In 2001, Canada expanded section 13(1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) to include “telecommunications over the internet”. This section of the CHRA dealt with “hate messages”. The expansion allowed the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) to go after anyone on the internet “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” based on group identity. Investigations were prompted by complaints, which allowed serial complainants like Richard Warman to effectively use the CHRC for personal vendettas.
The cases prosecuted under 13(1) were done so outside of the Canadian judicial system, which resulted in a number of controversies concerning the CHRC’s handling of these cases. To provide a sense of how the CHRC was operating, the lead investigator gave the following quote when being interviewed about the Marc Lemire case in 2006.
“Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value… it is not my job to give value to an American concept.”
This is the type of person leading the commission, so it is unsurprising that they publicly bungled a number of cases by prosecuting arbitrary targets, sometimes even illegally. In Lemire’s case, they tapped a civilian’s router in order to mask their IP during the investigation. In a separate case, they awarded Shiv Chopra $4,000 in damages because his incoming boss at Health Canada told him that he “liked visible minorities”. However, they refused to follow up on a complaint about a Montreal-based imam’s book endorsing hatred of non-Muslims, gays, and Jews that he published on the internet. In the meantime, the National Post outlined a list of concerns with the process, which are published below.
- Third parties not involved in the alleged offences could nonetheless file complaints
- Plaintiffs were sometimes given access to the commission’s’ investigation files and given the power to direct investigators
- Truth was not considered a defence
- Defendants were not always permitted to face their accusers.
- Normal standards for assuring the validity of evidence did not apply.
- Hearsay was admitted.
- The government funded the plaintiff but the defendant was on his/her own.
Eventually, there was enough public backlash that this section of the CHRA was repealed. It can be concluded that Section 13(1) was an experiment in regulating speech, and it failed. However, judging by the near-constant free speech-related outrage on university campuses, it would seem that most people did not learn anything from this failure.
This article is not about whether speech should be regulated because that topic has been covered extensively. This article is about how disagreeable speech is now being interpreted in such a way that it is likened to violence. If this idea continues to be upheld, the inevitable conclusion is that speech has to be regulated to keep people safe.
Words are Not Violence
A relatively new phenomenon on university campuses is the acceptance of the assertion that speech constitutes violence. This is why the common complaint about ‘offensive’ speech is no longer that it is offensive, it is that it makes people feel ‘unsafe’. There are numerous examples of this, whether it is Jordan Peterson’s opposition to gender-neutral pronouns (“Students are worried for their safety when going to class or just when walking around campus”), Linda Sarsour’s BDS movement (“…because of her connections to [Rasmea] Odeh, she could genuinely make people feel unsafe”), or a screening of American Sniper (“…creates an unsafe environment for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students”). it is easy to see what is gained by claiming that something offensive is unsafe. The implication is that the offending material is a threat, which means that it is illegal. This forces the administrations to comment in some manner, and they typically side with the ‘aggrieved’. By claiming they feel ‘unsafe’, the ‘aggrieved’ can ensure that any rhetoric that is opposed to their cause is formally banned.
However, feeling uncomfortable, or even feeling unsafe, is not the same as being unsafe. Unless someone is explicitly calling for violence against certain groups, there is no legitimate reason to silence them. In January, Milo Yiannopolous and Martin Shkreli were to be hosted by the UC Davis College Republicans as the first stop on their “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Yiannopolous and Shkreli are widely reviled, and for perfectly good reasons, but neither has ever called for violence in any form. In any case, the College Republicans still thought they were worth hosting. On the day of the event, protesters blocked the entrances to the building which ultimately resulted in the protest being cancelled. It is not really possible to block people from entering a building without using physical force, regardless of what protesters claim. The confrontations that ensued between protesters and would-be event goers cannot be described as peaceful or respectful. It was not a peaceful protest to stop violence. It was a violent protest to stop a peaceful speaking event.
Additionally, the tone of the aforementioned protest is not unusual in recent memory. Do these confrontations look like marginalized people fighting back against oppression? If being peaceful is actually their goal, it should be noted that they inadvertently end up looking like angry mobs who are simply trying to silence those they disagree with, sometimes by getting a speaking event cancelled or getting someone fired. The legitimacy of all of these incidents hinges on whether or not ‘offensive’ rhetoric counts as violence or threats of violence, which it certainly does not. However, these protesters’ tactics continue to hold up as anything but peaceful.
Trolling the Media is Not Racism
Around Halloween, plain posters bearing the text “it is ok to be white” were put up around university campuses across North America, including UofT. The headline of the article on The Varsity was “Racist Signs Spotted Across Campus”. They also mentioned that razor blades were rumoured to be hidden behind the posters, but there is zero evidence to support that claim. The article goes on to say that “the posters are part of an alt-right strategy to promote an agenda of racial tension and conflict in the media”, referencing a 4chan post on which the poster was originally distributed. The post is included in the article, and its explicit goal is to bait “media & leftists” into damaging their credibility by cajoling them into expressing outrage at a slogan as benign as the posters’ “it is ok to be white”.
