Monday, January 7, 2008

Free Speech, or Legalized Bigotry?

Nation, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Free Speech lately.

Free Speech is one of the most critical elements in what we consider to be a modern democracy. The freedom of people to express their opinions, whether on the pulpit, the microphone, or the page, is one of democracy's most sacred and protected rights - even the whiff of denial of this right brings people screaming from the hills to decry the heinous abuse of governmental power and censorship.

Despite musings to the contrary on another message board, I believe I understand social conservatives as well as anyone who can't call themselves one (I am and remain a proud and staunch social progressive - which is NOT the same as a bleeding-heart liberal, by the way, and only a Sith deals in absolutes). SoCons claim that their single biggest political issue is the sacrifice of religious freedom and freedom of speech in the name of political correctness. Despite my own opinions on the SoCon agenda, due to a lack of anything other my personal suspicions and preconceived notions I have to accept them at their word on this.

My view on freedom of religion is quite simple: Freedom of religion means for ALL religions.

It's the freedom of religious expression, and by proxy Free Speech, where things get a little more cloudy for me.

On the one hand, I have been indoctrinated very nicely by parents, teachers and the media on both sides of the 49th in my nearly 30 years that freedom of speech needs to be absolute, with no exceptions. My ancestors crossed oceans and died to fight against evil monsters who denied this right to their people, and held state-sponsored book burnings of material judged "inappropriate". Indeed, I've been taught that any government that curtails this right in the slightest is basically a few brown shirts and a beer-hall from being Nazis.

On the other hand, I've been subjected to a society that routinely and as a matter of course fights to curtail freedom of speech. Boycotts of radio stations that play artists with questionable lyrics, the pasteurized language that has made its way into the daily lexicon so as to avoid "offending people" at all costs, the refusal of certain school boards to stock the Harry Potter series, the Golden Compass, or anything that acknowledges that some children have "2 dads who live together" on their library shelves. Ironically, in many cases it is church groups, the most fertile ground in which to find social conservatives, which fight the hardest against the right to free expression in such cases.

I find myself agreeing that the government should generally try to stay away from legislating speech whenever possible. Speech after all is the verbalized expression of our thoughts, and any attempt to control what is acceptable speech must also naturally lead one to conclude that attempts are being made to control what is acceptable thought - a frightening prospect. And yet, I have a hard time accepting that anything and everything that could cross a person's lips must be accepted by society in the spirit of 100%, all-inclusive free speech. A Nazi rally in the lobby of City Hall? A radio commercial from NAMBLA?

Even the hair-splitting of "freedom of RELIGIOUS expression" runs into problems... I daresay that many of the same social conservatives who decry their pastors' inability to publicly denounce homosexuality as a sinful activity would probably not appreciate a radical Imam giving a vitriolic anti-semitic sermon to a crowd of thousands of followers on a Saturday in Olympic Plaza.

As I said... I'm not certain where to come out on this. Even the 2 "mainstream extremes" (a contradiction, I know) in North American politics (Canada's federal Liberals and the US's Republicans) have found themselves curtailing freedom of speech in some cases, and trumpeting it as an absolute good in others. American liberals condemn Bush for curtailing freedom of speech through electronic surveillance and the Partiot Act, and then demand that Duance Chapman's "Dog the Bounty Hunter" be cancelled because he was recorded using racial slurs in a private conversation. Our home-grown social conservatives claim freedom of speech as their biggest issue, yet many of them then turn around and hypocritically condemn others for "bad language" or "insidious anti-Christian messages", and seek sanctions.

If you want your pastor to be able to write articles or give interviews where he condemns certain groups as sinful or evil, and you're an activist for freedom of speech, then you've got to give Osama bin Laden, the evil witchcraft-promoting J.K. Rowling and archival Hitler speeches a fair shake, too.

After all, freedom of speech means freedom of ALL speech. If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander.

And if it's just freedom of religious expression you want extended to clergy, then get ready for a lot of anti-Christian rhetoric on the airwaves... because there are a lot of non-Christian clergy who aren't too fond of the "fishers of men", and you're fighting for their freedom, too, or you're just a hypocrite.

Freedom for all? Or a free-for-all?

Luckily, I'm no Sith. I see shades of grey - and believe in "Freedom for all to express themselves, without promoting hate or prejudice against people based on race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income or family status."

Good line?

It's from the preamble to the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act.

1 comment:

Kirk Schmidt said...

I'm reminded of a speech given in the movie, The American President:

"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."