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2008 03 25
No Obligation to not Offend?

With mainstream media attention recurring weekly, scrutiny of human rights commissions has been unprecedented in 2008. But not any more. Now it’s just about daily. Even on Saturdays and Sundays.

Nothing even suggests abatement. Instead of subsiding, mainstream criticism is escalating. Swelling. And today it might be just about to burst. Because, as the Post’s Joseph Brean announced,
.. Tuesday, at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in Ottawa, one of Canada's most prominent white supremacist propagandists.. will put the country's entire human rights bureaucracy on the witness stand… The curious thing.. is that Mr. Lemire, the last president of the now defunct neo-Nazi Heritage Front, enjoys the qualified support of a Liberal MP, PEN Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association -- even a leader of B'nai Brith Canada.
Which so goes to showing and telling how questionable the antics of human rights bureaucracies seem to Canadians. By all means -- let’s find out. This day the interrogators get interrogated.

How has it come to this? Why do we regard human rights commissions with such suspicion? How have human rights bureaucracies heaped such undivided public disrepute upon themselves?

The Star’s Haroon Siddiqui would like us to believe shameless detractors have got nothing to object but justified limitations to free speech. That’s the only reason why detractors, as he alludes,
.. argue that human rights commissions have no business limiting free speech. [Despite how] by law it is the business of several of these tribunals to assess and curb hate speech…
What nonsense, Mr. Siddiqui. We get that speech must sometimes be constrained. As when shouting “Fire!” in crowded theatres. And we totally get how justified tribunals are to curb hate speech. What we do not and should not get is these tribunals hurdling from curbing hate speech to imposing false obligations to not offend on Canadians.

That’s what we do not and should not get. How, as Darren Lund warned, these tribunals test the limits of expression:
[Far as tribunals are concerned] ..the test is fairly straightforward: Freedom of expression must be limited when it calls for hatred and violence against vulnerable people.
Because, should Mr. Lund be right as we suspect -- that kind of testing isn’t just wrong. It’s evil. Nobody is invulnerable to hatred and violence. When it comes to human rights, expressing hatred and calling for violence must always be limited. Always. Not just when these tribunals deem whatsoever expression to be against the vulnerable -- i.e., by the invulnerable or not so vulnerable.

Tests for limiting expression must absolutely never fail to address real distinctions between hate speech -- and speech which is merely offensive. Regardless who speakers are deemed to be. All hate speech is offensive. But not every offensive expression qualifies as hate speech. For how invariably offensive are inconvenient and troubling truths? Just so. By failing to distinguish hate from offensive speech, by creating false obligations to not offend, what will tribunals most particularly silence? Most particularly: inconvenient and troubling truths.

Tribunals must cease curbing people from shouting “Fire!” in crowded theatres whenever there actually are fires in crowded theatres. Regard for truth must be understood to contradict allegations of hatred. Hatred entails some sufficiently reckless disregard for truth. Otherwise, if identity of speakers suffices for tribunals to conclude hatred absent any disregard for truth in speech, then tribunals assail the most basic fundamental values and principles of Canadian society.

Invulnerability of speakers? Vulnerability of listeners? For how long? If tribunals keep hinging hatred on identity, how long before Canadian society becomes stratified by systems of enforced deference? How long until regard for truth ceases to protect against allegations of hatred or defamation? How long until we cease daring expressing any truth to power?

Hinging hatred on identity is precisely contrary to human rights. Contrary to the basic fundamental rights of each, every and all Canadians. That’s why we must resist tribunals imposing obligations to not offend on Canadians. Guard against tribunals’ inquisitorial character. Because this is how the long and slippery slope to totalitarianism spirals. With initially isolated scapegoating and witch-hunting. But only to start with.

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University.]

Image above screenshot from here.
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 03/25 at 12:49 PM

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