Around the same time, in the Torontoist’s coverage of the same events, it was revealed that the two men who put up the UofT posters are white supremacist types, having been identified from videos of them doing so. To make the case that the posters are bad, the Torontoist article referenced a completely unrelated 4chan post in which the author advises white supremacists to “Disavow all KKK/Nazi edgelord LARPers” in order to avoid losing public support.
The narrative from both The Varsity and the Torontoist is that white supremacists have recognized that Charlottesville was a PR disaster. In light of this revelation, these white supremacists’ new strategy encourages subtlety, with the goal of having most people not recognize their slogans as hate speech, and thus normalizing their rhetoric with little backlash. As a result, the Torontoist and The Varsity’s writers’ ridiculous solution is to brand everything remotely positive about white people as ‘alt-right’ or ‘hate speech’.
Both of these authors are morons. The phrase “it is ok to be white” is not racist or alt-right rhetoric, even if it the posters were conceived and put up by members of the alt-right. To quote directly from the source, the original 4chan post stated that “normies tune in to see what’s going on, see the posters saying ‘it is okay to be white’ and the media & leftists [will be] frothing at the mouth”. In other words, the posters were put up with the express purpose of trolling the left-wing media. Even knowing this was the goal, journalists just couldn’t help themselves. All of the articles claiming that the posters had anything to do with white supremacy took the bait in its entirety. Additionally, it should be noted that the reports of the posters being booby-trapped were just as asinine, as nobody actually came across a razor blade.
If journalists wanted to get the better of the group who put up the posters, they would have simply not reported on it. The posters by themselves are completely inoffensive, so it does not matter as to who put them up. An appropriate response to the posters would have been indifference, not conspiracy theories about white supremacists blending in by saying things that are perfectly sane in and of themselves. If these people are so worried about ‘offensive’ posters, why was there no outrage regarding the posters around Toronto which read “Canada 150 is a celebration of indigenous genocide”?
This exact situation now plays out over and over again on university campuses. In an article published in NOW around Christmas of last year, the author describes a number of incidents on Canadian university campuses that constitute ‘racism masquerading as free speech’. Below is a list of the incidents brought up in the article.
- The appearance of posters and Facebook pages (across various universities) supporting a “white student union” – The link above is actually provided by the article. The Facebook pages were hoaxes, clearly created with the intent of causing outrage in the same vein as the “it is OK to be white” posters. It is pretty clear that “white student unions” are only ever brought up to point out the hypocrisy in administrations being perfectly content with other clubs around campus that are based on ethnicity, like the Black Students’ Association, Organization of Latin American Students, or the Chinese Students and Scholars Association” (all recognized student groups at UofT). There is no “white student union”. Its’ existence is simply used to troll social justice types.
- Students posing with a #WesternLivesMatter banner appearing at homecoming – Once again, this link is provided by NOW. The story is that the Western administration was trying to deter students from attending homecoming (partying) by pushing its date back by three weeks. The new date was in the middle of midterms and was also accompanied by colder weather. On the original homecoming date, a street party was held anyway. One group of students painted a bed sheet with the slogan “Western Lives Matter”, in protest of the attempt by the administration to quell partying. This is racist, somehow.
- Flyers “decrying anti-white racism” at McMaster – It is not racist to point out far-left hypocrisy. The flyers also link to a number of alt-right websites and YouTube channels, but avoiding them is as simple as not typing the links into a web browser.
- Someone booking a study room at McMaster under “McMaster KKK Meeting” – Once again, this is clearly a joke in the same vein as the “white students union” Facebook pages. Does anyone actually think that McMaster has a KKK chapter that books study rooms under its own name?
- Posters reading “Make Canada Great Again” with anti-gay and anti-Muslim imagery at McGill and posters reading “Fu*k Your Turban” at the University of Alberta – These are actually bigoted, but it is hard to see how a few posters at universities with tens of thousands of students indicates rising racism. These types of incidents can be handled swiftly by taking the posters down and having the university release a statement along the lines of “we do not endorse these messages”. Additionally, unless the identity of the group putting up the posters could be determined, it was also not obvious what the motives of the posters even were. There have been ‘false flags’ of this nature on both the right and the left in recent history, which means that one should be careful about taking these incidents too seriously. Putting up a poster or vandalizing a building with spray paint only requires one person, so they aren’t indicative of a movement at all.
- A student reading from a fake “Islam for Dummies” book on the St. Michael’s College Student Union snapchat, and later mocking Islam in a parody song – It is not racist to mock Islam, because it is an ideology. Mocking Christianity isn’t racist either.
