So are atheists being censored in Vancouver?

Last week I meant to add a note that the Centre for Inquiry Canada has issued a press release about the fact that Pattison Outdoor Advertising had rejected their fairly inoffensive new billboard campaign in Vancouver.

A pretty slick ad that’s pretty hard to find fault with.

Continue reading So are atheists being censored in Vancouver?

The first rule of comedy: Aim up

Last night in Vancouver comedian Ian Harris came to town as part of his “Critical & Thinking” Tour. The show has been promoted by the BC Humanist Association and other skeptical groups, so naturally many of my friends in town went to the event.

From the reports, it sounds like Ian Harris was funny and a hit.

Unfortunately, the host for the evening at Yuk Yuk’s, the comedy club that hosted the event, was less humorous: discussing rape, ranting about feminists, and generally complaining about half* of the human species. When his ‘jokes’ fell flat, he suggested men would pretend to not find them funny or boo him just to get laid.

This line isn’t unfamiliar to anyone who tries to defend their jokes against the “politically correct police” or the liberal censorship brigade.

What it misses though is one of the keys to good comedy and satire: The targets of your jokes should be at least as well off as you.

Continue reading The first rule of comedy: Aim up

Freedom of linkage and hatred

It seems like liberals (of the traditional variety) have reason to celebrate Canada’s current Supreme Court bench.

First, the Court ruled unanimously that Insite, Vancouver’s Safe Injection Site, could not be shut down as the evidence clearly demonstrated that the facility was saving lives.

Now, the Court has also ruled unanimously that a mere hyperlink cannot count as libel. This gives more room for bloggers who were at risk of lawsuits for using a link to make an additional editorial point.

The decision has a qualifier (as any good ruling should):

However, if a post linking to another site itself contains defamatory material, the poster may be liable in a defamation action.

Basically, if you copy something that defames someone onto your own website, you’re still liable for libel.

This is likely welcome news for fellow-Vancouver blogger Crommunist who is hoping to see the Court strike down our Hate Speech laws in their next big case. I must admit that he’s likely to get his wish, given that Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote the dissenting opinion to the 1990 Supreme Court ruling that had upheld our current laws.

Overall, I don’t believe we ought to be tossing away all anti-hate legislation in favour of a free speech for the loudest approach. Speech can have consequences. While bullying and harassment are already crimes, I believe we ought to be striving for something better as a society. Michael De Dora argues on Rationally Speaking that we can and should legislate morality:

Broadly speaking, morality is the domain of one’s thinking — beliefs, attitudes, and feelings — about the well being of conscious creatures. It concerns right and wrong, good and bad, questions of how we should act toward one another, and the kind of people we should want to be. The legal realm (whether a piece of political legislation or a court decision) is where these beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts are societally enacted. In this sense, the connection between morality and legality is natural and inherent.

But there is another reason to enforce moral norms: if your conscience tells you some action may be causing great harm to society, you have both the right and, I believe, the duty to try to help or correct the situation, through both social and political means. In this sense, we should not be afraid of moralizing. Instead, we should be afraid of not moralizing. The consequence of not moralizing is unchecked harm. The consequence of moralizing is potentially a safer environment and perhaps even a more virtuous populace.

He goes on to qualify his remarks (again, as we all should) stating that we need to be careful of false and unreasonable moral beliefs and laws based on preference rather than morality.

In the land of Hate Speech legislation, I believe there is a moral imperative for us to defeat bigotry. Obviously we can’t just legislate it away, but we can target the worst offenses, those that cause measurable harm. It may not be easy to measure the harm, so I believe we ought to err on the side of liberty, but in many cases it’s quite clear cut. When Lorna Pardy was verbally assaulted by a homophobic “comedian” at a Commercial Drive comedy club, the BC Human Rights Tribunal correctly ruled that Guy Earle was guilty of Hate Speech.

Our actions and speech has consequences. We can’t hide behind the Charter when we cause harm to others. Freedom of religion doesn’t grant the right to beat one’s spouse or mutilate their children, and freedom of speech doesn’t give the right to target hate-fuelled discrimination.

The end of “parental rights” in Alberta?

More good news out of Alberta, premier-elect Alison Redford is hinting that she may reverse the most controversial bits of Bill 44.

