Thursday, February 7, 2008

"But I will defend to the death ..."

Monday magazine this week has some followup to Keith Martin's private member's bill to re-write the "hate speech" legislation in our country. The mag notes that the good doctor's bill is garnering support from some people regarded as lunatic-fringe wingnuts -- including Paul Fromm, noted for his "white is right" views.

(Even though the article itself is quite balanced, the headline, "With friends like these ..." suggests that Martin's supporters are the sort who'd make a politician cringe at the thought of guilt-by-association. I have a lot of time for Keith Martin; I've also interviewed Paul Fromm, and formulated an opinion, which could be actionable, even if expressed in a blog.)

Freedom of speech is such a tricky issue, but as Voltaire reputedly said, "I do not agree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." What lines get drawn? How do we define "hatred"? Is it tone of voice? "Hot-button" words used in an article? Stereotyping? The Canadian government thought it had the thing sussed-out when they described a potentially aggrieved party as being an "identifiable group", but then look at how easily Svend Robinson got "sexual preference" defined as an "identifying characteristic". (I understand he also tried to get "petty jewel thieves" included as an "identifiable group", but let it pass ...)

My family has seen two sides of the freedom of speech thing. My mother, Dorothy Davies (, was busted in 1953 for directing a production of Tobacco Road in Vancouver. One person had registered a complaint that the play "offended public morality", and a magistrate ordered the play to be closed. Mom said, "forget it" (in substance), put the play on (the lineup went around the block at the old Avon Theatre on Hastings St), and was arrested. The press (this was before TV, kiddies) had a field day with the issue, and Mom and the cast members were acquitted.

The other side of the coin is my grandfather -- mom's dad -- who was known throughout Victoria as a brilliant orator and a great Man of God. But when I Google "Clem Davies" today -- weed out the references to a vicar in Australia and a town councillor in the UK -- I get a very ugly picture. His writings and broadcasts are regarded as seminal influences in the white supremacy movement today in the US. His name turned up in the same paragraph as Tim McVeigh, the guy who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A fringe church called "British Israel" regards grandfather as one of the "great men of Truth of the 20th Century": BI teaches that Angles, Saxons and Britons are among the Lost Tribes of Israel, and the ones with the true claim to being God's People -- not like those nasty Jews who've taken over the Promised Land.

But you see, these writings -- and the poisoned thinking that goes with them -- proliferate in spite of "hate speech" laws. Why? Because they don't get out into the mainstream. Truth is the only defence against hate, and people who are offended by someone's words or deeds need to be able to fire back with the truth, rather than simply hide behind the skirts of Mother Government. Hate-speech legislation doesn't eliminate hatred -- it simply drives it underground, where it flourishes and spreads like the subterranean fires that occasionally flare up in Burns Bog.

Isn't the object of the exercise to make sure that truth prevails -- not to protect people whose feelings are hurt? If one suspects a person is using lies, innuendo and false stereotyping to stir up hatred against an identifiable group, then truth, straight talk and "setting the record straight" should be the antidote. If someone comes along, claiming the Holocaust was a hoax (and I believe Holocaust-deniers were the initial target of Canada's hate-speech legislation), then they should be required to sit through all three hours of the documentary "Mein Kampf", which includes film footage of "the Final Solution" that was so vile, so stomach-turningly terrifying, that Josef Goebbels ordered it locked away, lest the German people see what was really going on and hold a pitchfork party at Berchtesgarten.

And the converse holds true: if an "identifiable group", claiming protection under hate-speech law, cannot defend itself with Truth, it should be hung out to dry. Why do you think promoters of a particular lifestyle want to be lumped in with people who might have a legitimate claim to being "identifiable", so that any talk of that lifestyle being a risk factor for an incurable disease or eternal damnation gets suppressed? Maybe they have no truth with which to support their position.

But they do have the right to express that position, and bizarrely (is that a word?), I would stand with members of that or any other group for their right to express it, no matter how offended I am by it. I would just expect the playing field to be level, so I'm allowed to state my case. There may come a time when, even in our "enlightened" country, Christianity may be so on the "outs" with Them that it's labelled as "hate speech". And if They come after my Bible and my freedom of speech, I don't want anyone to say, "where were you when They came after ours?"

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