Saturday, March 02, 2013

Flanagan, Whatcott, and Free Speech

There are people out there defending Tom Flanagan.


Only in academia can you say something like "[watching child pornography] does not harm another person"--and that you have "grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures"--and have some people in the audience claim this is defensible.

Defend it then. I dare you.

In  the most technical sense imaginable, the kind of distinction that only makes sense inside ivory towers, Flanagan is right: simply watching child porn does not harm another person.


To watch child porn, child porn must first be produced, and that does harm people, many people, most grievously. Furthermore, a sizeable subset of those who do watch child porn will find themselves no longer content with just watching it. This is why merely possessing child pornography is a crime, and I goggle at the thought I'd have to explain this to anyone, much less a formerly respected man who was instrumental in the political ascendancy of Stephen Harper.

I can't help but wonder what I might find on Flanagan's hard drive. I kind of think somebody should take a peek. Where's Anonymous when you need it?

The oddest thing about this is that Flanagan really was highly respected by more than a few people. He's stepped in it before, of course, calling for the assassination of Julian Assange. In hindsight, that's not too surprising: Assange is all for freedom of incriminating information, and the more I read about Flanagan, the more incriminating information I find.

But he was a respected, even feared, political strategist for many years, and I simply can't imagine what moves people like him to commit career and social suicide. Nor what moves anyone to try and defend the man.

Flanagan's illuminating remarks on the essential "harmlessness" of child pornography serve as a useful exercise on freedom of speech. The man said something utterly repugnant; the reaction was swift and decisive. No fewer than seven organizations severed ties with him, pretty much instantly. Anyone still associating with Flanagan will now suffer his taint...and this as as it should be.

Flanagan is a libertarian. Let's look at the views of a different sort of Canadian conservative by the name of Bill Whatcott.

He's that tiresome sort of Christian who gives the rest of them a bad name. It seems as if his God has but two inviolable commandments: thou must not be gay, and thou must not commit abortion.

Proselytizing on behalf of this god has repeatedly landed Whatcott in legal trouble. The Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal found him guilty of hate speech; he had that conviction overturned, and the tribunal appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
More intervenors appeared, both on behalf of and against him, than in any other Supreme Court case in history. (Nice to see some churches taking up legal arms against him--the United Church and the Unitarians.)
The Supreme Court has upheld limits on free speech in Canada, but did so in a very vague and insubstantial way that leaves me wondering just what is okay to say and what isn't.

I can certainly understand the temptation to shut this man up. Unlike, say, Flanagan, Whatcott can hide under the skirts of Religion while making his hateful pamphlets, and he has a relatively large number of well-funded people and groups who agree with him.

But the world is changing. There will come a time, I am convinced, when expressing the kind of opinion Whatcott routinely does will have similar personal consequences to Flanagan's opinion now. I think that short of actually inciting violence, people should be free to say whatever the hell they want. These days, the really hateful stuff will find its way online in short order, and the speaker will find himself wishing he could eat his words. All without a single lawyer being paid.

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