The unpretty truth about democracy and free speech

In which one self-identified leftist finds herself keeping company with some strange bedfellows

Julie Maclellan

It’s a difficult thing, democracy.

It’s hard being open to fundamental democratic principles when so many people are ignorant, bigoted, narrow-minded, uninformed and wrong-headed in every way.

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Democracy has its limits, and we need to make sure those wrong-headed types aren’t given a platform to share their views. Newspapers shouldn’t publish letters from them, municipalities shouldn’t rent out meeting rooms to them, and they should, as a general rule, not be allowed to take part in social media discourse.

There’s just one teeny-tiny detail that needs to be ironed out: Which ones are the wrong-headed people? Who gets to decide? And where do I sign up to be part of the committee that chooses which people’s mouths get taped shut?

Yes, I’m talking about that precious commodity known as “free speech” – or, more accurately in Canada, “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”

It’s a bit of a cliché these days to yell that free speech is under attack. I don’t entirely buy that. But I can’t help but notice instance after instance of the erosion of that freedom – and, perhaps more worryingly, the erosion of people’s understanding of its importance.

The latest example? Right here in New Westminster, the city’s denial of a room rental by Jenn Smith, a transgender identified male whose fight against “transgender ideology” and the SOGI curriculum haven’t won him many friends on the left.

I’m disturbed by the idea the city can turn down a request to book a meeting room in a publicly funded facility because the subject of the meeting runs counter to the city’s “mission.”

Not that I object to that mission – who’s going to argue with wanting to live in a “caring and inclusive community” that’s “known for social inclusion and equity”? I love those qualities in my city, as it happens. It’s no secret I often find myself philosophically aligned with the current reigning viewpoint at city hall. I believe in a lot of things that place me squarely on the side of the “left,” which means I happen to be on the side of the publicly accepted “correct” viewpoint in my circles at the moment.

But what if I wasn’t?

If you consider yourself “progressive” and you’re in favour of banning Jenn Smith from speaking in a public facility, I suggest you seriously consider the repercussions of that line of thinking.

Ponder this: What if you lived in some small Alabama town dominated by conservative, pro-life thinkers and you wanted to hold a pro-choice information meeting, but you couldn’t because you were told your viewpoint didn’t align with the town’s “mission” to promote family values? Would it be OK for that hypothetical town to prevent you from sharing your views in a public meeting room?

Or what if Canada changes? What if a future government leads us further to the right than we’ve ever been before and one day you find it’s you who has become the outlier?

(Not possible, you say? Well, we live in a world that has elected such leaders as Donald Trump, Doug Ford and Boris Johnson, so I wouldn’t get too comfortable in your socialist utopia.)

Free speech has always been integral to the causes of the “left”: women’s rights, civil rights, LGBTQ rights. Yet here we are, in a topsy-turvy world where many of the same people who work passionately for the causes of equality, inclusion and justice are now the ones wanting to shut down someone else’s speech.

Take any social media discussion about any scenario involving Jenn Smith and you’ll see this dynamic at work: it’s largely the self-proclaimed left-leaning folks who argue in favour of muzzling Smith, and generally the right-leaning who say it’s a question of free speech.

Yeah, you may argue, but Jenn Smith isn’t really a “free speech” advocate. He’s all about misleading pseudoscience, and allowing him to share those views may unduly influence uninformed people.

That may be so.

But where does that leave us? What, then, are the criteria that must be met for speakers to hold meetings in city facilities? We could make it something like this: “Before you book a room, you must hand your speech in in advance. You must prove it relies upon peer-reviewed research with a prescribed amount of data to back up all your points. Once it’s been cleared by our committee of correctness, you may then book a room.”

Based upon that standard, I suspect very few public meetings about any subject would pass scrutiny.

We simply can’t have our government in the business of policing opinions in order to decide who “qualifies” for a room and who doesn’t.

Ah, but you’re forgetting, say the critics: Canadian law allows for limits on Charter freedoms, including freedom of expression, so long as said limits are "reasonable and can be justified in a free and democratic society." Canadian law also helpfully provides instances where those limits can be justified, namely obscenity, defamation and hate speech.

For the anti-Jenn-Smith crowd, the argument on that front is a pretty simple one: Canada has laws against hate speech, and what Smith is sharing is hate speech.

But is it?

That’s an actual question, not a rhetorical one. And I’ve seen it answered differently, by different people, depending upon where you stand on the subject matter Smith covers.

