June 28, 2007

Speak for Yourself

Drifter: I thought I was among civilized men.
Dobbs: Who are you calling uncivilized? (Flattens drifter with a punch.)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Now Magazine has been running ads for some time reading Free. (Caption over one picture) Speech. (Caption over the next one in sequence). The most archetypal of these (and if memory serves, the one most often deployed) shows a pretty Asian-Canadian girl, demurely posed in the first photo. In the second she's in attack stance, her facial expression half between a jeer and a snarl, giving every Now reader (or city passerby in the case of hoarding and mini-billboard ads scattered about our fair city) the finger.

I won't deny this is an admirably direct example of truth in advertising--and Now readers quite an impressively masochistic bunch. But it's curious--there are dissenters among them, but I'm sure the majority opinion of Now editors is in favour of Canada's new hate speech laws.

I'm certainly not going to bring them up on charges of expressing hatred and contempt, not only for their own readership, but for Toronto's drivers, bikers and walkers en bloc. I think the hate speech law has as much coherence as the obscenity statutes. It might not be clear who is guilty of murder, fraud or embezzlement when these are alleged, but there's a reasonably solid understanding what acts consitute commission of these crimes. There may be questions of interpretation in a given case--was this a murder or an act of self-defence? is this embezzlement or a legitimate ATM fee? But it can be said with reasonable definiteness what would qualify as an instance of most genuinely criminal acts. There is nothing resembling universal agreement on either hate speech or obscenity. To call a snuff film or a child porn movie obscene is to trivialize the gravity of its offence. The relevant charges in these cases are murder, rape and child molestation. To call a murder a hate crime seems tautological, though twisted love is almost as often the motive. But if hate is an aggravation of the crime of murder, wouldn't the indifference of a professional hit man be an extenuating circumstance? But as for saying "I'd love to kill that little motherfucker"--which might run afoul of both hate speech and obscenity legislation--I doubt there's an instance in ten thousand where a remark like that is a legitimate threat or prophecy, or anything much more than blowing off steam. The courts are clogged enough already.

Not every threat to free speech is external; the most persistent ones in any of our lives tend to be internal. If you define free speech as free-floating omnidirectional anger, what's any censor in the world going to do to you that you haven't already done to yourself? In that mood it's impossible to think straight or speak coherently. Good luck contributing to the wider debate either locally or globally if you can't do that.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

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