Self-censorship? Me? Absolutely

What can I say about hate speech investigations into Maclean’s magazine? I mean that literally. This used to be a free country where we had the hard-won right to speak our minds without fear. But now the Canadian Islamic Congress has complained about a Mark Steyn piece in Maclean’s to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and to the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions and, according to Maclean’s National Editor Andrew Coyne, the first two have agreed to “launch inquiries” into the complaints while the third is dithering. The CHRC, incidentally, won’t confirm or deny this claim. Something about open government, I believe.

Now what? If I write about censorship will the censors censor that? If I were to defend someone’s right in principle to be rude about radical Islam, it might constitute my being rude in practice about radical Islam which might be misunderstood by hypersensitive types as rudeness toward Islam generally which might be misunderstood as hate speech rather than just bad manners. Who knows?

All in all it’s much safer to write about daisies. Such pretty flowers. They are members of the Asteraceae family, the second-largest family of flowering plants after Orchidaceae. You may be thinking the common daisy, white with a yellow centre, is nice but bland. But my goodness, get into African daisies and painted daisies (a.k.a. “tansies”) and the ox-eye and the spectacular Glebionis carinata and what a feast for the eye. None of them file hate speech complaints with aggressive paralegal tribunals either. What’s not to like?

The issue here is not whether I want to say, for instance, that contrary to some ignorant stereotypes the Prophet Mohammed was a really nice guy, a teddy bear in fact. It is whether if I say such a thing I may be hauled before some tribunal to answer for the fact that in Sudan I would have a mob howling for my blood, or because I didn’t say Peace Be Upon Him.

So I refuse to be drawn into any sort of debate about what might be causing image problems for the Islamic faith. Not that it has any. My lips are sealed on such questions as dishonour killings. I’m sticking to flowers. Or favicons, you know, those cute little icons that appear next to some of the items in your browser “Favourites” list. How, I ask you, can a business in this day and age not have a favicon? A nice blue one with white letters, or a flag, or a tiny building or something. You can even have your own picture. Unless your faith forbids depictions of the human face.

Gaaack! I didn’t say that. Nor would I dare suggest that these human rights tribunals, at once prosecutor and judge, are alien to our constitutional order and should be abolished. You see, section 48 (1) (2) of the Canadian Human Rights Act stipulates, respecting the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (to which the CHRC may refer obstinate defendants), that “Persons appointed as members of the Tribunal must have experience, expertise and interest in, and sensitivity to, human rights.” If you think that means sensitivity to ancient rights like free speech, you’re about ready for some “sensitivity” training. Not for me, thanks. I’m doing daisies.

Besides self-preservation, I’m skipping this issue because Maclean’s is a large, established organization with lots of money. Some of my media colleagues are startled that not even the big guys are immune which does, I suppose, show how the appetite grows with the eating. But I say thank goodness the Star Chambers have gone after a wealthy organization that can fight back.

No, sorry, I don’t say that. Nor would I dream of claiming it is not against the law to be rude, that it is illegal to incite violence or engage in conspiracies but it is not a crime to be impolite nor should it be. If I weren’t such a coward I might find myself hollering three once-familiar arguments about freedom of speech at legislators, judges and everyone else who supports this latter-day censorship. First, sunlight destroys evil; that is, open debate reveals which beliefs are false or odious. Second, by debating things instead of just reciting them we come to a more vigorous appreciation of those beliefs we decide are true. Third, if people are neither good nor wise enough to be entrusted with sorting out truth from falsehood (and frankness from rudeness) they cannot possibly be permitted to elect governments to do it for them.

Luckily I’m too smart to say anything of the sort. The essential point here, the legal crux of the matter, is that Canadian Islamic Congress National President Mohamed Elmasry’s feelings are hurt. Egad.

Daisies. White, purple, yellow, pink. So pretty. And freedom of speech may soon be pushing them up in this country.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]