The bill was an overdue amendment to Alberta’s Human Rights Act, which added sexual orientation to the list of protections. However, sensing there might be a social conservative revolt to the idea that gays are people too, the government conceded a section that enshrined a parent’s right to opt their children out of topics including sexuality, sexual orientation, or religion, in schools.

That such rights already existed within the School Act was apparently insufficient for some parents, and some confused comments by then-premier Ed Stelmach had suggested evolution may be considered a religious topic. They quickly recanted that gaffe; however, the damage was easily done and teachers and the media were left scratching their heads as to the need for such legislation.

But the government held the line and pushed through valiant filibuster attempts by the Liberal and NDP opposition.

Redford’s reversal is welcome news to those of us who support comprehensive education, free from dogmatic influences.

She does go farther though and states she would repeal the entire Section 3 from the Human Rights Act. Section 3 is the hate speech section, long decried by conservatives like Ezra Levant and Christian fundamentalists who want the freedom to slander their favourite targets – typically Muslims and gays. Critics of the section argue that the current laws allow innocent columnists to be dragged before Human Rights Tribunals at their own expense by censors. Defenders argue that hate speech is a form of discrimination and needs to be curbed to protect those who may be victimized it.

While I would generally describe myself as a civil libertarian (among many things), I am conflicted on this issue and I think we need to see it as a balance of rights. People have the right not to be persecuted for their identity or beliefs, but they are also allowed to speak without fear of censorship.

It’s not clear to me that those indicted by the Tribunals have been unjustly punished, and given the tendency for those in the majority to use their privilege to demonize minorities, I think some level of laws against hate speech are justified.

Basically, I am not convinced that Alberta’s hate speech laws are broken, so I’m not convinced we should be trying to fix them. I am open to being proven wrong though.

“Not an inch of space”

Never mind that Europe is supposed to be all metric all the time, here’s a quote relating to yesterday’s tragedy:

"That the perpetrator apparently comes from the far-right scene shows once again how dangerous racist and anti-foreigner ideologies are," Germany’s opposition Greens said in a statement. "We must not allow them an inch of space in our societies."

I’m really not clear on whether the Greens here are advocating full-on censorship here. It sure seems like they’re on side with pushing hate groups underground.

We walk a fine line with hate speech laws in Canada. Some (very vocally) argue they’re a farce, while others see the value in them. I think we’ve generally done a decent job of balancing free speech rights with the right not to be persecuted.

But we always have to be careful not to overstep that line, suppressing ideas that make us uncomfortable. Democracy thrives on free inquiry and debate. Multiculturalism is a touchy subject, and one we’re likely going to have to discuss more in our own future. It’s hard to find the right answer when some aren’t heard.

We cannot censor dissent.

But at the same time, violence is also unacceptable. We also have to take precautions not to prevent dissent  from fermenting into hate crimes.

It’s a fine line.

Peak: Free Speech not our only right

My latest submission to The Peak was printed last week in response to some free speech or nothing racket. Enjoy:

Free speech is not our only right
By Ian Bushfield

Last week’s Opinions section included two articles which attempted to defend freedom of speech against the onslaught of the obnoxious, politically correct left-wing ideologues [“Pro-lifers are oppressed on Canadian Campuses”, and “Dissent is the essence of democracy”, October 12]. Unfortunately, the arguments reek of libertarian dogma and simple-minded elitism.

It is almost stereotypical that bearded, white males would defend fetuses from the callous women who consider them cancerous parasites and wish to expunge the hassle from their body. But do not let me mischaracterize Graham Templeton; he really is pro-choice, although his article makes it seem like something to be ashamed of.

Templeton is sympathetic toward the persecuted pro-lifers and used his article to demand that they be allowed to post the goriest pictures and to harass troubled women in a time of crisis.

Templeton’s misinformed rant continues with him failing to understand why it is currently illegal to picket outside abortion clinics in BC. Since a woman has the right to freely choose, without coercion, to have an abortion, our courts have recognized and upheld laws that protect this right while infringing as little as possible upon the freedom to speech.

Without these laws, free speech turns to coercion and harassment, as is very often the case in the abortion clinic buffer zones. Similarly, we have laws against false advertising, libel, and defamation.

