by Francis Maindl
In the recent years, freedom of expression in Western liberal democracies has been going through a severe erosion process. The attacks are coming from different fronts, through government bodies obsessed with identity politics and multiculturalism, media practicing self-censorship and the rise of an extreme-left culture that silences the people with whom they don’t agree.
In the last year in my native Canada, legislation attempting to shape public speech has been proposed—and passed—at different levels of government with examples like Bill-59 in Quebec (introduced June 2015), Bill-C16 at the Federal level (passed November 2016) and the recently proposed M-103 who is currently debated. All these laws have in common the identification of a group of ‘victims’, in this case transgenders and Muslims, that are regarded as being oppressed by an intolerant and racist society. What we see now is the use of legislation to construct narratives for different minority groups that makes it illegal for the entire society to challenge them, even if doing so could arguably have some value in the public sphere. These laws recently enacted in Canada go in line with the already established ‘hate speech’ laws in the West who have led to some absurd situations in the last years.
In 2008, the Human Rights Tribunal in Canada entitled a man to receive 4000$ in damages for ‘hurt feelings’ just because his superior stated during a speech that ‘he liked visible minorities’. In 2010, a Christian preacher in the United Kingdom was arrested by the police for saying that homosexuality was a sin. He was later released after the Crown decided not to prosecuted him. In France, journalist Eric Zemmour was condemned in 2015 for saying on television during a debate that “a high proportion of drug traffickers were Africans and Arabs”. He defended himself by providing statistical evidence from the Ministry of the Interior that proved his point, but the courts still felt that he incited hatred and fined him 10,000 euros. Zemmour was found guilty again in 2015 of Islamophobia for saying that “Muslims have their Civil Code, it’s the Coran”.
A worryingly high number of similar legal cases have occurred in the last decades and have framed the current parameters for what can be said not only in public, but in private as well. The new laws enacted in Canada emerge from a contemporary political culture that attempts to shape a public discourse by an aggressive use of legislation. This new trend evolves away from a former culture that defended even the stupidest things to be said (outside of violent threats or defamation) knowing well that in the end, through debates, common sense would eventually lead to the truth. What we see today delves away from what the current advocates of free speech defend: the idea that people should be allowed to comment on any cultural group or sexual minority and let other people with different views counter with their arguments. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz says about the importance of free speech:
“Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. But it also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorize and which to prevent”.
What we observe is the developing definition of ‘hate speech’ being simplified through a hysterical amalgam of anything said about minority groups that challenges their beliefs and ideas. The traditional liberal structure in which conflicting ideas and ideologies were allowed to collide and evolve that has made liberal democracies a set of politically stable and flourishing countries for centuries is now threatened by a force that progressively leads to having small groups isolated by sets of rules and ideas that can not be mutually challenged and debated. The current state in which Western democracies stand is exactly what the initial critics of multiculturalism had been fearing and this is what we are seeing right now.
There is no controversy in recognizing that the media establishment have been both influenced by and emulators of a multicultural and politically correct ideology that has been pushed by left-wing governments over the last decades. A state that is as the American journalist Paul Berman referred to in The New Republic
“a vogue all over the world for an entirely voluntary self-censorship—a custom of downplaying certain topics that are deemed sensitive, or declining even to utter certain controversial words”.
This has led to the development of a culture where media knowingly practice self-censorship and become reluctant to publish content that is considered sensitive to minorities. Today, somebody who criticizes national policies of Israel is antisemitic, somebody who condemns Islamic terrorism is Islamophobic and somebody who opposes gay marriage is homophobic. These dangerous amalgamations end up refraining reporters to investigate on important matters.
The European Federation of Journalist (EFJ) held a meeting two years ago to address the issue of self-censorship in European journalism.
“I can’t write that, it seems that more and more European journalists are saying this sentence to themselves when working for a media outlet. The refugee crisis, the Cologne attacks […] are some recent examples of sensitive topics that raised the question of self-censorship among journalists”, states the EFJ.
