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2008 03 15
No Right to Not be Offended?

We all know the joke.
“How does one identify Canadians in international crowds?”
“Easy. Step on everyone’s toes. Only Canadians apologise when their toes get stepped on.”
Funny how true that is. Applies most remarkably to distinguishing Canadians from other North-Americans. The more brash, outspoken or vulgar our southern neighbours get, the less offensive we get. As if it were our job to make up for their exuberance. Provide countervailing balance to North-American culture. Be prim as proper church-ladies at Jerry Springer choir auditions.

No Jerry beads for us -– but thanks for offering.

Our correctness isn’t just political. It is by long and distinguishing cultural tradition that Canadians remain inoffensive.

Nevertheless, Canadians are fully committed to freedom of expression. Regardless what absurdities human rights commissions might consider. Absurdities so aptly summarised by Darren Lund:
Freedom of expression must be limited when it calls for hatred and violence against vulnerable people.
Nonsense, Mr. Lund. Freedom of expression must always be limited whenever expressing hatred, calling for violence or defaming. Always. No person is invulnerable to hatred, violence or defamation. And it is precisely the apprehension of bias such as yours that has brought tremendous public disrepute to human rights commissions proceedings.

Nobody should ever be presumed invulnerable to hatred, violence or defamation. Not in any free, democratic or minimally just society. Because societies turn totalitarian when rejecting human rights as fundamentally and inalienably inhering to each and every member. When basic human rights become privileges to which only some get entitled. Regardless whether those entitled to basic human rights on any particular day be deemed as sufficiently vulnerable, sufficiently powerful, sufficiently virtuous or whatever else. Either human rights remain fundamentally inalienable -– for all -– or we subject and subjugate human rights to expedience, to circumstance and to group dynamics.

Either basic human rights -– or special privileges. Not both. Either everyone gets protected from express hatred, violence or defamation. Or some get granted special privileges to not be offended while we open seasons to targeting the rest. As if the rest were either invulnerable or -– if vulnerable -– not human. Not entitled to having their human rights protected.

Why would Mr. Lund even suggest human rights commissions become special privileges tribunals? No doubt due to some confusion rather than any plain evil. Distributive social justice requires recognizing and assisting materially vulnerable people. Most likely, Mr. Lund went leaping from the concept of assisting some to notions of denying the human rights of everyone else. The sort of leaping so reflexive among those devoted to ideologies of gender, race and class struggling. But the justice of socially assisting some must not and can not mean denying the basic human rights of others. The very possibility of justice hinges on human rights enduring for all Canadians.

Mr. Lund might conceivably be correct that human rights commissions become special privileges tribunals. Thus, precisely due to our apprehensions of the bias entailed, Canadians have repeated affirming there is no right to not be offended –- and no obligation to not offend. And our apprehensions of bias must be vast indeed. Wouldn’t have been as surprising coming from other North-Americans. Or from Danish cartoonists. Or from Israeli troops. But from Canadians?

No right to not be offended? No obligation to not offend? What more terrifies us as Canadians than giving offence? We don’t really mean it. We can’t. Not as any sort of cultural principle. Canadians just aren’t ready to start seriously offending each other.

We can’t mean it as any sort of cultural principle when saying there’s no right to not be offended. We might mean it as a common legal principle -- but so what? Legal principles become meaningless when too culturally dissonant. Archaic legal principles are meant to be ignored.

What do we mean by our unanimity against rights to not be offended, then? Simply this: that granting special privileges inconsistent with basic human rights would totally contradict Canadian cultural principles. It is necessarily corollary with our cultural principles that there be no right to not be offended. It means we stand against everything totalitarian –- and on guard for our free, democratic and multiculturally just society.

Protecting against express hatred, violence or defamation must never hinge on special dispensation, entitlement or privilege. Protection must not be restricted according to whom commissions, tribunals or Mr. Lund might deem deserving on any particular day. Let's always make certain to protect everyone. No one has the right to not be offended. Everyone has the right to be protected from hatred, violence and defamation.

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

[The image above is a screenshot of the Ontario Human Rights Code website, whose preamble reminds us that "The Ontario Human Rights Code (the "Code") is for everyone."]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 03/15 at 10:38 AM

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