To disagree with the conventional wisdom of your societal circles is not, in and unto itself, a crime.  It can’t be considered “hate” to simply question current thinking on an issue – whether that’s women’s rights, trans rights, LGBTQ rights or any other subject.

If Smith goes further than that in “inciting hatred” – and to this point I’ve read nothing to convince me of that fact – then the proper course of action is to let Smith talk, report the crime to police, and let the justice system take over. Otherwise we’re living in some dangerously Minority Report-like world where you can convict a person of a crime before it’s even happened.

Here’s my solution, as simplistic as it sounds: If you don’t agree with what Jenn Smith says, then say so.

Arrive outside the facility where Smith is speaking and stand with your protest signs. Book your own room and make your own presentation to counter Smith’s. Write letters to the editor of every newspaper you can think of to explain to people why Smith is wrong. Or take a page from parents with tantruming toddlers everywhere and ignore him. Don’t go, and don’t waste your breath giving his opinions the time of day.

Here’s the crux of the matter for me: Standing in favour of freedom of expression doesn’t mean just standing up for the right to express opinions I like. It must logically mean standing in favour of the right to express views that are offensive, even repugnant, to me.

Anything less isn’t freedom at all.

While that freedom may not be absolute, it needs to be pretty damn broad in any society that wants to consider itself democratic. Ideas can be stupid, uninformed and idiotic without being illegal. They can push the boundaries of taste and not qualify as obscene. They can be offensive, hurtful, even dangerous, and still not reach the level of hate speech.

Freedom of expression needs to mean just that: freedom.

Then there’s the practical question: What do we achieve by suppressing views we don’t like?

The more we shut down views opposed to our own, the more we lose the chance for genuine discussion. I honestly believe that in this world of ours, so dominated by the vast shouty landscape that is social media, people are thirsting for genuine discussion of issues that matter.

When we shut down that discussion, we lose the chance to find common ground and to forge new understanding with people whose viewpoints are different from our own.

We create bubbles for ourselves in which we can exist perfectly happily, believing that we are on the side of righteousness, and nothing need ever shake that belief. That’s not healthy. If our beliefs can’t stand up to the scrutiny of discussion with an opponent, then we need better-thought-out beliefs.

It’s only by airing out our thoughts, beliefs and opinions in public that we have a chance to expose ideas, both good and bad, for what they really are.

I would argue that in all but the most extreme of cases, shutting down people’s right to talk achieves little good and arguably does great harm.

If daring to ask questions about SOGI leads people to point at you and yell “transphobe,” you’re not likely to come forward seeking clarification about what it really means for you and your child. If simply wondering aloud whether removing a statue or renaming a street is the best approach to reconciliation gets you called out for being “racist” and “colonial,” you’re not likely to seek out further understanding about the nuanced and complicated issues surrounding Indigenous rights.

Shutting down discussion rarely, if ever, leads to better outcomes.

The more we make people feel unheard and unwanted in the public discourse, the more we give power to the mouthpieces and demagogues who will use the disenfranchised to achieve their own ends.

As human rights activist Peter Tatchell put it in this article from the Index on Censorship:

“Free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose and protest bigoted views. Bad ideas are most effectively defeated by good ideas – backed up by ethics, reason – rather than by bans and censorship.”

Once in a long while, an idea may be so genuinely vile that it needs to be cut off at the pass. But most ideas? Unpleasant as we may find some of them, they’re part of the vast grey area in which democracy resides – and it’s only getting greyer and more complicated as rights collide in ways we could not have prophesied even a decade ago.

The whole notion of freedom of expression is fraught with complications, and I know I’m lying down with some strange bedfellows on this one.

I’m not going to pretend it’s pretty. There’s an awful lot of speech out there in this Trumpian world of ours that I don’t like at all, and defending other people’s right to hold opinions that make my heart hurt feels like the most precarious sort of double-edged sword.

But it gives me comfort to know I live, and work, in a society where I can question the status quo without fear for my job, or my security, or my life. That’s an incredible privilege that countless journalists – and indeed citizens – around the world don’t possess.

However much ugliness is out there, I’d rather live in a world where we err on the side of freedom of expression rather than not. Because I firmly believe that free and open discussion of issues that matter is our best – indeed, our only – path forward into a better society. And if we want to defeat intolerance, we can only do that by shining a light on it.

Giving bigoted and offensive people a platform to speak may be unpalatable.

But not giving it to them? That’s unthinkable.

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