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The Rights of Vulgar Little Cowards
04 October 2010, 08h30 EDT (GMT-4)

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TVOntario has posted the full video of my maiden essay for The Agenda with Steve Paikin online. It is now available via streaming video through YouTube and via podcast download through iTunes.

I am grateful for the large number of kind e-mails I have received since the broadcast. I knew the essay risked controversy, especially because of the strong language necessary to convey its point. However, I was impressed by thoughtfulness of the responses I received from critics and supporters alike.

The question of the appropriate balance between freedom of action for the individual, and the responsibility of the state to shield the vulnerable, is at the heart of an immortal debate in every liberal democracy. I have made my own position clear in my essay, but I concede the strength of many of the arguments made by individuals who hold the opposite view.

I can not help, however, take a bit of sly satisfaction from the knowledge that those who disagree with my thesis are able to do so publicly and effectively precisely because of the freedoms I advocate.

The original text of my essay is below.

* * *

In a just and democratic society, there is no higher ideal, no greater ethic, no more sacrosanct imperative, than freedom of expression.

Peace, order, and good government; liberté, égalité, fraternité; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all are impossible, unless they are built upon a foundation of free public discourse. If we are to preserve any of our rights as citizens, then even the most modest abridgements of freedom of expression can only be justified by the severest extremities.

Because of this, the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s submission to Parliament that its Tribunal be allowed to continue regulating public expression is fundamentally misguided.

Freedom of expression becomes meaningless if it does not include freedom to offend, freedom to outrage, and quite frankly, freedom to make a public ass of oneself.

There are undeniably those who use our ideals against us, from fulminating bigots to subtle whisperers of hate, who trade upon the very freedoms they would deny to others. But the price of being the kind of society that would allow one person to say against all others that the earth moves around the sun, is to be no less the kind of society that would allow another person to say against all reason that the earth is flat.

Years ago, when I was younger and almost as foolish as I am today, I stood for the presidency of my university’s student government. In the entire history of that nine-hundred year-old institution, there had never been a visible minority president. As election day neared, however, it became clear that history was on the cusp of changing. In convulsions of disbelief, a marginal group of my peers began a campaign denouncing the spectacle of a Canadian barbarian at the gates, which they summarised with the motto, “No niggers at Oxford.”

Did it hurt? Oh my God it hurt. It cut deeper than I could ever explain. It tore open old scars and awoke old terrors I thought I had left behind as I outgrew my childhood in 1970s Toronto. It left me wounded, cold, and alone.

But democracy is creed for the brave, and it is especially at a time of crisis that people of principle have the greatest responsibility to stand by their beliefs, not in spite of the difficulty, but precisely because of the difficulty.

To this day – to this very day – I should defend the right of those vulgar little cowards to call me a nigger. The test of our convictions is our willingness to defend our ideals even for those least deserving of them.

If we are true democrats, then we must place our faith in the wisdom of the many, and not in the repressive power of the few. Our greatest weapon against those who abuse freedom of expression is not less freedom, but more freedom: freedom for the merchants of hate to condemn themselves before Canadians with every word they utter; freedom for other Canadians to make reply, and to slay their lies with the truth; freedom for the mass of decent people to recognise nonsense and to starve it of the oxygen of public attention.

As our country has grown more diverse, it has grown more sophisticated, it has grown stronger, and it has grown up. The time has come for us to end the role of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal as our country’s national censor.


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