The article’s title is a common refrain, but it’s understood less frequently than it’s spoken. In Canada, our freedom of speech laws don’t allow for expressing hatred. This is wrong. Margaret Wente recently wrote an article summarizing the debate pretty clearly, and the comments are overwhelmingly in favour of her conclusion that it shouldn’t be illegal to express vile, odious opinions. Yet in 2005, William Whatcott, an unabashed homophobe, was fined $17,500 by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission after people were offended by his pamphlets. It’s now before the Supreme Court. Whatcott said homosexuals are “sodomites” who spread filth and disease, who are full of “sin and depravity.” His views are, surprise surprise, rooted in religion.
“Should we have to put up with being called ‘filth’? It makes me feel like less of a person.” Yup. Sorry anonymous complainant, the cost of freedom of speech is being occasionally offended. There’s no right to not be offended, and anyway, you shouldn’t let an ignorant moron have any bearing on your personhood. I’m offended everyday but I don’t exploit it for profit. At least those thinly skinned saints donated the $17,500 to charity, right? Hmm maybe. How do you put a corresponding dollar value on offence anyway? Homophobes sure are easier to stomach when they’re made to foot the bill. More, please!
Canada doesn’t have a history of revolution, censorship, or any real civil turbulence like France, Russia, or the United States, and I think that’s why our definition of freedom of speech is so immature and privileged. As a country, we don’t know what it’s like to really be censored; we didn’t have the McCarthy era, guillotines or Gulags. Our free speech ends the moment somebody is offended, hardly rare, and so long as you are a minority or perceived as vulnerable you can effectively enforce your right not to be offended. This right is made up, it doesn’t exist, and yet it wields more power than a right other countries have fought for.
Right now, our speech laws are bound to the current climate of plurality, which sounds terrific, except it its limited and subject to change. The only question that matters is whether undesirable speech is protected: one day it can be illegal to defend the things we value today. If tolerance and plurality become widely renounced, I’d like to still speak in favour of it without fear. What’s currently fashionable doesn’t last. Free speech must be guarded with vigilance, and must not be taken for granted, and can’t only mean protecting favourable speech that doesn’t need protection. It sounds more than a bit counter intuitive to go out of our way to protect speech we find repulsive, but if we only make a fuss about free speech when our speech is no longer protected, it’ll be too late.
This issue doesn’t relate to bullying in schools because bullying of any sort is already not condoned. Whether bullying warrants a harsher protocol within schools is a very reasonable discussion, but that’s not the same as saying the speech itself should be against the law. Is bullying based on sexual identity worse than bullying in general? Is one a $20,000 fine, the other $10,000? It seems attacking the most vulnerable group would get you the stiffest fine, but then the group with the cheapest fine would become the most vulnerable. Students, teachers, parents and friends should be conspicuously opposed to any bullying, not just because gay students should feel safe, which of course they should. but because cruelty is always wrong. Apart from inciting violence and yelling “fire” in the crowded theatre, are those against iron-clad free speech so scared of all the hatred they think Canadians are secretly hiding? I thought I was cynical.
Tolerating only favourable views is something intolerant people do. This is a regressive policy that fascist states and authoritarians use to censor and suppress conversation, ideas, and criticism. We can’t only agree with freedom when we believe it’s suitable. We can’t complain about Chinese and Iranian censorship and do the same here, or else what we’re really arguing about isn’t the censorship itself, but what they censor.
So long as our free speech laws are prohibitive, we shouldn’t applaud ourselves for fighting homophobia but should bemoan what a squeamish, paranoid, immature bunch we are for our failure to guarantee free speech, that right that is correctly exalted and considered the benchmark of a free democracy.