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THURSDAY, AUGUST 28, 2014
I may be extrapolating a little too much from Scott's article, but sometimes students are pretty stupid. And not just the young ones. University students have less of an excuse for their stupidity, but that doesn't stop the most "progressive" of them from being some of the stupidest as well.

For example, when Ann Coulter was prevented from speaking at the University of Ottawa recently it once again demonstrated that many of today's university students are just as stupid as she is.

Had she been able to speak, Coulter, the long-legged ultra-conservative American who is known just as much for her unlikely Barbie Doll physique as she is for her total disregard for factual arguments, would have delivered a perfectly harmless and assinine speech. Ann Coulter may be a conservative, but she's not dangerous. However, the self-righteously deluded students who shut her talk down, displaying no understanding of the concept of free speech, are a danger.

This is not to say the protestors should have been silenced either. In a textbook example of hypocrisy, the students exercised their own right to free speech while shutting down someone else's. They, like Coulter, are not interested in a civilized debate; they both prefer a one-sided case. For Coulter that means spreading as much misinformation as possible and sarcastically avoiding any confrontation with facts; for the anti-Coulter students it meant engineering a security risk and, when Coulter's talk was finally cancelled, chanting "Nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey, good-bye" like the good little proto-fascists they are.

This was the kind of news story that makes me think that the next generation of educated classes isn't going to be any better than the previous ones. It's a little sad that students can't wrap their heads around the common-place "Free speech begins at the point where you disagree with what's being said." It's pointless (and takes no courage or thought whatsoever) to defend speech you agree with. An honest commitment to democratic free speech starts with defending the expression of views you don't hold and dont' like. That takes some courage. And if it means putting up with Coulter's lame jokes about Muslims flying magic carpets and riding camels instead of being let on airliners, so be it. A joke should be judged by how funny it is (or isn't), not by its potential to hurt people's feelings. A democracy, alas, has to involve some hurt feelings.

The only limit on free expression that I can see (if I'm an absolutist on anything it's free speech) is the direct incitement of violence. The clichéd example of speech not covered by freedom of speech laws is falsely shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre, which comes from a unanimous 1919 U.S. Supreme Court decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes. What most people don't know about that case is its context. The false "fire" in question was World War I, and the inciting shouter was Charles Schenk, a pamphleteer who opposed the draft and whose conviction was upheld by Holmes' decision because of Schenk's "clear and present danger" (another legalist phrase coined in the same ruling) to "the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

The students who succeeded in shutting down Coulter's Ottawa U. talk displayed only a fascist mob mentality - shouting down something they don't like - though in the name of free speech and anti-hate. Despite their superficially progressive leanings, the angry students represent the most regressive and anti-democratic of attitudes. And when Coulter moved on to the University of Calgary, where again she met protests, she was nevertheless allowed to speak. Who'd have thought that Alberta would display a finer understanding of democracy than Ottawa? (okay, I guess Ottawa doesn't always make the best of democracy either.) No matter how stupid or repugnant Coulter may be, she has the right to say the stupidest things she wants, and so can illustrate what free speech is really all about (that is, having to listen to and deal with all sorts of idiotic ideas). As Tom Sandborn said in a CBC Radio interview, "I never thought I'd say it, but Ann Coulter has acutally done us a favour."

Marshall McLuhan said that if you take an idea to its extreme it becomes the reverse of itself. For example, free speech. The whining students, having taken their own freedom of speech and assembly to its limit ended up reversing the concept, that is, by denying Coulter's freedom.

Over the last few years there have been several cases of progressive students fighting against the democratic rights that make those students' very existence as progressive students possible. In 2006 an anti-abortion group called the Heartbeat Club was denied club-status at Capilano University (then College) by the reflexively feminist student body who didn't recognize the irony in denying the anti-abortionists the same rights that has brought feminism (rightly) to the fore of student politics. But the hard-won-freedom battles of yesterday (for, say, women) are often under attack from those have benefitted most from them. The Heartbeat Club, after filing a human rights complaint, eventually got club status.

Two more recent anti-anti-abortion cases highlight the same problem.

