Too many rights make a wrong
January 16, 2008
CANADA: It was one of those rare, particularly sunny days in Vancouver in September when, addressing an audience at the University of British Columbia, I suggested that multiculturalism and its partner in crime, moral relativism, were leading to the demise of Western values.
“But you must understand,” implored a well-intentioned woman in the audience, “multiculturalism is Canada's gift to the world.”
If Australia is set to follow Canada, then thanks, but no thanks. Call me ungrateful, but we should have returned the gift to Canada long ago. I say that as someone who has long adored Canada. Its politics may be as dripping wet as Vancouver, but the people are warm and funny, and there is something sweet about the US's insecure, slightly wimpy northern neighbour. Yet there comes a point when weakness morphs into a reckless death wish.
That point is about now. I'm back in Canada and the distinct chill is not just in the air. Last Friday, conservative commentator Ezra Levant was hauled before Alberta's Human Rights and Citizenship Commission for publishing the infamous Danish Mohammed cartoons two years ago in the Western Standard.
Syed Soharwardy, the head of Canada's Islamic Supreme Council, complained that Levant had incited hate against Muslims.
Levant's opening statement was a tour de force as far as punchy defences of free speech go. Apparently viewed almost 200,000 times, it is one of the most-watched clips on YouTube in recent times. It's also on his website, www.ezralevant.com, where he describes the chilling process: “No six-foot brownshirt, no police cell at midnight. Just Shirlene McGovern, an amiable enough bureaucrat, casually asking me about my political thoughts on behalf of the Government of Alberta. And she'll write up a report about it, and recommend that the Government do this or that to me. Just going through checklists, you see … a limp clerk who was just punching the clock. She had done it dozens of times before and will do it dozens of times again. In a way, that's more terrifying.”
It was, said Levant, the epitome of Hannah Arendt's warning against “the banality of evil”.
Refreshingly, Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the chap who helped found these commissions in the 1960s and '70s, was equally appalled. Writing in the Calgary Herald, he said “during the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech”. Pointing to the empire-building frolic of the commissions, Borovoy advised that the legislation needed to be changed to make it clear that these commissions had no business investigating and making edicts about thought crimes.
Borovoy's warning about the alarming expansion of the jurisdiction of these rights bodies adds another and very timely warning for Australians about the implications of human rights law. Expressed in impossibly platitudinous and therefore vague language, these so-called human rights bodies effectively decide how far their reach extends.
Canada shows where we will end up in due time: with a system of governance where large swaths of social policy have been delegated by parliament to the unelected grey bureaucrats, who get to implement “progressive” policies that could never get through a body of elected politicians.
As the jurisdiction of these commissions expands into areas never originally intended, fundamental freedoms contract. When state bodies start enforcing the religious prohibitions of Muslims, which forbid the depiction of the prophet Mohammed, it destroys a few fundamental Western values, namely the separation of mosque and state and, more critically, the freedom of speech.
This is not simply a defence of Levant because he is a conservative columnist. Far from it. If a bleeding heart on the Left was dragged before a human rights commission for thinking and saying unpalatable things, even stupid things, the defence would remain the same. Defending the right to say the right things is easy. Defending the right to say the wrong things, even offensive things, is what counts if we are serious about free speech.
That's why, some years ago, I wrote in defence of my colleague Phillip Adams when he was accused of racial vilification by an American who was offended by Adams's assertion that the US was one of the most violent nations on earth and was largely to blame for the events of September 11. The comments were daft but Adams has a right to be wrong and so it was important to stand up for his right to say it.
Allowing a state body to investigate it as a speech crime sends a chill down the spine of Western progress. As Levant argued, “Freedom of expression is only meaningful when it trumps other values, such as political sensibilities, or religious dogma, or personal sensitivities. Indeed, Western civilisation's progress in all realms, ranging from science to art, to religion, to feminism, to civil rights for racial minorities and gays, has come about from the free expression of ideas that necessarily offended some earlier order.” In short, self-criticism is at the core of the West's progress. The battle of ideas may be no place for the faint-hearted, but it produces exceptional results by thrusting forward the better ideas.
In the Canadian multicultural zeitgeist, where bland political correctness is preferred, those on the Right tend to get hit more often by ludicrous complaints to human rights commissions. A bunch of law students marched off to a Canadian human rights commission complaining about Maclean's for running an excerpt from Mark Steyn's book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.
Steyn, like Levant, can defend himself. As Steyn wrote on his blog: “I don't want to get off the hook. I want to take the hook and stick it up the collective butt of these thought police.” But what about the little guys put through the human rights commission wringer? Failing to complain about the quotidian incidences of oppression by human rights bodies only encourages the egregious examples to occur.
Take the case of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal drafting an inane apology last November to be run by the Mission Beach Advertiser for publishing an admittedly unpleasantly anti-gay letter that offended the catch-all Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Intersex Anti-Violence Committee.
Or when the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal upheld a complaint against The Australian's opinion page editor, Tom Switzer, for saying perfectly accurately, if somewhat colourfully, in 1998 that the Palestinians were “vicious thugs” who were derailing the peace process.
So, we need to watch Canada. As it goes, so will we. And even if you can stomach the idea of handing over power over social policy to unelected bureaucrats and self-opinionated lawyers, you might like to hang on to free speech. Oh Canada, where are you taking us?