Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Somehow, Speech Code Has Effect Opposite of Intended One

[If you know the basic facts of this now-famous incident, you can skip to the "......." below.]

As right wing rage-aholic Ann Coulter was preparing to give a talk at the University of Ottowa, the provost of the university sent her a remarkable email message. It reads in part (emphasis added):

Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. . . .

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here. You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .

Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Francois Houle,
Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa

Coulter, a verbal bomb-thrower who loves to ratchet things up until rational discussion is no longer possible, immediately publicized this note far and wide. By the time she was introduced to her Monday evening audience, things were ready to explode. Some gave her a standing ovation before she had said a word. Others were there to boo and heckle.

The man who introduced her referred to the by-now-famous email as a "veiled threat." I wonder, what does he mean veiled? I just see the threat. I don't see any veil.

Tuesday evening, Coulter was to give a second talk, but by now there were crowds of anti-Coulter demonstrators, mainly as a result of her Monday evening "take a camel" comment (see above video at 2:35). Campus security canceled her talk, citing fears that they could not get her safely into the auditorium.


Well, if the purpose of the provost's threatening letter, and of Canada's national speech code, was to protect and promote civil, rational discussion, they don't seem to have worked very well, do they?

Such legislation arises from what I like to call the "magic wand theory of the law": if you pass a law against a certain sort of behavior, it simply makes the proscribed act disappear. It has no other effects that matter.

As J. M. Coetzee pointed out (Giving Offense: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996) censorship is often part of a wider drama, a dance of mutual hate between the censor and the censored.

People have often noticed that many victims of censorship seem to love being censored. The obvious reason of course is that it turns them into victims and martyrs. Another is that it moves the subject of public discussion from the topic the censor wanted to talk about (how evil racism and prejudice are, etc.) and onto something that the victims often would rather talk about: themselves.

What we see here is a third, less obvious reason.

Laws are not magic wands. To function as laws at all, they must be backed by a threat. And that threat, together with the insult and the presumption of superiority it implies, provokes angry responses that further spin the spiral of rage. Often, such a threat can have an effect on the course of a discussion similar to that of the epithets and insults that the law is meant to make disappear. They have the same soothing, calming, civility-inducing effects as a slap in the face or a brick through a window.

The resulting environment is ideal for people, like Coulter, who thrive in a stew of rage and hate. For the rest of us, not so much.

And now, here is another look at the civil discourse you get with a national speech code:

Go here to read of another U of O offense against free speech.

1 comment:

Nat said...

Another way the law could be self defeating is that opponents of the potential offender could intentionally try to steer them into saying illegal things. I'm not sure if the audiance would have demanded an answer to a rhetorical question if they had thought she would get off scott free for doing so.