Has Hate Censorship Come Full Circle?



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Hate Censorship or Jewish Freedom of Speech:
A Choice Only a Masochist Would Envy.

By Dr. Stefan Braun

A remarkable, I dare say historic, event occurred in the Canadian Jewish community recently. It is one that carries important lessons for Americans thinking to follow the Canadian hate censorship route to freedom from fear and bigotry. In a heart-wrenching essay entitled, “Live and learn: confessions of a Jewish Professor,” [Canadian Jewish News, Oct. 23, 2008, page 9] Ed Morgan, a Jewish professor of law at the University of Toronto and a highly respected authority on freedom of speech, bares his soul on hate censorship, “confessing” that his pro-silencing views on the “regulation of hate speech may have been misguided.” For someone who has invested his life’s work and professional reputation helping to shut up the likes of James Keegstra, and booting from Canada Rwandan genocide propagandist Leon Mugasera, this is a stunning admission. When is the last time you heard a nationally recognized scholar, and celebrated human rights advocate, admit he was wrong?

But this confession is much more than that. You see, Ed Morgan is not just any recent convert to freedom of speech. He served as Ontario Regional Chairperson and then National President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, one of the leading public voices for hate censorship laws in Canada. This “confession” is no ordinary mea culpa.

It is not just an in-house academic spat, an esoteric falling out among intellectuals in the far off reaches of academe. It is about the future welfare of a historically vulnerable community, and a possibly divided leadership with a real dilemma on how best to protect it.

Hate censorship law was the brainchild of the CJC back in the early sixties in response to worrisome rise of Neo-Nazi activity in Canada the decade before. Parliament directed Maxwell Cohen, Canada’s first Jewish Dean of Law to study the problem. The result was the criminalization of “hate propaganda” in Canada, following on the recommendations of the Cohen committee. This was the crowning jewel of Congress’s efforts to “eradicate hate.” No more persecution. No more Holocausts. No more anti-Semitism; at least, not in a free and democratic society like Canada.

That such a long-suffering minority should seek shelter from a millennial history of unspeakable persecution, under the canopy of hate censorship laws, is perfectly understandable. But this just makes Professor Morgan’s free speech coming out all the more incomprehensible. It’s not every day that a committed community leader puts his personal convictions ahead of his community’s most historically sensitive mandate, and himself under its critical scrutiny.

So why the change of heart now, when anti-Jewish sentiment is once again rearing its ugly head, and the case for censorship to quell it greater than ever?

The answer may seem surprising. Simply put, the Jewish community has become a victim of its own hate censorship “successes.” At one time, the Jewish community virtually owned the rights to the idea of public silencing for hate.

Today, with historic Jewish censorship “victories” against the likes of James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel leading the way, the idea has completely taken off, shared by academics, minorities, feminists, gays, nationalists, the religious, even leading lawyers, and sitting judges. Zero tolerance of minority intolerance, is no longer simply a “Jewish” idea about how to deal with fascists and Nazis. It is now a multicultural idea on how to promote Canadian diversity and protect social democracy. Few if any who sat on the Cohen Committee could ever have imagined how tightly this idea would be woven into the very fabric of the Canadian political consciousness to condition social discourse and shape public debate.

So, shouldn’t Professor Morgan be celebrating, instead of “confessing”? Indeed, shouldn’t all Canadians be celebrating? Not quite.

Officially enforced “right” was intended to be used for the public good only as a last resort, against the vilest and clearest case of ignorance and bigotry, when neither rational discussion nor considered debate was thought feasible. But that, in political practice, is not how it has worked out.

The laws’ eager and sweeping public embrace has turned out to be its Achilles political heel, taking flight in ways only a few had imagined, and not enough had feared. Hate silencing has not only shaped public debate. It has twisted it. It has not only conditioned public discourse. It has corrupted it. In the multicultural society that is Canada today, hate speech, in political practice, is not what the Cohen committee intended it to be but, instead, whatever the meaningfully offended say it is. Unfortunately, different offended say, and see, different things, as hate. Traditionalists’ family is feminists’ misogyny, and vice-versa; secularists’ skepticism is Muslims’ blasphemy; Jews’ Zionism is Palestinians’ racism; evangelists’ abomination is gays’ human rights; developers’ economic freedom is Natives’ rapacious cultural genocide. Why debate such disagreements and risk your case or your cause, when you think you can club your opponents into silence, and be assured of success?

Bludgeoning our most deep-seated social disagreements into submission with threat of hate silencing is the new “progressive” social order of public business of the day. Where an American might say, “Your right to say it does not mean that what you say is right,” a Canadian will say, “You have no right to say it because what you say is wrong, and illegal.” Who is better to embrace this philosophy, in the age of clash of civilizations and offended sensibilities, than rival social, cultural, and religious minorities?

Substituting censorship might for free speech demonstration of right, it turns out, is a slippery legitimating political slope and a double-edged social silencing sword. It can be deployed to attack not just to defend, to divide not just to unite, to repress not just to liberate, to darken not just to enlighten – all in the name of tolerance, social justice, and historical truth. Its theoretical “beauty”, is its practical ugliness. In short, anti-hate silencing has morphed into an instrument of intolerance like no other.

No one should know this better than the Canadian Jewish community itself. Of late, the sharp edge of the hate silencing sword has increasingly been resting on the throat of the Jewish voice. Maclean’s, Canada’s foremost mainstream magazine, is unabashedly hauled before the Canadian Human Right Commission by outraged Muslims, for running New York Time’s best-selling author Mark Steyn’s biting political commentary on the dangers of radical Islam. The Western Standard, a conservative Jewish publication, is bankrupted into future silence defending against anti-hate human rights complains for reprinting the Mohammad cartoons.

