Freedom Of Speech, Offensive Cartoons And The Violence Veto

September 2006

President MacLauchlan ascribes primary moral responsibility for the Danish cartoon violence to those (like the SAFS) who would peaceably speak as they think rather than to those who would think to bully, burn, or kill in response as they speak. By doing so, he legitimizes and, thereby, promotes the very messengers of intolerance and violence that he both fears and excuses in his defense of censorship. At the University of Prince Edward Island, freedom of peaceable political speech ends where freedom of religious offense, intimidation, and threat of violence, in response, begins. In short, censorship starts where freedom of speech really counts.

Perverse logic, to be sure. But today, this is conventional wisdom among (too many) “progressive” thinkers proclaiming Canadian values of tolerance, diversity, and democracy. That any responsible Canadian official could honestly hold such confused views on the parameters of legitimate public debate in a democracy would be embarrassing enough. That the President of a Canadian university does so is alarming. If we can’t freely, fully, and fearlessly debate one of the most important news stories of the year at institutions ostensibly committed to untrammeled inquiry and independent thinking, where can we?

But PEI officialdom are not alone in this kind of Orwellian “double-think.” Excepting free speech mavericks, like the Western Standard, it is shared by an increasingly cowed North American media. Fear of intimidation is, self-servingly, being confused with respect for religion, and official intolerance of independent thinking conflated with community sensitivity and multicultural harmony. Fundamental principles of democratic governance themselves are fallen victim to such befuddled logic’s patronizing yolk. Hate censorship laws in Canada are legitimizing the notion that, where freedom to speak counts most, official truth, official meanings, and even official histories, count more. Today, official, (that is, authoritatively delimited or directed) discourse can substitute for publicly constructed ones for fear of what an uncensored public might themselves construct -- or an offended community threaten. Increasingly, freedom of public debate on public matters is being defined not by reference to the social importance or political gravity of the issues in public contention but by the hurt feelings of offended “thought-thugs” or threatening bullies.

President MacLauchlan tries to fix the officially “right” campus politics by force of silencing, for fear of the “wrong” campus politics left free to independent thinking. Not unlike the belligerent offended, he substitutes threat, intimidation and might for free exchange of ideas, to “demonstrate” public right. To be sure, he, unlike those self-serving thought-thugs he officially protects from effective public criticism, is motivated by more noble considerations than himself. He acts neither to shelter from challenge his own personal beliefs, nor, he would contend, to advance the political agenda of any one distinct community at the expense of another, but rather for the benefit of the greater campus good. A quiet campus is better for learning than an unruly one; a socially harmonious educational environment preferable to a religiously divided one; an intellectually regulated diversity better for exchange of ideas than a rancorously intellectually one. Across many progressive Canadian campuses, censorial coercion, threat and intimidation are substituting for free thinking and independent debate, in the name of Canadian values of peace, order, tolerance, understanding, diversity, democracy and even freedom of inquiry. But can freedom to speak depend on the offended, and be free? Can the right to peaceably speak be subject to a violence veto, and be tolerant? Can official thinking substitute for public thinking and be self-enlightening? Can officially directed inquiry be intellectual diversity?

Social peace, and its calming political order, as the prerequisite, greater, public good has been the rationale for silencing public disagreement of every oppressive autocrat who has every sought to shield the official agenda and its dogma from effective outside scrutiny and challenge. That responsible officials, like Wade MacLauchlan, invariably fall victim to their own self-deluding myth of public service by public silencing, should come as no surprise. Censors’ unself-critical assumptions of social infallibility, and the patronizing arrogance, and intolerance for unregulated thinking, it breeds are mutually reinforcing. What we are witnessing flows naturally from mock exercises of freedom of speech in insular institutional environments artificially sheltered from the demons of independent debate by official guardians of the public mind. The power to decide who shall speak as they think and who shall not can cloud the clear vision of even the best intentioned.

To be sure, enforced silence can be socially soothing and politically seductive. But, precisely for those reasons, it is dangerously deceptive. Campus peace rooted in fear of force rather than the force of free thought is not genuine harmony. MacLauchlan confuses public quiet with public enlightenment; enforced silence with social harmony; directed discourse with honest debate. Over time, fear of independent public debate, frustration of political opposition, and intolerance of community offense comes with a price – to the detriment of the very social harmony, enlightened debate, and public order that Wade MacLauchlan, and other blinkered officials like him, aspire to with their censorship. Silencing public disagreement is democratically self-contradictory, and, ultimately, socially self-defeating, for many reasons.

Muzzling political opposition does not promote a stronger and more secure social order, but a more fragile one – as most every historical dictator has come to learn. Silence cannot expose ignorance, prepare vulnerable minds for the challenges of demagogues, or bridge community divides. Myopic and insular officials like MacLauchlan think they can ensure “right thinking” and thwart community division and public discord, with censorship. But they only postpone, and worsen, the day of public reckoning, instead. They do not confront feared social conflicts with open dialogue and honest discourse. They sweep them underground with hate silencing. They do not address deep-seated cultural divisions, nor expose festering political grievances, with independent inquiry and unfettered debate. They conceal or mask them with directed discourse, and chilled “discussion”, instead. Imposed harmony, however, endures only until the next political or economic crises tears it apart. Its synthetic community and facade of tolerance lasts only as long as the glue of repression holding its petrified parts together. Social censors, like Wade MacLauchlan, falsely promise greater tolerance and a more genuine community, with “positive” silencing. But they coerce an artificial social peace and procure Pyrrhic public victories of the moment, at the cost of later greater public defeats in the future, instead. “Right thinking” cannot be commanded; nor can right-thinkers be forever freed from challenge. The “right politics” cannot be officially frozen in time, by repressive campus speech and equity codes. Communist dictators tried, and even they, in the end, and at great cost, failed.

In the long run, official censorship for the “public good” serves no one -- not Canadian democracy or multiculturalism -- but the social dogmatists and the political demagogues of intolerance well.