Posts Tagged ‘ hate speech ’

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

jordanpeterson2

In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)

Hypocrisy on Free Speech and “Protecting Freedom.”

On June 6th (the same night that the trans human rights Bill C-279 advanced to committee) Conservative MP for Westlock – St. Paul, Brian Storseth’s Private Member’s Bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom), passed Third Reading in the House of Commons, and advanced to the Senate for ratification.  Bill C-304 abolishes Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which pertains to electronic communication of hate speech.

Sun Media commentator Ezra Levant barely got through taking credit for the bill’s passage before taking advantage of a recent censure of comments he made on his television show to change focus and declare his intent to destroy the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) within the coming year, in the name of freedom of speech.

Both are the culmination of roughly ten years of media campaigning against speech-related laws and standards, and while the principle of freedom of speech is admirable, the application being upheld and idealized by speechies is already showing its proponents’ hypocrisy.

Bill C304 is one of several Private Members’ Bills that pundits have been watching, concerned that the procedure may be used by Conservatives to pass legislation that the party wants to maintain some plausible deniability about (another bill which has provoked concern is Blake Richards’ C-309, which proposes to ban masks at protests).  And given the questionable Reform Party -era ties to hate groups, plausible deniability was probably a politically prudent approach for the Conservatives to take.  Liberal and NDP Members of Parliament have previously spoken out against Storseth’s bill, but often expressed that they felt it was too contentious to pass.

Section 13 was one of the approaches used to defuse the inciting of racial hatred in Canada, and had been thought of as a way to keep neo-Nazis in check, although it’s historical use has been mixed and controversial.  Ernst Zundel was the focus of several different actions against hate speech that he published in print and on his website, before he was finally deported to Germany, where they had no qualms about convicting him of 14 counts of inciting racial hatred.  In December 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada also finally upheld a conviction against Jim Keegstra for a 1984 arrest after teaching Social Studies students that the Holocaust never happened.

But hate speech legislation began to lose popular support when it was used to target Macleans magazine and writer Mark Steyn for articles promoting what evolved into “Demographic Winter” lore (i.e. fears that Islamic Fundamentalists were outpopulating Western nations and would “win” by sheer numbers).  It was also used against former Western Standard publisher turned Spin News Network commentator and entertainer Ezra Levant for publishing cartoons that portrayed the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist.  Proceedings were later thrown out or dropped, but not without some personal cost to each, highlighting some concerns that call for some legitimate reform.

Personally, I’m not all that partial to speech legislation.  I do agree that there needs to be something there to address the extremes of Zundel and Whatcott, but also that there has to be restraint on its use and the way it’s prosecuted. But at the same time, for as much as there are accusations of “fascist” motives from both left and right-wing pundits in our increasingly polarized political climate, the abolition of speech law does disarm a tool that could have provided a means to bring something of that nature about.

Free Speech and the Responsibility That Comes With It

I wrote about the subject earlier, when discussing Bill Whatcott’s Supreme Court trial, a proceeding which concerns a Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ruling:

Hateful speech is never free.  While an individual comment, or poster, or ad, or flier may be free speech, the weight of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions serve to demonize communities, alienate them, and discourage them from participating in society.  As it becomes more common, accumulated hatefulness makes it seem acceptable or (to some) even necessary to act on that, and by knowing this, entire communities are terrorized in a way by each new onslaught.

And yet there is a danger in criminalizing speech.  The same groups that hate is already designed to silence and intimidate into hiding could very easily become the same groups that society seeks to silence first, when given the tool of speech legislation.

Ideally, hateful speech should be answered, and called out.  Hateful speech must be answered.  It must be responded to.  Freedom of speech is not simply a question of saying or publishing anything and everything that one might wish to say.  It comes with a responsibility to answer to these things, and call them out as attitudes that need to change.  The problem is that it typically isn’t answered to by the majority, and if sufficient inequality or disparate antipathy exists, the minority may either feel too disenfranchised to respond, or the channels that they need to respond in aren’t interested in giving them the opportunity.

Spin News Network personalities get particularly poor marks for positioning themselves as apparent free speech champions by promoting Islamophobes like Geert Wilders and trying to provoke hate speech complaints of their own, while at the same time making a point to run Charles McVety’s transphobic / homophobic ads without criticism or contrary opinion, calling to ban Islamic speakers, and justifying the barring of entry to people like Bill Ayers.  If freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to counter those things that are hateful, then Sun Media has repeatedly shed that responsibility whenever it has been politically inconvenient to their editorial viewpoint, like skin of an embarrassing colour.

In addition to facilitating dialogue instead of squelching it, freedom of speech also comes with a responsibility to maintain some civility and decorum.  Canada’s speechies often fail on that count as well.  In the most recent example, Levant was condemned by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for an uncivil tirade last December, and his response was to flip CBSC the bird.  Civility too, it seems, is no longer in fashion.

Broadcast Standards Under Fire

Levant took the opportunity to take up a campaign to destroy the CBSC:

“According to the Canadian Broadcast Stan- uh, Censors Council, that’s not actually what got me in trouble.  What got me in trouble was my point of view.  I wasn’t -quote- ‘balanced.’ Now, I have an opinion, that’s my job actually, to have an opinion.  I don’t pretend to be a ‘neutral’ reporter here, my job is to put out my opinion forcefully….”