At York University, a complaint is lodged against Hasbara, a Zionist student organization, alleging that the very image of the blue-and-white Israeli flag appearing on the groups’ pamphlets is hateful and must be banned. Writes Morgan, “the Keegstras and the Zundels of yesteryear have morphed into the Mark Steyns and the Hasbara students of today.” A shield against brazen intolerance of Jews has been turned on its head, into a sword against the legitimate exercise of the Jewish voice.   A public-serving idea has been turned into a self-serving idea. Politics does funny things to good intentions.

Today, the Canadian Jewish community is at a difficult cross-road, of their own making. They can claim a right to freely silence; or they can claim a right to freely speak. But they can no longer freely, and fearlessly, do both at the same time. They need choose. For, they no longer enjoy exclusive political rights to the laws and regulations of hate censorship. History has refused to stand still for the benefit only of Jewish hate censors. Indeed, double-edged social silencing swords like those aimed against hate speech do not stand politically still for the silencing convenience of anyone.

No one is immune to one day be hoisted on his own hate silencing petard. Jews in Canada, like Jews everywhere, are only the proverbial historical canary in the political mineshaft of anti-hate intolerance. Fear to freely speak, for them is, ultimately, society’s omen of danger to freely speak for everyone. We ignore it, at our own risk.

It is this belated realization, I surmise, that has caused Professor Morgan to rethink hate censorship, leaving others in the Jewish community still clinging to a false faith in public silencing to guarantee their freedom from fear with an agonizing choice. Chart a new, more politically, and intellectually, demanding free speech friendly course to answer ignorance and bigotry; or circle the censorship wagons, man the silencing barricades, withdraw into self-denial, and hope for the best.

Misguided faith in hate censorship is only one of Professor Morgan’s two historic confessions, here. Misguided faith in “rational dialogue and academic debate” with “one-state” boycotters of Israel, is the other. These rejectionists question the very legitimacy of a distinctive Jewish homeland, and deny a right to freely and fearlessly speak in defense of it.

Under the circumstances, Professor Morgan's reluctance to engage in "debate" is perfectly understandable. You’re not going to have constructive dialogical discourse in a shared space with someone who demands your acceptance of collective national suicide, and your public silence to boot, as the cornerstone of discussion for resolving a conflict of national identities. What is puzzling, here, is not Professor Morgan’s declination to directly engage but his defensive characterization of it as a point of free speech that “the most ardent free speecher would have to draw the line” on. With respect, this is to fall back on old, “misguided” ways of thinking about the meaning of freedom of speech.

The question of engagement here has nothing to do with how much of a “free speecher” one is. A right to speak is not a requirement to speak; much less a diktat as to how, when, where, or who to speak to. Declination to engage here is not about freedom of speech but a tactical question of sensible exercise of it. One is no less a “free speecher” for wisely thinking it futile to engage in “rational debate” adversaries who deny your historic right to exist and to freely speak (choosing instead alternative more productive channels of communication to answer them) than one is more of a “free speecher” for choosing naively to engage them. There is nothing in the concept of freedom of speech requiring “free speechers” to be dim-witted. There is no restriction or limit on the right to speak here. Nothing, and no one, is taken away. Communicative smarts is not about “drawing a line” on freedom of speech, but an illustration of the consummate flexibility of its exercise. Such misconstruction of the meaning of free speech is not inspiring testimony from one who now avers to see the free speech light, but rather lingering evidence of incomplete emergence from the censorship darkness. Failing to appreciate such distinctions, risk forfeiting any claim of authority on freedom of speech to enlighten the censorship faithful on the error of their ways.

Choosing freedom of speech over hate censorship is a painful choice for any historically vulnerable minority to make, but especially for one so timelessly and ceaselessly persecuted as Jews. To be sure, freedom does not come without risk. Voice is no panacea against hate, as American Jews know all too well. But without it, the civil, the peaceful and the more tolerant, have nothing with which to defend themselves. Public voice on public matters is the freedom on which virtually all the other freedoms in a democracy, ultimately, depend. It is the freedom on which the Jewish voice depends. Hate censorship has turned out to be a false promise of security from fear. It is not what it appeared to be. It was in fact a temporary shelter, an artificial shield, an albatross around the neck of the Jewish voice under growing assault for daring to be freely heard. Canadian Jews have been living in self-denial. It is time to read the censorship writing on the wall. As Professor Morgan now appreciates, if we “read our history correctly,” the Holocaust began “not only with words, but with book burning.”

Trusting in hate censorship to secure your freedom from fear is seductive. But be prepared to be betrayed. Hate censorship is a Trojan horse of public intolerance, dressed up in the seductive garb of tolerance, slowly, subtly, and deceptively sucking the lifeblood out of freedom for the Jewish voice. That is the painful lesson that some Canadian Jews are only now beginning to learn. Professor Morgan’s courageous “confessions” and bold example, openly stepping up to the free speech plate and renouncing hate censorship business as usual, should be applauded, and embraced, by all. Free-speaking American Jews contemplating following in our fear-thinking hate censorship footsteps, take heed – it can be worse!

* Dr. Stefan Braun LL.B, LL.M, Ph.D. has authored numerous scholarly articles on hate censorship and a nationally acclaimed book on the subject: Democracy off Balance: Freedom of Expression and Hate Propaganda Law in Canada, Toronto, (University of Toronto Press) 2004. 2006 Harold Adams Innis Prize Finalist for the best peer-reviewed English language book in the social sciences in Canada. His most recent article is "Second-class Citizens: Jews, Freedom of Speech, And Intolerance on Canadian University Campuses, Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, 12(2) 2006, 1.


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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