Human Rights, Rhetorical Wrongs
Is it possible to be for human rights and against the assorted Human Rights Acts that oversee all our public interactions in every province in Canada?
I think it is. I think I'm there. And yet...
I've been stewing on this for awhile. Which is why I went to an information meeting night before last with Brian Storseth, the rural Alberta MP whose repeal of the hate speech prohibitions in the Canada Human Rights Act recently passed the House of Commons and is expected to pass the Senate.
The gist of Mr. Storseth's message was that human rights are too precious to be surrendered to the tender guardianship of unaccountable government bureaucrats, and that the delicate balancing of competing rights claims needs to be conducted in the light of day, following due process of law. Such decisions should not be made behind closed doors by a quasi-judicial body of experts.
I remember giving voice to variations on those same arguments twenty years ago, when I was covering child rights legislation for BC Report Magazine. They still resonate with me. And yet...
It's easy to have a theoretical discussion about free speech versus censorship. But a principled discussion, well, that would require digging a little deeper. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, "I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."
In pursuit of the far side of complexity, I wanted to take a look at some of the hate speech that has been censored by our soon-to-be-lifted prohibitions. So I scanned just a couple sections of a 2009 Canada Human Rights Tribunal ruling. (This was the ruling Ezra Levant described as "stunning" for its criticisms of professional human rights complainant Richard Warman). I read in seething horror the toxic cyber-spewings of vicious bigots. I don't want to repeat any of it. I feel slimed just by reading it. But if you want to see for yourself, click here .
I still believe that the hate speech prohibition needed to go. I was going to write that government bureaucrats have proven they can't discern between hate speech and offensive but legitimate discussion, and to some degree, that's true (as in the Alberta Human Rights ruling against Rev. Stephen Boissoin). But not to the degree I'd previously assumed. The Alberta Human Rights Commission did not rule against Calgary's Bishop Henry for his pastoral letter on homosexuality. A complaint was filed against him, but the Bishop clarified his intention to the Commission and the case was dropped. And the BC Commission chided Macleans magazine but ruled in its favour.
Still, the ease of making complaints and the cost of defending oneself against them has a chilling effect that subverts genuine dialogue. As in the recent discussions about Bill 2, an act that was intended to bring the content of all curricula in Alberta schools, (whether public, private, or at home) under the auspices of the Alberta Human Rights Act. Many of us were concerned that the legislation would prevent home and religious schools from using texts that describe the homosexual lifestyle as sinful. The concern was genuine and demanded consideration. And a friend of mine, a peaceable woman who is a constant example to me of graciousness towards those with whom she disagrees, was advised by a lawyer that her carefully reasoned letter describing the potential problems with the legislation could, itself, run afoul of the Alberta Human Rights Act.
Now that I've read more (including Rev. Boissoin's letter that did run afoul of the Act) I'm convinced that the Commission would have found nothing to censure in my friend's letter. But legal opinions will always be cautious. So we have a climate where folks who want to avoid transgressing may withhold their opinions, while folks who want to provoke a fight don't. Genuine dialogue can't happen in a climate like that.
And now that we're talking about genuine dialogue, I'm troubled by some of the rhetoric I heard the other night. Mr. Storseth said that Canada's hate speech legislation had been intended as a shield but has been used, instead, as a sword. I got the impression of a zealous inquisition, pursuing frivolous claims and enforcing politically-correct communication. He also said that 100% of the rulings had been against Christians.
Doesn't that sounds like the Commission's had a private agenda to expunge Christian values from the nation's debates?
Well, I know better. When I went into the meeting, I knew that a bunch of the hate speech rulings had been against the Church of Jesus Christ/Aryan Nations. Now, since the meeting, I've read some of what the hate-mongers have to say. Christian? Well, that may be how they identify themselves. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a church-going, Bible-loving Canadian who'd identify with their values.
So I asked Mr. Storseth (who should be commended for sticking his neck out with his private member's bill) to please share with us some of the egregious Human Rights rulings he kept mentioning. He said he doesn't talk about specific cases, because they obscure the point. The point is that we can't trust unaccountable government bureaucrats with the task of deciding what is legitimate speech and what is not. And on that, I tend to agree with him.
But why describe the nearly-defunct legislation as a sword that is used exclusively against Christians? Because that's what it takes to inflame public opinion against it? Because the moral majority won't be prodded into action without a little obfuscation?
The trouble is, that obfuscation is at the root of the real trouble. At risk of sounding like a broken record, it is that obfuscation, occurring on both sides of the political fence, that has hijacked our public discourse and has us at each other's throats instead of engaging in genuine discussion.
We all think we're under attack when, in fact, the vast majority of us are just trying to defend ourselves from people who are, in turn, just doing the same. We slide into a siege mentality that borders on paranoia. Just over that border is the place where hate thrives and personal freedoms crumble. That, more than human rights commissions, is the real threat to our nation.