From the Shadows: That’s Not What Free Speech Means

From the Shadows: That’s Not What Free Speech Means April 20, 2017

Dog with Speech Bubble by George Hodan. Courtesy
Dog with Speech Bubble by George Hodan. Courtesy

On the surface, it sounds sensible.  We believe in the right of people to say what they think.  I’m sure that’s true whether we’re Canadian or American.  This article which appeared a couple of days ago on the CBC website, seems to be highly concerned with the issue.  And this article, presented on CNN’s website the day after, is talking about the same thing.  Both are especially concerned with recent events on university campuses.

But these articles aren’t really exhorting “free speech.”  They’re exhorting us to allow fascists an opportunity to spout off speech of hate and oppression without being interrupted or challenged.  And that’s not okay with me.

Right wing writers in the media are framing the debate, forcing us to argue about the whichness of the why.  They present the reaction as if it’s an attack on “free speech,” instead of allowing us to talk about the things that the alt-right is saying, and the way in which they deliberately provoke reaction.

This isn’t what “free speech” actually means.  It means that the government has no right to censure or prosecute you for what you say (unless it’s perceived as treasonous; apparently we draw the line there.)  It does not mean that you have the right to say whatever you want to say in public.

But let’s say that it does.  Let’s assume that you have a constitutionally-protected right (whether you live in Canada or the United States) to say whatever you want to say in public.

Logically, then, others also have the right to say whatever they want to say in response to what you said.  See, you can’t have it both ways!  If, for example, you have the right to come to my university, and rail against transgender rights, I have the right to tell you that a) I don’t want to listen to your hateful trash, and b) I think you’re an a**hole.  If my friends and I want to stand there and chant “f*ck you” for two hours while you try to give your speech about how transgenderism isn’t “real,” so we should deliberately misgender our trans friends in order to shame them into conforming, like this guy (who, I’m sorry to say, is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto,) then we have that right too.

The “alt-right” has recently lulled itself into a happy little fantasy about the “intolerant left.”  They would have us all believe that objecting to hate speech makes us a bunch of fascists.  Apparently they think that they should be allowed to go on at length against human rights for women, Muslims, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people, and we’re supposed to just shut up and take it.

This logic is faulty and is selectively applied besides the point.  Let’s look at the example provided by these two articles.

The CBC article begins by highlighting the difficulties of Kevin Arriola, who is trying to get his group for “men’s issues and men’s mental health” established at the Ryerson University, but who has been denied official status because his group is perceived by the student union as being anti-feminist and anti-women.  To be honest, I’m inclined to be sympathetic.  It’s true that there are those who assume that focusing at all on the concerns of men is opposed to women, and this is not the case.  Men have legitimate concerns that only affect them in our changing society and they need a place to talk about those things too.  I’m not even opposed to men getting together and spouting off about women, because I know for a fact that often women get together and spout off about men, and then we get over it and go back to our lives.

Of course, we don’t have the full context.  Who is Kevin Arriola?  What does he mean by “men’s issues” exactly?  We can’t assume it means anti-feminist and anti-women, but it is also true that the phrase “men’s issues” is often being used as a dog whistle (and not even a good one) these days by people who are.  It tends to make us cautious.

Then the article asks us to have sympathy for the plight of Amberlee Nicol, whose anti-abortion display was disrupted by protesters, and who has now been asked to pay a considerable fee for security to do it for a second year.  Well, again, it seems a bit much, but I understand that she was displaying graphic pictures of dismembered fetuses from late-term abortions done for medical reasons.  That’s deliberate provocation.

Then, under the inflammatory header “Mob Censorship,” the following quote:

That’s what happened in Berkeley, Calif., in February, when protests against a scheduled talk by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos devolved into riots, and the event was ultimately cancelled.

Okay, are you familiar with this guy?  The very fact that this person is being called a “far-right commentator” is a clear sign to me of just how far political discourse has fallen, because this guy is just a flat-out jerk.  He’s not a right-wing anything, unless you want to admit that “right-wing” means “hateful, fascist, abusive, self-centered, elitist a**hole,” because that’s what this guy is.  He’s exactly like the name-calling bullies in the schoolyard who start crying and tattling when someone finally has enough of being abused and punches him in the face.

Sorry, CBC.  You’ve lost me.

See, Milo Yiannopoulos absolutely has the right to say whatever he wants.  But that does not obligate me to listen!  I would argue (as would most Canadians) that his right to say whatever he wants stops when he begins to advocate abuse or violence.  And make no mistake: arguing any sort of justification for treating one kind of human as lesser to another is indeed, abuse and violence.

Granted, Berkeley went a little far.  But this is exactly what Yiannopoulos wants.  The alt-right continues to force their opinions on places where they’re not wanted, and then displays the angry results as “proof” of their “persecution.”  As if they don’t own every vehicle of power in the United States.  If you go into a black neighbourhood in Harlem and scream the N word, the results are likely to be somewhat predictable.  This is not really an attack on your “free speech.”