The author concludes that these incidents demonstrate that racism on campus is on the rise, even going so far as to partially blame Stephen Harper’s government for this supposed rise. Because four out of the seven examples given are nothing more than trolling, the author is actually arguing that any rejection, even comical ones of far-left rhetoric, is racist. The implication is that far-left politics are more important than ever in this new era dominated by white supremacy. In reality, this brand of politics has increased in popularity enough to gain massive media exposure, and people are reacting to it, mostly unfavourably.
University Policies are not Political Tools
A secretly recorded meeting at Laurier University provides a good example of why policies that cover ‘offensive’ speech do more harm than good. The story is that the TA of a first-year communications class, Lindsay Shepherd, showed a clip from a TVO debate between Jordan Peterson and Nicolas Matte on Bill C-16 and alternative gender pronouns. This video was used to show that grammar can impact society in unexpected ways (as the tutorial was about grammar). The video is over 40 minutes long, but Matte’s opening statement sums up his entire side of the debate:
“Basically, it is not correct that there is such a thing as biological sex. I’m a historian of medicine, I can unpack that for you at great length if you want, but in the interest of time, I won’t. So that’s a very popular misconception.”
According to Shepherd’s supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, Matte’s side of the debate is the only side that is legitimate. So when one or more students complained to the administration that the video made them “uncomfortable”, it prompted a meeting between the TA, her supervisor, an associate professor, and the “manager of gendered violence prevention and support”. Shepherd recorded audio of the meeting, which can be found here. That National Post link contains a number of ridiculous quotes from the meeting (such as “…not to do the thing where everything is compared to Hitler, but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos from gamergate”), but the worst part is that she was accused by her supervisor of violating bill C-16 as well as Laurier’s gender and sexual violence policy. While she did not actually violate bill C-16, the wording of Laurier’s policy is vague enough that it could be argued she violated it by playing a clip from a TVO debate.
It is certainly valid to point out that the YouTube clip was not entirely relevant to a tutorial about grammar. Upon receiving the complaint, the action taken by the professor could have simply been “Lindsay, can you avoid showing anything remotely political in your tutorial? Some students tend to get upset about this topic”. Instead, the “manager of gendered violence prevention and support” was called in for a completely ridiculous meeting, all of which wouldn’t have been necessary if Laurier’s gender and sexual violence policy wasn’t so far-reaching and vague. If a YouTube clip from a TVO debate violates a policy on gender and sexual violence, the policy is obviously not just about preventing gender and sexual violence, it is about blatant censorship. In this case, it appears to be about suppressing any political deviation from the far-left ‘norm’.
Hate Speech Does Not Require Regulation
It has been said many times, but hate speech does not survive on its own merit. Hate crimes in the USA have decreased from roughly 10,000 per year in 1995 to 5,000 in 2014, despite many new additions to the hate crime statute and the advent of the internet (which makes it a lot easier to both find and disseminate explicitly hateful content). In 2008, just 7 homicides out of 16,272 were found to be hate crimes. In Canada, where hate crime laws are broader, just 1362 incidents were reported in 2015. In other words, 3.8 per 100,000 people committed a hate crime in Canada, of which 62% of which were nothing more than vandalism, mischief or graffiti. This is not a widespread problem, nor is it one that is on the rise.
However, what is going on currently, which is forcing racist fringes underground, is a great way to ensure that they only reinforce each other in their echo chambers, along with the added resentment of being rejected by society. It also provides them with a sense of legitimacy, as they view getting banned as a tacit admission they cannot be defeated in a competitive marketplace of ideas. Nathan Rambukkana echoes this sentiment, saying that 18-year-old students are too young to be exposed to racist content because they “don’t have the critical toolkit to take it apart”. Even if the obvious problem of who gets to decide what people can be exposed to is overlooked, it is extremely condescending to claim that legal adults need to be protected from unsavoury ideologies because they lack the mental faculties to process them.
Speech, however wrong it can be, is not violence. This idea only serves to have disagreeable speech punished under anti-violence policies and laws, which is just a roundabout way of reintroducing hate speech laws that never worked in the first place. If the far-left was actually concerned about suppressing hate, they would support freedom of expression. However, as evidenced by the examples of ‘racism’ given by NOW, the real focus of their outrage falls squarely on dissent. As demonstrated by those who held the meeting at Laurier, policies that claim to be ‘anti-violence’ can and will be used against those who do not adopt the far-left ideology.
The gist of it is this: the far-left has conflated ‘offensive’ speech with violence, implying that laws and policies must be enacted to put an end to it. These policies have nothing to do with violence and everything to do with enforcing an ideology. In other words, they have invented a problem and proposed a solution that doesn’t even solve that problem (if it actually even existed).
The far-left has bullied its way to power simply by accusing any resistance as being racist (in PR, this is considered the worst case scenario). Ultimately, university administrations are going to have to learn to stand up to frivolous allegations of racism or risk losing the diversity and inclusiveness they claim to promote.