Caroline Fourest, a successful French journalist who is a open critic of Islam and an advocate of free speech, found out that publishing houses in the U.K. and the U.S. would not publish her work for the reason that they wouldn’t dare touching something so controversial. The chief editorialist of the liberal Brussels daily Le Soir Beatrice Delvaux says that some journalists are reluctant to cover issues like fundamentalism in migrant neighborhood knowing that “some politicians, particularly on the left, are quick to accuse us of inciting hatred when we cover stories deemed to paint minorities in an unfavorable light”. Last year, Austria’s Press Council which enforces a ‘code of ethics’ advised the nation’s journalists reporting on migrant issues to omit any information that could “stir up prejudices”.
Unfortunately, it cannot be left out unmentioned that violence is also a crucial factor in the shaping of media discourse. In the wake of the tragic Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, top mainstream media organizations like (CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, AP, The Telegraph) all decided not to publish cartoons to avoid offending Muslim communities. The publisher of the Toronto Star in Canada John Cruickshank explained in an editorial that despite the fact that the cartoons were newsworthy, the journal’s main concern was to avoid offending the Canadian Muslim community. Charlie Hebdo’s Zineb El Rhazoui left the journal last year because she believed it had turned away from its original editorial line.
A political correctness on steroids has emerged within civil society in the West. It is part of daily life and it confines speech around what is considered to be socially acceptable. One of the first times the term was used was in 1990 when New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein wrote The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct in which he warned about the growing intolerance in debates on American university campuses.
Political correctness has evolved into an extreme version of itself in some of today’s university and civil organizations. I was personally shocked during my years in college when I heard during talks that the organizers wouldn’t hear the opinions of Caucasian people due to their ‘White privilege’, which makes it impossible for them to understand the issues of minorities. On one occasion, I was even barred from going to a talk for the reason that I was myself white. Those people form a narrative using buzzwords and absurd concepts such as ‘White privilege’, ‘Cultural Appropriation’, ‘Structural Racism’, ‘Safe Spaces’ and ‘Trigger Warnings’. Essentially, they are opposed to capitalism, white people and to the use of speech that they judge offensive.
This culture has led to banning certain lecturers from coming to campuses and to the use of violence to silence political discourses that go against the narrative they support. Basically, lecturers who criticize socialism, immigration or feminism are positions that will make it very difficult to find a tribune on a university campus nowadays. Conservative lecturers Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos recently found it out the hard way. They were received at NYU and Berkeley campuses by a mob of violent students who thought they shouldn’t be allowed to speak at their school. 11 people were arrested during the protest at NYU, but McInnes was able to give his talk. Yiannopoulos’ lecture in Berkeley had to be canceled after a violent riot that ended up causing 100,000$ in damages and several injuries. Many other conservatives and even liberals were banned from college campuses for life after having given lectures judged controversial.
A 2015 UCLA research polling over 140,000 students in about 200 universities in the U.S. showed that 43% of the students agreed that colleges had the right to ban extreme speakers from campuses, a number that is nearly twice as high as it was on average in the 60s, 70s and 80s. However, another issue is that the definition of what is now considered ‘extreme’ has expended to a point that defies any logic. Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post writes:
“Recent incidents suggest students (and sometimes their professors) may have rather expansive views of what constitutes an ‘extreme speaker’. Among those disinvited or forced to withdraw from campus speaking engagements in the past few years are feminism critic Suzanne Venker, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Narendra Modi, now the Indian prime minister”.
Looking at what is happening on college American and Canadian campuses clearly indicates that there is a dangerous tendency of a new radical left culture that attempts to silence a discourse simply because it does not agree with it. It shares in vague ways with many media organizations and legislative bodies a common tendency to operate in ways that do not seem to value freedom of expression and that certainly does not regard it as a necessary condition for a free society. Everybody agrees that truly hateful and racist speeches should face fierce opposition, but trying to suppress it through law or violence led us to a climate in which some people simply cannot say what they think. Instead of worrying about what people are saying, we should all be focused on what we are told not to say.