Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Still around

This blog has not gone on hiatus. I was just busy working on something for a seminar, Topics in Human Rights and Social Justice. Today I presented a half-hour speech on 'why hate-speech laws in Canada are unduly restrictive and should be abolished.' Sample exchange:

Me: You can say you approve of Ezra Levant printing the Muhammad cartoons, or you can say that you disapprove. You have the luxury of being able to make that judgment call. You have the luxury of studying it closely, of deciding for yourself whether it is appropriate, of being personally autonomous, and this is because of the courage of journalists like Levant who published it at risk to themselves. But if we allow the kind of censorship we are seeing from the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal, you won't be able to make that call next time. You won't be able to see the next controversial cartoon, because it won't ever be drawn. Whoever has the idea for a funny cartoon about Vishnu or Moses or Muhammad will think to herself, 'Do I really need the trouble? Is this cartoon worth one hundred thousand dollars in legal fees and endless headaches?' That, or else that cartoonist's editor will spike the work, because that editor has seen what happened to Maclean's magazine. Next time, the censors will have made the call for you.

Other student: You use the word 'luxury' - you say I have the 'luxury' of studying this cartoon. I question that. What do I gain from looking at this cartoon? What inherent value does it have? And if we suppress it, have we really lost anything of value? One has to balance rights in the law. I would say that the possible prejudicial effect of publishing something like this, the only intent of which seems to be to injure the sensibilities of a threatened minority in society and possibly to generate ill will towards that minority, is substantial. Balance this against the inherent value of the expression contained in the cartoon, its artistic merit and whatever other messages it may attempt to convey, and I think it is clear that the scales must tip in favour of a cautious approach. If we allow publication of that cartoon, do we not make it more likely that Muslims, who may already feel insecure in the present political climate, may feel a 'chilling effect' themselves, and be afraid to speak their minds for fear of repercussion? I feel that we must strive not just for a robust public discourse, but one that is respectful of the basic precepts of human dignity, that takes place within a clearly defined framework of equality and mutual understanding.

What inherent value is there in those cartoons, indeed?

That question needs a lot of time to answer, more than I had today.