guest blogger hans with another brilliant piece:
Drat. U of Ottawa gets it right for once
I never thought a university provost would be on my shortlist of favourite people of the week. But, after Francois Houle wrote a letter to American conservative hate-monger Ann Coulter this week warning her not to engage in hate speech during her visit to the University of Ottawa campus, I must admit that for once, the University of Ottawa seems to have done something right (for a list of everything that it’s done wrong, check out this gem of a website ).
To be honest, I think the letter’s hilarious. Houle writes to Coulter: “I would...like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States...You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges...Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well. I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country...”
Forget ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ – this guy needs to be outfitted with a reality TV show *stat*. His letter basically boils down to “So Ann...we’re a bit different than you...we don’t tolerate hate...you might think this makes us bad but it actually makes us more intelligent and civilized than you...have a lovely visit.” That sort of material shouldn’t be wasted in the ivory tower – this dude could make Nigel Lythgoe cry.
Unfortunately, Canadian media commentators don’t seem to agree. The furious outcry from media commentators in both countries has been overwhelming. I’m not surprised the American media doesn’t agree with Houle, but the Canadians? That’s what surprises me. Instead of being proud that somebody has actually pointed out that our definitions of ‘free speech’ ARE different from country to country (go read the Charter of Rights if you disagree), they act like they’re ashamed of it. Forget that it’s the law, what are you ashamed of?
Yeah, I understand that defending free speech is everybody’s favourite pastime these days. It’s easy and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and self-righteous inside. Sort of like all those heroic “give me liberty or give me death” types in the movies, risking danger and persecution for their beliefs.
But the fact is, these defenders of free speech *don’t* face danger and persecution for their beliefs. They’re white, predominantly male, and – since spouting opinions in the media is lucrative business these days – pretty well off in the pocketbook. The ones who face danger and persecution are the ones Ann Coulter is bashing. Muslims, gays, and all those other people who don’t fit her image of the perfect American. (and for all those ‘gimme liberty or gimme death’ types, where were you when American media networks refused to air tampon ads for using the word vagina? Would you prefer a country where it’s illegal to talk about the human body but legal to call for the deaths of all Muslims, or one where we can talk about the human body but not espouse murder and genocide? I know what my choice would be...)
Now Ann Coulter says she’s being discriminated against and having her rights suspended because she’s a conservative. She’s not. Canada tolerates plenty of Conservatives that nobody likes. We even let one be prime minister. Coulter is having her rights suspended because she calls on her public to murder Muslims and beat up people for their sexuality.
The fact is, commentators shouldn’t be so quick to defend Ann Coulter’s right to hate speech until they’ve had the experience of turning on the radio or television, and hearing somebody say to a public audience that they’re worthless, less than human and ought to be killed. Because that’s precisely what Ann Coulter does. Sound like a joke? Well that’s exactly how genocide has been launched in countless countries around the world, time and time again. Check here for a chilling example).
The truth of the matter is that hate crimes, murder and genocide don’t begin with somebody going on the radio and saying “Ok, bring out your guns and shoot your neighbours.” They begin with HUMOR. They begin with making fun of people. And they’re facilitated by people who help it along by saying “oh, lighten up” instead of by saying “give it up, murder ain’t funny.” They begin with Ann Coulter yelling at Muslims in her audience to “go ride a camel” back to where they came from – and hundreds of audience members LAUGHING because they’re too cowardly and lack the courage to do anything else. Seeing somebody of her stature make fun of Muslims (or gays, or French-Canadians, or whoever) teaches other people that they can make fun of them too, and become popular for it. Making fun of people teaches us that we don’t have to respect them. That we don’t have to treat them the same. That we can make jokes about them to their face, like Ann Coulter does. And if we can do that, then maybe we can trip them up on the way to the water cooler. And then maybe spray-point jokes and slurs on their cars. And then maybe if we’re having a bad day, burn down their houses and take their possessions. Hatred grows incrementally. But it grows quickly. Just ask anybody who grew up in Nazi Germany and saw their country go from a modern, constitutional European democracy to a genocidal fascist police state in UNDER. FIVE. YEARS. Doesn’t take long when you let your guard down.
And in North America, we’re starting to let that guard down. In the wake of media hate-mongers like Ann Coulter, there’s been a 10% rise in hate crimes in the United States in the past five years. A 2007 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 2430 victims of anti-LBGTQ violence in the US in that year: a 25% INCREASE from the previous year. Murders of LBGTQ persons – committed as hate crimes – DOUBLED (from 10 to 21). In other words, we’re sliding down a dark path backwards, and we’re sliding quick. Given a choice being letting Ann Coulter speak to a public audience, and saving even one of those 21 lives, which would you choose?
You wanna be *really* courageous and “liberty or death”? Then consider that maybe it’s not free speech that needs defending so much as the fellow human beings whose lives are threatened at the hands of those who abuse it.
Free speech and free expression? Yeah, I believe in those things. As an anarchist punk, I was raised on them. I believe in graffiti on private property, loud music after midnight and drinking in public. I even believe in pirating music and smoking around children. But I draw the line at words that are designed to hate and kill.