Thursday, February 25, 2016

Free speech in Canada

There is an on-going case right now in Quebec that, until today, I honestly had no idea was happening, which should say something about the current focus of media attention.

The case concerns the comedy of Mike Ward, who in a segment in 2012 that I can only partially understand (curse my limited, but improving, French) made fun of a singing teenage boy with deformities caused by Treacher Collins syndrome. The joke was apparently offensive enough to cause the subject, Jérèmy Gabel, to lose his confidence and become "intimidated" at school. Thus the Quebec human rights tribunal has become involved, and forced Ward to defend his jokes.

This probably makes me a bad liberal, but I find that Ward being judged before the tribunal to be far more offensive and intimidating than his crappy joke on a comedy set.

Then again, I'm one of those liberals who has always been a bit uneasy with our nation's restrictions on speech. I'll admit that I have been conflicted over Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, and when it was legislated away I didn't shed any tears - but the key word there is being "conflicted," because I recognize the problems such laws try to address. No one wants to let racists and xenophobes whip up fools into a violent frenzy against others, and there should be something in place to stop them from doing so, I get it.

Yet overreach with such laws is inevitable, and Mike Ward's case is the perfect example of it. Why is the government coming down from on high in a bid to regulate the speech of an individual who made a stupid, but non-life-threatening, joke, and why does that not give pause to many more people than it currently does? To what point do people believe the government needs to go to punish someone's speech just because it offends someone else? Are we to all bow down and limit our speech and thoughts just because someone with a personality on a hair trigger might become upset, or another person might use a joke to bully?

Yes yes, I know, slippery slope and all that, obviously we've had these laws for decades and we aren't all forced to use newspeak. I also understand there are consequences for speech, and I fully embrace that concept - after all, if you don't like Mike Ward's comedy, don't see it, speak out against it, and counteract it with positive messaging. I'm sure there are plenty of people who will support you, myself among them (helps that I never heard of the guy before now).

But when you use the government and ominous tribunals to punish speech, you should have a damn good reason. You're invoking the power of an authority with a monopoly on the use of force, that is a very serious reaction to a joke about you. People should recognize and respect the power of government, not use it to overwhelm someone else  because your feelings were hurt. It is patently ridiculous to be so upset as to trivialize the job of our authorities, and worse still, give the government precedents to act upon in the future.

I don't want my speech to be regulated by anything except the standards of decency in society that I must subscribe to if I want to interact with others in a pleasant manner. That's what political correctness is, you know - being decent to other human beings. But not every person is decent or cares about being so, yet they're still imbued with the same rights to speech that I have, so why would I want them to be subject to onerous punishment for exercising their rights, just because they lack empathy and decency? That completely defeats the purpose of a society we like to insist is just and fair to all, not to mention threatens my own rights.

Again, this probably makes me a bad liberal - everything these days is about how to protect the vulnerable from jackasses like Ward. Yet using the power of government and laws to force consequences for offensive and disagreeable speech only invites politicians and demagogues to react in ways I don't think we want them to.

Yes, I am referring to the recent condemnation by our nation's legislature of the BDS movement. I have no love lost for BDS and definitely some concerns about its backers, but then again I also recognize that they have the right to advocate for whatever they'd like without violence. Not every BDS supporter is a crazed anti-Semetic lunatic, but Parliament and, in a shameful moment for me, most Liberals decided to use the weight of government to condemn them all because, lets be frank, politics, and because the precedent is there for them to do so.

Free speech, free association and yes, free thought have just been officially condemned by the government of Canada, and the people on the left justifiably freak out - yet a second-rate comedian makes an offensive joke and is dragged before a tribunal, and no one bats an eye. All I ask is for some consistency and for free speech to be, you know, free, whether I like that speech or not.

People wonder how Trump could have been created. I don't, I know exactly why, and I know we have no one to blame but ourselves when we have the government enforce consequences for non-violent speech. It needs to end somewhere.

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