Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The enduring hate speech of Stephen Douglas in Canada

Jerry Stratton, June 5, 2019

Randall Garrison

While it was amazing seeing just how closely modern conservatism resembles the principles of Abraham Lincoln, it’s disappointingly just as true that Lincoln’s debate rival Stephen Douglas espoused and argued vehemently for what we would today describe as the principles of the left—the vision of the anointed. He believed that smart people should make decisions; that it was the smart person’s burden to be responsible for the life of the masses. It was, in his view, the responsibility of government.

That’s why he supported slavery: the slave’s owner took on the burdensome task of deciding what the slave’s best interests were. This, in his view, freed the slave.

That kind of sophistry continues among the left today. Stephen Douglas was probably no more racist than Abraham Lincoln. But where Lincoln’s principles lifted him up, Douglas’s principles dragged him down.

It was hard not to think of Stephen Douglas while listening to Canadian politicians telling Canadian citizens why laws need to ban speech politicians disagree with. That it’s important for police to visit people, not for doing something illegal, but because they’re saying things the politicians don’t like.

Committee Member Colin Fraser began with the standard sophistry that has been the left’s strategy since at least Douglas. He argued that free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. This is true; it means that, for example, you have no right to not be disliked for your speech, no right to be disagreed with, no right to shut down free speech from others that might show your own free speech to be wrong. But what Fraser turns this into is that you have no right to speech that he thinks is wrong. If he thinks there ought to be consequences to your speech, it is his responsibility to enact those into law. Further, public figures should be compelled to speech that he approves of. It’s the age-old logic of the tyrant: it must either be criminal or required.

Free speech comes with responsibilities, after all. And one of those responsibilities is to say what Canada’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights wants you to say.

Free speech doesn’t mean what you’re compelled to say by the state. They’re getting free speech completely backward. They’re defining it as censorship and compelled dogma.

Associate Member Nathaniel Erskine-Smith wanted to prove that the government knows how to crack down on hate speech, and demanded that the guests tell him when the criminal code had ever been improperly applied. Guest Mark Steyn had just described how the government had improperly harassed him. But Erskine-Smith has his own special definition of “improperly”. By improperly, he meant that the same court system that improperly harassed people then said that they had improperly harassed people.

Erskine-Smith moved deftly between talking about Steyn’s complaints about the civil code (section 13), to praising the criminal code. Steyn did start giving an example that may have been about how the criminal code has also been abused, but was cut off with the admonition that he should go back and think about:

Are there better ways that we can enforce criminal hate speech?

You’re not in front of this committee to tell us we’re wrong. You’re here to agree with us and come up with even more ways to punish you for speech we disagree with.

Associate Member Randall Garrison used similar word tricks, and went back and forth over the line between criminal threats and public disagreement.

If we don’t do something about that, then we are in fact encouraging it to go on. And so the police chief that I work with, very progressive, saying surely you’re not talking about arrests. And I said of course I’m not talking about arrests. But I’m talking about some door-knocking with those who’ve directly threatened me saying that this behavior is unacceptable and it needs to stop. And there were a number of cases where the police did agree to do that.

He went from talking about death threats to characterizing disagreement as threatening: if they were death threats, there would be reason for arrests. If someone’s making a serious death threat, you can in fact arrest them, even in Canada.

Extreme libertarians often that government has become a metaphorical mommy. This is almost literally government as mommy, scolding its children and forcing them to apologize for their naughty behavior.

If the state doesn't criminalize it, the state is encouraging it is insidious, because it means that we need to have laws about everything. But Garrison went even further. If the state can’t (yet) criminalize it, he wants the police to go door to door telling people, we've got our eyes on you. He’s bragging about having already done that.

Garrison continued by saying that the hearings weren’t about criminalizing speech, they were about figuring out where to criminalize speech.

The entire point of these hearings is not about criminalizing speech. It’s about deciding where, in a modern society where social media have in fact become the public square, where do we draw the line? And so the old cliché we all know that there are limits on speech, you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. So the problem is defining where that crowded theater is these days. And quite often that crowded theater is online and is the Internet. And so what this committee is trying to do in these hearings is figure out where to draw this line.

Garrison tried to frame this as about the “real world”. But the crowded theater is dangerous only because it is literally the real world. No one is going to be killed in an online stampede while watching Netflix.

They might, however, be killed by a police visit to tell them they need to watch their mouths. Police visits go wrong far more often than online streaming.

Committee Member Ali Ehsassi literally fell down a slippery slope.

  1. “Miss Shepherd, you said,… [racism] is distasteful, is destructive to healthy race relations, and completely deserving of harsh criticisms.”
  2. “Would you agree that racism is destructive to healthy race relations, and deserves to be criticized and condemned?”
  3. “And you would say the same thing about sexism and homophobia, they’re destructive to the public order and they should be condemned?”
  4. “And so you agree that all of these -isms can be troubling to the public order, and should be condemned.”
  5. “And so do you agree that Canadian public figures have a responsibility to condemn hate speech.”
  6. “So you agree it’s destructive but you don’t think it should be condemned.”
  7. “You don’t think people have a responsibility to condemn. But I think you said here they are deserving of harsh criticism.”

If you agree that hate speech is wrong, Ehsassi doesn’t understand why you don’t want to compel everyone to condemn it. He is pretending to a complete inability to see the difference between something deserving criticism, and compelling criticism. Ehsassi goes from “deserving of harsh criticisms” to “should be condemned” to “a responsibility to condemn” and then either doesn’t or pretends not to see the difference between a statement deserving criticism and a responsibility to criticize.

He also went the other way on what threshold should trigger state intervention, despite Erskine-Smith’s earlier adamant praise of Canada’s high threshold for punishing hate speech. Ehsassi’s threshold dropped from “destructive to the public order” to merely “troubling to the public order”, and then backtracked to “destructive” when called on it.

In the end, the committee literally devolved into attempting to extract forced apologies and denials from the guests. It was, as Mark Steyn said, repulsive:

You are doing what is the most repulsive aspect of this committee, which is you’re trying to force people to deny certain things they said five, ten, fifteen years ago, as if there is only one correct position… and if you’re not willing to sign on to that you’re a hater.

Steyn also didn’t accept Garrison’s death threat oneupmanship. He’s not only been subject to death threats himself and braved them in order to speak, he’s appeared with people who have had their places of business bombed, and who have been shot at.

There are all kinds of people who get death threats. And if the alternative is surrendering our liberty over death threats, to hell with that, sir.

I’m also currently reading Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. One of Heinlein’s characters, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis, writes in the bittersweet end of the book that there is an “instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn’t forbidden”.

I don’t think Mannie was right about humans. But he certainly seems to be right about the tend of humans that become politicians.

When Steyn says that:

The alternative to free speech is approved speech. And that necessarily means, approved by whom?… Once it becomes speech approved by the state, and speech approved by formal bodies, it effectively means the speech approved by the powerful. — Mark Steyn (Meeting No. 154 JUST—Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights)

He’s echoing Heinlein’s professor in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

“A managed democracy is a wonderful thing, Manuel, for the managers… and its greatest strength is a ‘free press’ when ‘free’ is defined as ‘responsible’ and the managers define what is ‘irresponsible.’

That’s what the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party in Canada clearly want: to manage the people of Canada just as Stephen Douglas would have managed the people of the United States.

In response to Embarrassed by our president: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

  1. <- Failure theater