The article goes on to tell me:

Student protesters pulled the fire alarm at a talk given by Rebel Media founder Ezra Levant at the University of Toronto last year.

Have you read Rebel Media?  Apparently the leftist libtards are out to destroy all of society by turning everyone into feminists and gays, and the Muslims are the barbarian hordes at the gate who seek to bring down all of Christiandom, if environmentalism doesn’t kill all the jobs and make us starve to death first.

Well, I’m a leftist, and a feminist, and an environmentalist, and one of those “evil LGBTQ” people.  I resent being called a “libtard,” and my mother taught me that I have no obligation to put up with being called stupid names by stupid people.  Oh, what?  I called the publishers of Rebel Media “stupid?”  That’s not allowed?  Why not?  They call me stupid all the time, and threaten to murder and dox me and people like me, and apparently I’m a “special snowflake” if I object, and I’m the “fascist intolerant left” if I threaten to take matters into my own hands instead.

But if I don’t allow them to say all those things, I’m limiting their “free speech.”  Nuh uh.  You can’t have it both ways.

Then the next paragraph:

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson knows what it’s like to have campus events disrupted — his rallies are frequently the target of protesters for his views on free speech. Peterson regularly speaks out against federal Bill C-16, which would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. Peterson sees the legislation as a threat to free speech because it would force him to address people by their preferred gender pronouns.

There are so many things wrong here that I hardly know where to begin.

First, I object to the characterization that this man is “the target of protesters for his views on free speech.”  No, he’s the target of protesters who object to him treating human rights and human dignity as optional and conditional according to your own ideas and prejudices.  Put more specifically, he’s the target of protesters who object to his transphobic rhetoric.

Second, in Canada it is already illegal to discriminate on the basis of “sex.”  This is enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is to us what your American Constitution is to you, and since its writing, has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to be “not limited” to the items specifically mentioned.  Bill C-16 is an attempt to fix an unintentional oversight in the specifics of the law that are in the spirit of its obvious intention, and it is necessary because of hair-splitters like Peterson who want excuses to discriminate.

Third, if I wanted to be addressed as “Smokey the Bear,” common politeness should direct you to do so!  Refusing to address trans people by their preferred pronouns is self-righteous, arrogant, and just plain rude, even if you disagree with every other point against it.

Fourth, here’s the dictionary definition of “bigot.”  Yes, Peterson, you clearly are one.

A brief few paragraphs are offered to a dissenting view from a transgender student from the disrupted rally.  This is done to make the article appear unbiased.  This is a trick I see more and more in the media all the time.  But note that it is a lone dissenting voice, from someone who is part of one of the groups in question who obviously has a vested interest in disagreement with these “far-right” people who are being made out to be champions of “free speech.”  Note that unlike them, she is not the leader of a major media company, a bestselling book author and TV personality, or a tenured professor.  I’m sure there are many such professionally respected people who disagree with the others spoken of in the article, but we have not been permitted to hear from them.

Now that they have given the condescending nod to the left, we get back to another so called right-wing “free speech advocate,” and he’s a lawyer:

Lawyer John Carpay says the Criminal Code covers them, just as it covers everyone else.

After his quote, it goes on to say:

Carpay, who founded the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in Calgary, is representing several students who say they’ve been censored on campus, including Arriola and Nicol, who are taking their respective administrations to court for violating their right to free speech.

The JCCF publishes an annual Campus Freedom Index, which tracks incidents of what the organization considers censorship on Canadian campuses.

So, does it tell us who the JCCF are?  Well, here’s the Wikipedia article on these guys.  I think the last paragraph is particularly telling:

While JCCF is a non-partisan group the organization publishes endorsements by individuals associated with right-of-centre politics including pundit Ezra Levant as well as leading figures of think tanks and activist groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Institute of Family and Marriage Canada (research arm of Focus on the Family Canada), Montreal Economic InstituteSociety for Academic Freedom and ScholarshipInstitute for Liberal StudiesMacdonald-Laurier Institute, and Fraser Institute.

This is a laundry list of most of the top corporatist and alt-right groups in Canada.  The only ones missing are La Meute, the Soldiers of Odin, and Atalante Québec.  It’s not a lie that this piece of information was omitted, because anyone could look it up, just as I did.  But they didn’t bother to point it out, did they?  And in this busy world, do you have the time and energy to actively research every vaguely-official sounding group mentioned in an article?

This is how far the conversation has been dragged to the right in Canada.  In the United States, I personally think it’s gone right down the rabbit hole.  Conveniently, the day after the first article appeared on CBC’s website, this article appeared on CNN’s.  It could have been a coincidence, or it could simply be that one article inspired the other — after all, I am inclined to wax rhetoric on issues in the Pagan world brought up by other Pagan bloggers — but the timing is interesting.  Imagine, both the major Canadian and the major American news-site having a similar article about how alt-right views are being shut down on university campuses and this “threatens free speech,” within one day of each other!  What are the odds?

