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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Free speech and intellectual freedom - some thoughts

Recently, commenting on my "Message to Canadian readers: Make intellectual freedom an election issue", fellow freespeecher Rob Breakenridge wondered why I prefer to talk about the decline of "intellectual freedom" in Canada rather than "free speech." (I can't just now find the link, so this link takes you to his show, The World Tonight.)

I am glad he asked. It is for the same reason as I prefer to talk about civil rights rather than human rights.

First, our fearless leader, civil rights lawyer Ezra Levant, acknowledged at a recent luncheon at the Canadian Bar Association offices that some limits on speech can be justified in a free and democratic society. Few or none of the Freespeechers, as we call ourselves, dispute all limits in principle. So we risk misunderstanding if we simply say that we stand for "free speech.". Opponents of free speech/intellectual freedom can create the impression that we merely seek the right to "diss" people, greatly reducing our support.

Now, the best known, most widely reported cases - the ones that people know and care most about - were intellectual freedom cases. The article that got Mark Steyn and Maclean's Magazine charged ("The Future Belongs to Islam, October 20, 2006") was simply an effort to apply to the growing Muslim population in the Western world precisely the sort of reasoning that Phillip Longman has been applying to the growing conservative Christian population.

The argument is that some groups have significantly more children than others, and that children tend to adopt the viewpoint of their families. So vast cultural changes toward a more oppressive society can be predicted from demography.

In both cases, this is a contestable point - and it has been contested. But commentators' inability to discuss it without unleashing a kangaroo court hearing is not good news for intellectual freedom in Canada.

Similarly, the "Mohammed" cartoons published by Ezra Levant originated as a response to fears in Denmark for the safety of anyone who published an illustration of Mohammed, however lovingly or respectfully intended. Bans on illustration are not likely to be very popular in a freedom-loving country. Certainly, they should not simply creep up on us without discussion (as in "shariah creep") because publishers are afraid of "human rights "charges. So the publication of the cartoons was, again, an effort to spark a discussion of ideas.

I found most of the cartoons lame, but that may itself be partly the result of fear - in the same way that I was disappointed that the comedian friends of comic Guy Earle (charged) were not more politically edgy with their comedy. Intellectual freedom requires the freedom to play with ideas.

By now it should be clear why I also prefer to talk about "civil rights" rather than "human rights." Civil rights have a long and mostly fruitful history in the Western world, going back to Roman times. They are the rights of a citizen dealing with the government. By contrast, "human rights" is an elastic category that got started much more recently and has come to mean pretty much whatever whining pressure groups want it to mean. Liberal democracy cannot long survive assaults like that.

It's not to be expected that everyone will understand these things, as I gather Pete Pacheco is discovering too, but we really must try.

By the way, here's a National Citizen's Coalition message about shutting down the HRCs. $68 million operation. Our prime minister Stephen Harper, up for re-election (or not), used to work for them.

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