Laws and Intolerance, a Canadian Dilemma

    June 2008            
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Banning Jew Haters In Canada. A Knight in Shining Armour or a Trojan Horse?

By Dr. Stefan Braun*

With the notable exception of the United States, democracies everywhere have enacted laws and conducted prosecutions to control public dissemination of "hate "against historically vulnerable groups. Yet, virtually all are reporting the same alarming trend – rising incidents of intolerance. The scourge of bigotry and ignorance refuses to respect national legal boundaries of public silencing.

A disproportionate share of this venom has been directed against identifiable Jews; and much of it transmitted through the smokescreen of Israel-bashing anti-Zionism. This is the "new" anti-Semitism. Its chords of discord are playing out their disharmony not only across university campuses but increasingly throughout society at large.

Canada is no exception to this downward spiral but illustrative. Canadian Jewry has been at the forefront of this nation's hate censorship revolution, pioneering criminal law against hate speech and working tirelessly to disqualify open expression of intolerant thoughts from legitimate public discourse. Despite such efforts, B'nai Brith's 2008 Annual Audit showed a dramatic near 9% surge in anti-Semitic incidents, continuing an upward trend that began in 2002. The usual causal explanation of bigotry's political ups and society's economic downs is proving increasingly thin, to excuse the growing failures of hate censorship.

The silencing faithful, however, remain unmoved. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada's national public broadcaster, is case in point. In March of 2009, the crown corporation responded to complaints about the exceptionally vulgar anti-Semitism appearing on its web site by agreeing to remove the offending reader commentaries and to sensitize its web screeners to future such transgressions. Brian Henry, a writer and occasional instructor at Ryerson University's School of Continuing Studies, who filed the complaints, praises the "outstanding and highly professional response" of the CBC. ["The CBC Bans Jew-Haters," Jewish Tribune: March 5, 2009]

Civilized societies everywhere outlaw anti-Semitic conduct, and rightly so. But how should anti-Semitic messages be dealt with? Should we work harder to ban them? Or harder to expose, confront, challenge, refute, and condemn them, instead? Silencing is seductive. But is it wise? Canadian silencing experience with the offending CBC web site does not auger well for those who put their faith in censorship. It illustrates how bans generate unintended dynamics, and unexpected consequences, that are self-defeating, and ultimately democratically counter-productive. Public silencing is not the answer to the "new" ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance but increasingly part of the problem. Here are some of the reasons why.

First, pressured media bans of deep-seated hate harvests a worse reinforcement of the underlying stereotypes of anti-Semites than would the transparent bigotry banned. Nothing lends public credibility to iniquitous conspiracy theories of Jewish power, domination, and media control quite like "successful" Jewish demonstrations of "free speech for me but not for thee," where such credibility most counts – in the minds of the already suspicious, the cynical and the impressionable. This poisoned fruit of reinforced prejudice is just the first putrid harvest from the public silencing tree.

Second, it is conventional wisdom among banners of hate that the more brazen the bigotry, the more it need be repressed. That's just common sense. It is in Canada. It's also wrong; at least for consolidated representative democracies. It is not the veiled, sophisticated, anti-Semite who best makes the public case for Jews against ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance. It is the vilest, the most transparent hatemonger who does.

As Henry recounts, one web reader sadistically asks which would be more entertaining, "a day pass to Disney's theme park or Dachau?" What better to educate an indifferent and disbelieving Canadian public on the true depravity of anti-Semitism? Another compares the 2008-2009 Israeli Gaza strike to the Holocaust, adding that Israel wanted "pounds of flesh," like Shylock the Jew. What better to pierce the smokescreen of today's anti-Zionism cloaking the old anti-Semitism hiding behind it? Still another enlightens us that while Jesus was a Jew, he "didn't take part in the eating of blood-filled pastries made from the blood of Palestinian children?" What better to expose the primitive ignorance binding the canards of the "new" anti-Semitism to the old?

Vile hate is self-incriminating. Veiled hate is obfuscating. No one, certainly no censor, can expose the true face of hate, nor discredit the bigot hiding behind it, better than the free-speaking, self-incriminating, transparent, hatemonger himself.

Third, as we are learning, determined hate (what other kind is worthy of banning?) cannot simply be silenced away; only driven underground or morphed above it. Anti-Semitism out of open sight is hardly ignorance, and prejudice out of public mind, or Jews out of danger, but in greater danger still. For, if the public hear only what the offended want them to hear what they hear may not be what they need to know. Deep-seated intolerance effectively concealed by banners from public view not only artificially diminishes a festering, and growing, danger. It cultivates a false sense of public complacency and undermines Jewish calls for heightened public vigilance.

Fourth, hate does not stand still for the convenience of hate banners. Hatemongers learn. Unfortunately, what they learn from bans is not the evil of their ways but how better to communicate it. Hate is a moving target. Worse, as Henry's "successful" ban itself illustrates, it is moved by censorship, itself, to mutate into more subtly insidious, less easily challengeble, strains. He writes, "though the CBC would block or remove a comment suggesting Jews are baby-killing Nazis, the reader was welcome to come back with some more subtle Jew-baiting" like calling Israel "racist, terrorist, apartheid."

Exactly! When transparent and traditional anti-Semitism is banned, you can expect more of the refined, and "new," anti-Zionist anti-Semitism to take its place. Hatemongers are chameleons, forever shedding their true colours and shading their intolerant meanings, to escape the censor's knife. The language of anti-Semitism is as large as your thesaurus. All you do by removing transparent Jew-hate is to invite worse disguised Jew hate to take its place. The self-incriminating anti-Semite may be the most offensive. But, in the long run, it is the disguised anti-Semites that are the more dangerous. Why disguise them?