I’m not going to give this article the same deconstructionist treatment.  I’m just going to point out some of the highlights:

Free speech came to fisticuffs before alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer could even begin his speech at Auburn University.

“Alt-right white nationalist.”  What does that mean?  Well, it means “Nazi” or “fascist,” doesn’t it?  If this, the opening line of the piece, read, “Nazi Richard Spencer’s speech at Auburn University was interrupted by fisticuffs,” I’m sure no one would be surprised.  Or sympathetic.

Apparently, it should be okay to preach about the oppression of all non-white races in a public space.  Okay; I’m going to take a twelve-foot statue of Baphomet and go preach the virtues of Satanism over at Liberty University.  Because, you know, they would listen respectfully and courteously in the interests of protecting my “free speech,” right?  I’m sure the opening line of the piece would read, “Religious leader Sable Aradia’s speech led to fisticuffs before it even began.”

Auburn had tried four days earlier to cancel Spencer’s speech Tuesday night. But a federal judge forced the public university to let him exercise his First Amendment rights.

So, they tried to cancel the speech because they knew there might be trouble, and they were forced to do it anyway, and there was trouble.  Hmm.  Do you think that same judge would force Liberty University to hear my presentation?  Certainly that judge hasn’t forced them to allow openly gay students on their campus yet, which, one could argue, would be an expression of their free speech (even if you don’t agree that it’s discrimination).

The episode comes amid what critics say is a growing intolerance for the exchange of ideas at American colleges and universities. In recent months battles over free speech on campuses have descended into violence across the nation.

The University of California, Berkeley, erupted into near-riots in February during protests against professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and again last week over President Donald Trump. When political scientist Charles Murray spoke last month at Middlebury College in Vermont, protesters got so rowdy that a professor accompanying him was injured.

More and more American universities are avoiding controversial speech altogether by banning polarizing speakers. On Wednesday Berkeley said it would seek to cancel next week’s scheduled speech by right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, citing safety concerns.

Okay.  I’ve covered Milo; “professional provocateur” is probably a really good description of what he does.  Charles Murray writes about how “white America” is in deep trouble (probably true) and how poor people deserve it because they’re stupid.  Conveniently he also asserts that black people have lower IQs than white people.  And I once skimmed curiously through Coulter’s book How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) (although the title probably should have told me everything I needed to know.)  She writes about how liberals are traitors to America!

These people are not interested in the “exchange of ideas.”  They want a public license to advocate for putting people of colour in ghettos.  No, I don’t have any tolerance for that.  Not one little bit.

Assaults on college free speech have been waged for decades, but they used to be top-down, originating with government or school administrators.

Today, experts say, students and faculty stifle speech themselves, especially if it involves conservative causes.

What “experts?”  That’s a vague sort of “nameless others,” isn’t it?  Do you know about the “nameless others?”  That’s a tactic antagonists use to give their troublemaking a perceived gravitas it doesn’t have.  In this case, the “nameless experts” are attempting to undermine the quite-reasonable demand of the left that everyone be treated with dignity and fairness.

Under the inflammatory header “Liberals are more likely than Conservatives to suppress speech”:

Meanwhile, left-leaning speakers routinely appear on university campuses without fuss.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains an incomprehensive database of more than 300 attempts to disinvite campus speakers since 2000. About three-quarters of the attempts involved pressure from liberals.

Oh, goody!  Another organization to look up.  Despite the cheerful disagreement of its Wikipedia article, reading down you can easily find that FIRE spends most of its time and effort fighting school policies against sexual harassment and fighting for the right of homophobic and racist groups to come speak to audiences who are not interested.

Seriously, I’m going to polish up my speech for Liberty University and demand my right to speak there.  I’m going to demand these guys defend me too.  How far do you think I’ll get?

Oh, and did you notice the sly use of the word “incomprehensive” there?  I originally read it as “comprehensive” myself, when I skimmed through it (as most of us do).  It’s the opposite of comprehensive, isn’t it?  Again, they’re not lying, but they clearly mean you to misread it.  One might also have used “personal,” “speculative,” “biased,” or even “limited” and the meaning would have been much clearer.

In conclusion, I think I’d like to draw attention to two of these headers in the CNN article:

Students believe that bigots hide behind the First Amendment.

Yes.  Yes they do.

This is a concerted effort to force “alt-right” opinions on everyone else.  They are going to places that are known to be liberal and waving their genitals in our faces, sneering, “What are you gonna do about it?”  In the end, these guys are no better than NAMBLA demanding the right to present at a public school and then getting upset when they are publicly disagreed with.

They (students) will listen to speakers they disagree with if they’re civil.

Yes!  Why don’t we try some common freakin’ courtesy?  Stop telling trans people they’re crazy; stop telling feminists they’re stupid; stop telling environmentalists they hate business; stop sneering at “Social Justice Warriors” and “intersectionality” and “multiculturalism;” using “cuck” or “feminazi” or “libtard” or the damned N word!  Then maybe, I would be interested in listening to you respectfully.

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