Tuesday, March 30, 2010


There’s a passage from one of the great plays of the 20th century, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, that comes to mind at times like these. Sir Thomas More inquires whether his son-in-law, Roper, would cut down the laws of England to get at the Devil. Roper says that he would do so without hesitation. To which More, in a famous riposte, replies,

“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!”

It’s over-quoted a bit, but it’s one of the more succinct and useful defenses of the principle of freedom of speech, and of civil liberties generally, to be found in 20th century literature. (I doubt that the real More would have been so liberal in his views.)

Last week, protesters at the University of Ottawa did an appalling thing. They succeeded in preventing Ann Coulter, a prominent right-wing comedian, from speaking on their campus. Well, I’m glad to know that some students are motivated enough to protest something, but I for one don't trust other people to tell me what I'm not allowed to read or hear or say. Coulter appeared recently on my own campus and I wouldn't have gone if you’d paid me, but that's not the point. The point is that it’s nobody’s business if I had wanted to go.

Coulter herself is not interesting and not even funny, and her followers, with their thunderous applause for her cheap and easy jokes — often made at the expense of people asking serious questions — reveal in the process something important about themselves: they are far too easily amused. It's because of people like them that reality TV keeps chugging along.

If Coulter's enemies really insist on doing something other than ignoring her (and why anyone would devote more than a paragraph or two to this clown is beyond me), it should be encouraging her to speak and write as widely as possible. If anyone is likely to discredit the right-wing, it's people such as her, much as the Michael Moores of the world do more to harm the authentic, anti-totalitarian, and humanitarian left than anyone on the political right possibly could.

Bolt’s version of Thomas More believed that there was safety in the laws of England, and the whole play serves an important reminder that in politically charged environments it’s probably good to keep your mouth shut most of the time – you never know what innocuous remark will be used against you by people such as Richard Rich. But if the quotation is about the law rather than about an ethical principle — which is the way in which it usually is employed — it doesn’t quite work for Canada, where our own laws categorically do not defend your freedom of speech in cases where other people can demonstrate that you've hurt their feelings.

Sooner or later the political winds will shift direction and the left will rue the day it ever conceived of the idea of "Hate Speech". Critics of the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage or the ordination of women will be hauled before Human Rights tribunals for “spreading hate” against Catholics; advocates for abortion rights will be charged with "hate crimes" against the unborn; opponents of Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza will have the charges of anti-Semitism that are sometimes lofted their way taken seriously. All this will happen, and in some respects it already is happening. Coulter herself has made murmurings about filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I doubt she will do any such thing, not because she herself cares about freedom of expression, but because there’s no particular reason why she should be bothered. She’s raking in money hand over fist precisely because some people take her seriously enough to protest her.

Lesson: give the Devil her day in court, people. For your own safety’s sake.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by a renewed sense of direction and purpose.

The photograph is of one mediocrity at the grave of another.

David said...

Hi Graham,

I'm very glad you wrote on this subject. As an alma mater of both schools I was very interested in the differing reactions.

I too wouldn't walk across the street to see Ann Coulter speak, but I cannot comprehend how anything she has to say is scarier than telling people that they are not allowed say things that may offend people.

I hope that this event sparks a much needed debate about the importance of freedom of speech and expression, as well as the role the human rights tribunals are supposedly playing in protecting these freedoms.

The one thing that I find as alarming as the people who seek to limit free speech to opinions they find favourable is the apparent apathy among, well, almost everyone. Maybe Canada needs more divisive personalities like Coulter and Moore because at least they get people talking (and hopefully thinking) about important issues.

gwarder said...

A very timely issue as author Philip Pullman has recently spoken in defense of his perhaps controversial book title "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ."


Cmille said...

I was wondering if you'd comment on this. American liberal Glenn Greenwald weighed in heavily against what he saw as the "creeping tyranny" of Canadian hate speech laws.

I wish I could come up with an adequate defense of hate speech laws because I think there it is important that we try to keep the important debates in our society civil. Coulter doesn't contribute anything to the discussion and I wonder what the conservative group(s) who invited her up here hoped to glean from her opinions. And there's an emotional component to it too; I don't much care for Coulter telling a fellow citizen to go "ride a carpet" or "ride a camel" because she has had trouble flying due to her being muslim.

But I can see the fundamental problem of trying to judge whether or not particular speech should be allowed or disallowed. Just like if you ban a book more people will want to read it, the same seems to apply for speech.

The only I can say in response to accusations from Americans like Greenwald is that the United States is hardly the paragon of free speech either. In theory, yes, but in practice, America's puritanical streak tends to win out when it comes to sex and the media. Of course that does little to address our own problems with hate speech laws in Canada.