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Picking our targets wisely: How progressives should frame freedom of speech

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When I was in journalism school, a professor offered me a valuable piece of advice: "Half of the struggle of being a good columnist is choosing the best target."

It's a useful reminder for leftists too. We have to be intentional and intelligent when choosing in which struggles to engage. We have finite resources and time. Our choices are  political acts in and of themselves.

I suspect there was a huge swath of progressives these past two weeks who didn't agree with the amount of attention given to the murders at Charlie Hebdo by other leftists. Surely, as many have pointed out, the Charlie Hebdo murders shouldn't overshadow the murder of thousands in Nigeria, for example.

Even still, I found the analyses and debates fascinating. The debates exposed cracks among some progressives' analyses about satire, freedom of speech, cultural relativism, racism and Islamophobia. I argued that many people were missing the real target in this debate, and that there's no fight for free speech without fighting for equal access to it.

Many progressive men bought into a right-wing frame of freedom of speech and demanded uniform and unflinching solidarity with #JeSuisCharlie. Accepting such a frame requires adherents to suspend everything they (should) know about privilege and power, as access to free speech is certainly not equal.

The fact is that there is no left-wing equivalent to the rabid, hateful extremes of Western right-wing free speech crusaders. There is no one drawing sexual, bloodied or otherwise off-putting images of CEOs or Conservative politicians. We should take pride in this. Thank god there are no left-wing equivalents of Ezra Levant or Neo-Nazis. When progressives buy into this right-wing frame of free speech, we must spend time defending the rights of the extreme right to essentially be assholes.

This isn’t to say that I believe that Ezra Levant should be jailed and his tongue ripped out and fed to dogs. I think Ezra has the right to stand on a street corner and yell at passersby until he falls over. And if he were ever arrested for hate speech, I might tweet some bastardization of an Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote (misattributed to Voltaire) to say I disagree with the state's decision.

We must defend free speech, but as progressives our rights are under a much more fundamental attack. Our rights to gather and protest, to freely assemble and commit acts of civil disobedience are being dangerously eroded.

Attacks on our freedom of speech look very different. We have bloggers who are routinely served cease and desist orders from right-wingers. I've been sued twice, both times by men who wanted to shut me up. One woman was arrested in 2013 for posting an image to Instagram of anti-police graffiti in Montreal. Our activists are rounded up and detained as preventative measures and incarcerated.

Internationally, leftist dissidents are routinely targeted by brutal regimes. Despite the occasional post from Amnesty International, little attention is brought to the plight of these political dissidents, from left to right, who face jail or death as a result of what they write. Consider Raif Badawi, who was charged for "breaking allegiance with the ruler." He will be flogged 1000 times and is sentenced to 10 years in jail. His wife and children must wait, far away, in Sherbrooke, Québec.

Why should we call for Canadian newspapers to publish unfunny cartoons from France rather than demanding they publish Badawi's blog posts?

There will always be Western Free Speech Defenders. Most of them are men. Most of the highest profile defenders have platforms in national newspapers. Let's let them defend the Mark Steyns and Ann Coulters of the world. Considering the left's limited resources, any second spent defending them means that we're not spending time on more pressing issues of free speech.

When a crisis emerges on the other side of the world that touches us deeply, we have to remember to maintain a level of sobriety in our reactions. Part of being sober is to recognize when we’re being baited to assume a right-wing frame. We have to take off the beer goggles, step away from Twitter and ask: am I seriously going to spend my time arguing that people have the right to mock a religion that is practiced by a particular community of deeply marginalized and oppressed people?

I wont. Maybe it's a function of being too busy, but I don't have time for that. I'll leave that work to the white guys whose names grace the pages of the Globe and Mail or the National Post.

Instead, I'll choose my targets wisely.


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