When free speech is no longer free for all

Image: Masuma Asad Khan/Facebook

Speaking, I suppose, generationally, I find it troubling that the free speech issue has fallen into the tender right wing grip of Rebel Media, the Koch brothers and their kin. For those on the other side (the left, whatever it is), issues around racism, gender and, especially in Canada, Indigenous peoples, have become central, where there actually seem to be possibilities of serious change.

To the young especially, these matters are so grievous and neglected, that they take precedence over traditional "left" concerns, including free speech. I've talked with students so determined that these matters be finally addressed -- and not lapse backward -- that they're willing to overlook suppression of speech and due process to finally grapple with them.

One said that he'd readily be punished unjustly himself, if it moved those causes ahead. In this environment, the far right has cheerily become the custodian of free speech.

But none of it is simple or static. Take the case of Masuma Khan, Dalhousie student. With Dal's student council, she rejected celebrating Canada 150, over Indigenous issues. Conservative students objected and she replied, "Be proud of this country? For what, over 400 years of genocide?... #unlearn150, #whitefragilitycankissmyass, #yourwhitetearsarentsacredthislandis."

A grad student complained to the university language police, as Khan rightly (IMO) calls them, who upheld the complaint. She refused to apologize or take counselling, since it's her "right to express my views publicly in whatever manner I choose."

This is effectively reseizing control of the free speech issue, much as Jesse Wente and Robert Jago did during an earlier flare-up. Their position was, more or less: you non-Indigenous people are free to speak any idiocy you want but don't expect us to demur politely or let you get away with it; we will call you out.

Khan didn't deny being hostile and disrespectful but she disavowed racism, since, "I would never have the power to oppress someone the way the system can oppress marginalized people." This is a nuanced step forward. Earlier free speech advocates didn't draw such distinctions, it held for everyone in the same way. So power imbalances were overlooked or deemed irrelevant in the debate. But the result is similar: free speech embraced, if less ardently.

Margaret Wente (no relation to Jesse) in the Globewas illuminating about power and privilege in this case, as she usually is. She cited "the remarkable ingratitude Ms. Khan expresses toward the country that took her parents in, and provided her with a first-class education." Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, anyone?

She makes it sound as if Canada is a chef who cooked you a great meal. Who gets to define who must be grateful to whom? Her column makes you realize how refreshing ingratitude can sometimes be. The tone she takes pretty well requires a snippy reply. This is exactly why there should be lots of latitude vs. formal niceness à la the language police -- when it comes to public debate. You can see why those like Khan mightn't want to echo old style free speech left-liberals.

Still, I continue to think (generationally) that free speech is crucial, less on moral or abstract grounds than pragmatically. Why? Because if speech gets shut down -- not just confronted but suppressed -- it will always be the privileged who, in the long run (or medium or short) benefit because they have the power, the guns, the legal institutions, the money, to bend the final decisions to their ends.

Efforts by the unprivileged to flatly shut down speech that they see as inhumane or demeaning are simply based on delusion, buttressed by minimal, short-term victories, such as keeping a speaker off campus. It might feel good to turn that white supremacist away but look who is in the White House now -- as commander of the armed forces.

Don't be fooled, folks. Free speech is far more in your interest than his. It’s not accidental that Trump keeps attacking the press and wondering why free speech matters. In his life he's never said a good word for the first amendment. It's also why right wing billionaires fund the appropriation of free speech causes.

Free speech matters because democracy isn't about just casting a vote, which can lead almost anywhere heinous. It's about far-ranging discussion among the majority, where views can sway and change, but won't, absent open discussion.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Masuma Asad Khan/Facebook

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