profits as a result. Militant anti-theists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would have to stop demeaning religious believers as credulous rubes responsible for the totality of the world’s historical evils; Naomi Klein would have to go down on bended knee before the pharmaceutical companies and ask them to forgive her for her wonted use of intemperate language; feminist academics would have to stop stereotyping men as militaristic brutes and rapists; Jesse Jackson, Reverend Wright, and the other racial hucksters would have to take back some of the prejudicial things they have so often said about Whitey; James Cameron, Derrida, and the Deconstructionists would have to stop portraying Europeans as corrupt and heartless exploiters of innocent and pacific indigenous peoples; and editions of the New York Times and Washington Post would shrink to half their size, with the excision of descriptions of George Dubya as an illiterate, bloodthirsty cretin.
I’m not saying that I would prefer fair speech to free speech. (Without the likes of Moore, Klein, and Coulter, there would be too little mirth in the world.) But it’s better, at least, than the current definition of fairness: free speech for the politically orthodox, no speech for the politically incorrect. How about it, M. Houle? Ready to sign on?