In February of this year Erin Millar reported in Macleans.ca about the UVic pro-life group Youth Protecting Youth (YPY) having their club status revoked for one of the same bullshit reasons that the Capilano students gave: that any anti-abortion protesting or postering amounts to harrassment of women and a denial of their right to do with their bodies what they want. As B.C. Civil Liberties Asociation president (and Capilano philosophy professor) John Dixon said of the argument, "It means that the very civil, moderate pro-life YPY club at UVic doesn’t even have to get out of bed in the morning to discriminate against women; it means that no matter how mild, moderate, and circumscribed its advocacy, it discriminates against women. There is no appeal to reason here, but a weird evocation of a kind of secular flavour of sacrilege."

Finally, in the same month, CBC reported that the University of Calgary (though they allowed Coulter to speak) had also stripped an anti-abortion group (Campus Pro-Life) of its club status. This acted as the prelude to last month's controversy over the same group's refusal to remove graphic posters comparing abortion to the Holocaust. The refusal pitted the club against University officials and invited legal trouble, with the students involved facing possible expulsion. Members of the same group had already faced trespassing charges for an earlier display.

Now, even though I disagree with anti-abortionists, I have to agree with their equal right to free speech and club statuses and stuff like that. What if, instead of the pro-lifers facing expulsion and being denied clubs, it was the discrminatory pro-choicers? Shouldn't a violation of what the university stands for - open debate and inquiry - be punished, or at least addressed in a way that makes it clear just how stupid the so-called progressives are?

The solution to the problems that free speech inevitably creates - willful ignoramuses like Ann Coulter and parochial pro-lifers - is not censorship. The solution to the problems that free speech creates is more free speech. Rather than shutting out or shouting over the voices we don't like, we should allow all voices and views to be heard - even- no, especially when they're stupid, hateful, ignorant, repulsive. In other words, when someone says something stupid (which they have a right to do) everyone else has the right to say, "That's stupid, and here's why." This is the only way for the better arguments and ideas to drive out the worse ones. Assuming you have the better (or only) argument, and therefore the right to censor every other viewpoint, is a recipe for the destruction of democracy. An open society has to assume that citizens are mature enough to handle the existence of contradicting and sometimes hateful viewpoints.

So, stupid, "progressive" students could learn something from Ann Coulter and anti-abortionists. For one, the stupid students should realize that the existence of speech that they hate is not necessarily "hate-speech". Indeed, it's a sad time for democracy when Ann Coulter and pro-life advocates have something to teach the very students who are meant to help safeguard that democracy.
Responses:

Jackson

WHAT IS IN A JOKE?

Jackson

2010-06-22 16:56:30

"A joke should be judged by how funny it is (or isn't), not by its potential to hurt people's feelings" ~Hogan "Against the assault of laughter...

Comments

Alamir

Alamir

2010-06-11 22:49:37

I understand that you focused on students because we're supposed to be the more "liberal/progressive" minded demographic in this country. But I would like to add to your argument by pointing out that our government officials (and the many professionals who support them) are just as hypocritical in their stance on free speech as they've banned speakers from even entering Canada - Nevermind whether someone wishes to hold a talk inside a specific institution some are not even allowed to stand on a soapbox anywhere within our borders.

Hogan

Hogan

2010-06-12 17:59:36

Yes, good point. I don't see why a democracy should feel threatened even by, say, a Holocaust denier. Banning a speaker only tantalizes the public, making them wonder what all the fuss is about, and therefore it's apt to create sympathy with Holocaust denial because, after all, if the big bad government is banning someone, then hey, maybe they're on to something. If we let anyone and everyone speak no matter how offensive the content of what they say may be to some people, I have confidence that most people will see it for the idiocy it likely is. But the point is to let the idiocy out - to let it "out" itself, so to speak, as plainly idiotic - rather than mystify it by giving it rebel prestige it doesn't deserve.

I think Christopher Hitchens was right when he pointed out that threats to free speech don't come from the government, for the most part (at least in the West), yet even when they do, the government is usually making a pre-emptive move against a public backlash, which is where threats to free speech usually occur. The constitution in the U.S. prohibits their Congress from passing a law hindering free speech, but the threats don't come from Congress so much as uptight religious communities offended by criticism of whatever they happen to believe and value. And there is, of course, the structural lack of free speech in the corporate media, but in that case it's not so overt censorship, just a structured exclusion of most views, or what Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent called the "Propaganda Model".



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