In its search for tribunal members to judge acceptable speech, the Alberta Human Rights Commission recently posted an ad listing desirable attributes in would–be applicants. “A solid knowledge of human rights principles” and “superior analytical” were at the top of the list.
In fact, a solid knowledge of civil rights—say, how Wilfrid Laurier plumped for freedom as a guiding principle in public affairs in an 1894 campaign stop in Winnipeg—is unlikely to help potential Tribunal adjudicators. Such awareness of first principles, if taken seriously, would likely get someone blacklisted.
As for analytical skill, anyone with that quality who isn’t a Sophist would rip apart much of the faulty illogic that emanates from the Alberta Human Rights Commission and their cohorts across Canada.
But the human rights bureaucracies are hardly alone. The recent shutdown of Ann Coulter’s planned speech at the University of Ottawa provided a demonstration of how passion and pride too easily trump reason.
Yes, I know—Coulter’s sponsors, not the university, cancelled the Ottawa speech. But organizers did so after police advised them Coulter’s safety could not be guaranteed, and that it would “physically dangerous” for the event to proceed.
Ironically, the Ottawa thugs demonstrated where the only limit on freedom of expression should be: when speech combines with the explicit threat of violence.
In his 1859 work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued “no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions.” And Mill gave a clear, useful example: “An opinion that corn-dealers are the starvers of the poor ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer.”
If Coulter was to deliver incendiary remarks in front of a mosque with one thousand people behind her, she could rightly be accused of an incitement to violence. But she didn’t. Instead, the verbal fuel combined with the threat of violence—as noted by the police—came from some of the protesters. It was they who were a danger, not the polemicist about to appear on stage.
My impression of Coulter is that of someone who too often engages in hyperbole. She also uses insults gratuitously instead of imitating Winston Churchill and using them sparingly. (It would be hypocritical of me to say all insults are beyond the pale—I just castigated the human rights bureaucracy earlier in this column.)
Problematically though for anyone who wants to wade into thorny issues, by constantly making herself the issue, Coulter steals attention from the topic at hand.
So, for example, I doubt many people knew Coulter’s original talk in London, where she sarcastically advised a constantly interrupting student to travel by flying carpet, and then by camel, was supposed to be about security profiling at airports. But instead of a thoughtful talk about the pros and cons of profiling, Coulter’s over-the-top insults and rhetoric put the focus squarely on her. That’s probably what she wanted. It’s good for book sales, but lousy for any thoughtful deliberation on a contentious topic.
Still, the point of free expression is to have an open mind even towards those—especially those— with whom we disagree. Maybe they’ll point out some hypocrisy we hadn’t considered, or bring up a matter that will change our mind.
Those who want to shut others up, or cutely “advise” controversial speakers to watch their words as the University of Ottawa provost did, display an obvious lack of modesty about their own intellectual limits. They fail to recognize we’re all a speck in a grand human drama over the millennia. They assume that after dragging ourselves up out of primordial muck over the ages, that in 2010, we’ve evolved into perfect creatures with perfect wisdom. And apparently no one need intrude on our fantasy with contrary opinions.
That’s hubris on a grand scale. A little modesty and sense requires us to forswear persecuting people for opinions—just in case the persecutor happens to be wrong and the persecuted right. It has happened before. See Socrates, Christ, Luther, Copernicus, abolitionists, suffragettes, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King, or any number of historical figures who skewed the political or religious establishments of their day. Instead, the various shut-Ann-up protestors, and especially the University of Ottawa, betrayed the very mission of a university— to be a centre of free inquiry.