Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Free Speech in an Age of Massacres

Free Speech in an Age of Massacres

A few months ago I read Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton. Rushdie is the British author of Indian Muslim background against whom Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa in 1989, calling for his death. In the Ayatollah’s view, Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, blasphemed Islam. Rushdie went into hiding, adopting the name Joseph Anton, after Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. He survived, but several of his translators and editors worldwide were assassinated or injured.

One thing that shocked me reading this memoir was that more than one radical British Muslim had appeared on television supporting the death threat, saying that Rushdie should be killed. I was shocked that these individuals were not arrested for inciting violence. It seemed to me that when one British citizen publicly called for the murder of another British citizen, he should have been held to account. Perhaps the British authorities were afraid that if these individuals were arrested, protests would then worsen among segments of the British Muslim community.

I am equally shocked that it now seems fine for American citizens to call for other American citizens to be murdered. At Trump rallies in the last few weeks, crowds have yelled “shoot her” when Trump mentioned Nancy Pelosi, soon to be Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives. They also yelled “shoot her” when Trump mentioned Maxine Waters, a long-standing Congresswoman from California. This threat is much more serious, since Waters is an African-American. She was one of the targets of bombs that a Trump supporter sent to several prominent Democrats.

Trump is normalizing murders of African-Americans. Anyone who yells, “shoot her” (murder her) in a public place should be arrested and charged. This is more than hate speech. 

The (UN) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969, Article 4) outlaws hate speech.  Hate speech is illegal in Canada, though the boundaries of what constitutes it are narrow. I am not a free speech absolutist: I think hate speech should be outlawed. We can’t pretend that all “bad speech” can be overcome or neutralized by “good speech.” We’re in a new world now. Lies, prejudice, and incitement to violence spread easily on the Internet, as much it seems on legitimate Internet sites as in the dark web.

This is why at the end of October 2018 there was much discussion in the Canadian press about whether the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto should have hosted a debate between David Frum, a Republican critic of Trump, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and an advocate and organizer of right-wing populism in North America and Europe. The organizers of the debate said it was in the public interest to expose Bannon’s view directly to them. Critics argued he should not receive a platform. I was torn, though if the Munk School paid Bannon for his appearance, then I found that extremely unpalatable, as it would help him to promote his political agenda. 

Nevertheless, I worry about the likelihood that hate speech laws will be used to stymie legitimate speech. Last week (Nov. 8, 2018) I posted a blog about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to Canada’s Jewish community for our government’s anti-Semitic policies during WWII. In this apology, he denounced “BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions]-related intimidation” of Jewish students in Canada who, he said, were made to feel “unwelcome and uncomfortable on some of our college and university campuses.”

The Prime Minister rightly denounced anti-Semitism on campus by some BDS activists, without suggesting that the BDS movement as a whole is illegitimate. But this may not have been enough for some supporters of Israel, who think that the entire BDS movement is anti-Semitic and that its criticism of the state of Israel are forms of anti-Semitic hate speech that should be outlawed.

 And that’s the danger of hate speech laws. Incitement to violence is clear and should be stopped. Some kinds of hate speech, we also know, are calls to genocide, especially dehumanizing rhetoric that calls future victim groups vermin, as in Nazi Germany, or cockroaches, as in Rwanda in 1994. Whether incitement to genocide or to massacres of some citizens by others, as happened in Canada on January 29, 2017 against Muslims in Quebec City, and now happens with alarming frequency against African-Americans in the US, such speech should be penalized. So should speech and social media posts suggesting that Muslims should massacre non-Muslims for criticizing Islam or merely as acts of vengeance (see my blog on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, January 9, 2015).

On the other hand, it is legitimate for Canadian citizens to criticize the policies of a foreign state, even if many Canadians are emotionally attached to that state for reasons of religion or ethnicity. Sometime one person’s hate speech is another’s free speech: therein lies the rub. I wish I could think of a suggestion as to how to solve this problem.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting and very relevant article. If we humans would ever learn to see our similarities rather than our differences, hate surely would not be such a big issue as it is today. It is frightening to see some groups labeled as evil and/or given sub-human status in the eyes of others.