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council was set up at the initiative of Canadian television networks, for the purpose of establishing limits that would help immunize the industry against the kinds of complaints that could potentially result in a drive toward real censorship.  It has allowed the actual government body in play — the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — to refer complaints back to a body that champions the idea of media policing itself, rather than taking any binding action of its own.  Spin News Network has been upset with the CRTC ever since the latter twice refused to make special exceptions for the station so that it could have preferred carrier status, which would put it near the top of the dial and make it mandatory for cable networks to provide it prominently.  It’s not hard to guess who foxnewsnorth‘s Sun TV’s endgame target will be, but for now, the buffer of the CBSC is in the way.

To that end, Ezra Levant has promised a 5-point campaign to destroy the Council within the coming year, by:

1. Systematically violating the CBSC’s standards on a daily basis, and inviting other censured people on his program for the purpose of reoffending;
2. Picking out what Levant describes as inconsistencies and phrasing the CBSC’s function as being outside the law — of course, the CBSC wasn’t set up as a legal body (and consequently, its rulings are non-binding), but as a voluntary code of practices that televised media in Canada decided to set for itself and abide by;
3. Mobilizing right-wingers to comment and blog incessantly on the subject;
4. Getting a bill started in Parliament — this could be interesting, since the CBSC is not a government body nor a legal body, but a voluntary media board (though to be fair, for a station to get a better placement on the dial, there is a CRTC requirement to abide by the code); and
5. Mobilizing viewers to flood MPs, the PM and the Heritage Minister with emails and letters

So, far from accepting the responsibilities that go with freedom of speech, Sun News Network and at least one commentator are dedicated to actively working against anything that encourages these responsibilities, however symbolic and voluntary it might be.

The Overton Window and Harper’s Stake

To be fair, Spin News Network and Sun Media are private corporations, and not under any obligation to provide air time or column space to dissenting voices, although arguing this point says something interesting about fair and unbiased media in Canada.  For the Harper Conservatives, reaping the accolades from right-wing supporters over the passage of C-304 and acting as a government that is supposed to work on behalf of all Canadians, the same can’t be said.

The Harper Government has played both sides of the “free speech” equation by happily positioning themselves as free speech champions, while waging an economic stifling of speech through the defunding of environmental science, status of women groups, Aboriginal advocacy and human rights organizations and yet maintaining charitable status and even financial subsidies for partisan political supporters and think tanks that consistently produce convenient reports.  At times, the government’s imbalanced treatment has led to intimidation tactics and accusations of terrorism in order to marginalize political opponents.  The end result is a faux free speech environment in which state sanctioned speech is signal-boosted to the tune of millions of dollars, and dissent is economically marginalized to the point of having little to no avenue through which to counter spin.

Here’s why these responsibilities matter.  Before his death in 2003, Joseph Overton, vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (a think tank devoted to free market ideology), proposed a political concept that has since become known as “The Overton Window.”  At any given moment, the window of popular sentiment and political viability is in flux, and the key to achieving policy is to expand or shift the window to encompass it.  This is done by changing the conversation through several means — including repetition, erasure and ridicule of opposition, manipulation and spin — until an idea shifts from being previously unthinkable and then radical to becoming acceptable, seemingly sensible and then popular… until it is inevitably established as policy.

If this resonates with the dramatic polarization that has been taking place in the past few years on political topics like environmentalism, abortion and birth control, government budgeting and austerity, LGBT rights, police powers, public health care, bullying, and social programs like EI and welfare, then you’ve obviously noticed the explosion of concerted campaigns to shift that window.  And move, it clearly has.  I’m betting that most of us in our lifetime never would have thought we’d be fighting for the availability of the Pill, watching neo-conservatives fight for the right to deny medical care, or expecting CNN to run a semi-sympathetic profile of a “kinder, gentler” Ku Klux Klan.

This happens not from free speech, but from abdicating the responsibilities that come with it — or, in the case of defunding and silencing unfavorable speech, making concerted efforts to control the conversation.

The free speech advocates in media and government are less interested in promoting diversity of speech, and more interested in shifting the window of where and how that speech occurs.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

Hate Speech on Trial in Canada

If you lived in certain parts of Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto over the past decade, there’s a chance you’ve encountered or at least heard about flyers distributed by Bill Whatcott.  These fliers are typically peppered with photos of naked or half-naked gay men kissing (or in at least one instance, engaging in oral sex), with face photos of political opponents or “villains” placed strategically to cover genitalia or buttocks.  Some of the photos are from Pride events, putting Whatcott in a class with “Porno” Peter LaBarbera, but with a dash of Martin “poo porn” Ssempa thrown in. And perhaps the comparison is more appropriate than it first seems: LaBarbera has defended attempts in Uganda to make homosexuality punishable by death, while Ssempa has used exactly this kind of sentiment to whip up the nation’s population to support the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

In Edmonton, Whatcott borrowed a tactic from cigarette packaging, and distributed a flyer that attempted to portray homosexuality as a public health emergency that needed stamping out, complete with graphic photos of anal warts (from whence his nickname on my blog derives).    A 2009 flyer included a rendition of “Kill the Homosexuals,” a rewrite of a song entitled “Kill the Christians” by Decide on their album, Off the Cross — which was, ironically but appropriately, also the subject of a 2003 human rights complaint.

The 2001 – 2002 flyers that Whatcott is on trial for attempt to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, and are peppered with incendiary invectives.  The Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission initially ruled against Whatcott for the flyers, but the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturned it.  The Supreme Court of Canada heard the case this week, including testimony from what is believed to be the largest number of legal intervenors in any court case in Canadian history. Continue reading