Fifth, banning hate effectively is a politically slippery slope, as Henry himself demonstrates. After getting his "outstanding and highly professional response," to his complaint but then seeing the subtler, more insidious, hate taking its place, he writes, "and I wasn't satisfied. So I wrote [to the CBC] and complained again." What's next? Banning sinister phrases like "Jewish lobby"? Then what?

Hate banners may talk of speech bans in the singular, of "drawing a line in the sand." But slippery targets, and adaptive vocabulary, will always frustrate "satisfaction" with the line drawn, and render it elusive. The more hate banners pursue evasive hate speakers, the more they risk trespassing on legitimate speech to catch the "illegitimate" speech. Every censorship "push" sending clever hatemongers into more disguised, and insidious, messaging forms, "pulls" frustrated hate banners to quiet ever more controversial speech; or admit defeat and look the worse off for it. This is a "lose-lose" dynamic for hate censors, but a "win-win" proposition for hatemongers. It is not simply self-defeating. It is democracy corroding. Determined anti-Semites do not need free speech to find their voice, or their victims; only repression to more profitably convey their message.

Censorship satisfaction can never be a final event, only a slippery, self-defeating, and democratically counter-productive dynamic, requiring drawing ever more speech invasive lines in the sand. Even Canada's premier neo-Nazi boor, Ernst Zundel, knew this. More refined, more "intellectual" haters, today's "new" deniers of historic Jewish identity and distinctive national legitimacy, know it that much better. Isn't it time for hate banners to know it, too?

Sixth, banning hate is a doubled-edged political sword. If "we" substitute silencing might for demonstration of right, to "answer" ever more subtle offense, so can "they". Freedom of speech is not politically divisible, to benefit only the "right" voice, the Jewish voice. History does not forever stand still for the convenience of Jewish hate silencers. The "clash of civilizations" makes that clear. "New" historical victims (Palestinians) can take the public place of old ones (Jews). David can become Goliath. Jewish shields against hate can be turned on their heads into Muslim swords against the Jewish voice. It is already happening. Just ask intimidated defenders of Israel who risk offending Muslim sensibilities and progressive hate speech codes at multicultural Canadian universities. To be sure, it is happening on American campuses too. Only here, unlike there, silencing hypocrisy finds political succour in a legal culture of hate censorship legitimacy. Anti-Semitism may not need censorship to trample on freedom of Jewish speech. But it sure can help to better legitimize the stomping.

Double-edged hate silencing swords are not equal opportunity employers. They substitute might for demonstration of right. Might is a slippery food chain. The stronger devour the weaker, the belligerent the civil, the popular the disfavoured. Jews intent on gorging on coerced quiet need beware of swallowing; lest the silencing revolution devour its young.

Finally, conventional censorship wisdom holds that the wider the public reach of hate the more dangerous is the public reached. Consider the internet. Henry warns: "Worse, they [cyber hatemongers] reach a mainstream audience, not just their fellow bigots." Why "worse"? Why not "better"? Shouldn't self-governing publics know what anti-Semites are truly thinking, fanatics actually saying, and enemies of democracy really plotting? Public ignorance, and indifference to growing anti-Semitism in Canada, is not a problem of too much public knowledge about the true face of hate, but too little. It is not a problem of too little Jewish banning of free-speaking, transparent, self-incriminating, hatemongers, but too much.

Jews need fear more a public artificially sheltered from truly knowing the threat to Jews than they fear the threat the public truly know. Why? Because camouflage and concealment are public prevention's greatest enemy. It is not the noble thoughts we want to hear that can hurt us most, but the heinous ones we fear to truly know and boldly confront, that can. Free speaking internet hatemongers make the Jewish case for vigilance, preparedness, and public education against the "new" anti-Semitism, easier. Hidden, martyred, or disguised internet anti-Semites make it harder. We can fear internet democracy. Or we can harness it, instead. We can know; or we can hide. Isn't it better to know than to hide?

Those, who put their faith in fear of free speech to assure their freedom from hate, forfeit their future to pyrrhic silencing victories. Guarantees of public thought belong in dictatorships not democracies. In the end, there are no assurances against ignorance and intolerance, only the lesser of remedial risks. Freedom of public discourse on divisive public matters is not a panacea. It can offend. It can disturb. It can hurt. But it can also expose. It can challenge. It can refute. It can correct. And it can truly educate. Silence cannot. It can only mask, deny, postpone, grow, and pretend. Free speech has costs. But banning hate has worse costs. The costs of free speech are visible. The costs of feigned public quiet are hidden. But they are no less costly. On the contrary, they are more costly because of it.

The lesson from Canada is that self-governing people need to be honestly challenged not falsely soothed. Contrived public quiet cannot a people enlighten, only a hatemonger camouflage. Fear does not a people prepare, only a victim incapacitate. Those who doubt their own voice for free exercise of their intolerant enemies' secure not victory, but concede defeat. Little by little, they bite off their own democratic nose to spite their intolerant enemies' hateful face. They slowly diminish their own right to freely speak and arm that of their duplicitous, and unscrupulous, foes. They put their future not in a democratic knight in shining armour but in a Trojan horse in the waiting. Hatemongers could not ask for more.

*Stefan Braun, LLB, LLM, MA, Ph.D, has authored numerous scholarly articles on hate censorship: including: Second Class Citizens: Jews, Freedom Speech, and intolerance on Canadian University Campuses, Washington and Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social justice, 12(2) 2006, 1; and the nationally acclaimed book, 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.


from the June 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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