Getting back to the on-campus abortion debate, it is worth noting that these pro-life groups have mistaken the freedom of speech for a non-existent right to be heard. The campus associations at these schools, whose job is to ensure that all students feel welcome in their community, offered pro-lifers the compromise of setting up the Genocide Awareness Project behind screens so that those who chose to observe the event could do so. I guess the pro-lifers are not just anti-choice when it comes to abortion.

On the other side of the page, Templeton’s fellow editor David Proctor suggested that journalists ought to present both sides to every story, and if we do not like it we should go live in North Korea.

I am tempted to agree with Proctor’s thesis, however, he fails to provide any actual cases to support his argument. He blindly asserts that progressives are guiltier of attempting to stifle their ideological adversaries. Without any evidence, I remain skeptical.

In the evolving Goldcorp and K’naan controversies, both sides warrant presentation, since in a new story, not all the facts are available and it may take a while before the truth is wholly available. However, in many cases debates that are long past settled are still subjected to sub-par journalism which seeks to give equal time to unequal viewpoints.

This is much the case in scientific debates where the evidence is overwhelmingly agreed upon by all experts in a field. No legitimate scientists in their field debate the central tenets of evolution or climate science, and yet too often a controversy is stirred up where none exists.

Dogmatic libertarians like Templeton and Proctor assume that the only right that matters is freedom of speech, and yet without freedom from discrimination, free speech can become a weapon for intolerance or coercion. Verbal harassment and intimidation are more than just hurt feelings.

While I generally agree that freedom of the press, discourse, and disagreement are necessary and healthy in a democracy, I cannot subscribe to the libertarian idiom that freedom of speech trumps all other rights.

And if you want to run your head into your keyboard, also read Jonathon van Maren (VanMaren88)’s tribe about how much he loves foetuses.

Book review: Losing Control

Hot on the heels of Marci McDonald’s bestselling The Armageddon Factor, comes another expose on the religious right in Canada. I just finished Losing Control: Canada’s Social Conservatives in the Age of Rights, which was written by gay activist Tom Warner and published by Between the Lines.

Full disclosure: My review copy was provided at no charge by BTL publishing. Nevertheless, take my review as my honest opinion on this book.

Losing Control provides a good supplemental reading to the narratives provided by McDonald. While McDonald provides the detailed look into some of the cast of characters involved in the religious right, Warner adds an academic history in the events that date back to the formation of the modern rights movements in the 1960s.

Warner documents a shift in Canadian thinking from it’s Christian roots to a secular society that prizes individual and minority rights. This shift has obviously come hard for the social conservatives in the country, who have since rallied around various conservative parties, from the Progressive Conservatives to the Reform, Canadian Alliance and modern Conservative Party.

Warner breaks his treatment thematically, treating the abortion debate, repressive sexuality laws, gay rights and gay marriage in successive chapters. He finishes with some discussion about the social conservative inroads in politics.

Unfortunately, he only has passing references to the debates over evolution vs. creationism and school prayer, both of which have been hot topics for social conservatives.

In The Armageddon Factor, McDonald used mostly original research to compose her book, however the vast majority of Losing Control is based on 29 pages of third-party sources. This extensive bibliography provides a valuable resource for anyone wanting to get the dirt straight from the source.

I partially criticized McDonald for minor editorializing at points in The Armageddon Factor, and while Warner uses the mostly neutral term social conservative to refer to Canada’s vast network of religious right figures (which includes evangelical protestants, Catholics, conservative Jews, Sikhs and Muslims), he does end many of his chapters in a more of a warning style.

As an example, at the end of the chapter on regulating sexuality he states:

Sadly, there is no realistic reason to believe that members of Parliament will take the next logical step and actually decriminalize prostitution and repeal the repressive bawdy house sections of the Criminal Code. As has so often been the case in the past, the best hope for progress on those issues rests with the justices of the Supreme Court and their interpretations of the rights guaranteed by the Charter.

This is of course not to say that I disagree with anything Warner has to say, I’m with him almost the entire way through this book. He does come down firmly with the BC Civil Liberties Union and criticizes other gay activists who have used the Human Rights Tribunals to censor hate speech, to which I’m still undecided upon, but otherwise I’m in total agreement.

I think the greatest value in Losing Control is in its framing the battles with the religious right in terms of conflicting societal values. It’s secular rights (which include religious freedoms) versus theocratic ambitions to regulate morality.

One final chapter I was hoping for was for Warner to connect the dots (something McDonald attempted to do) and discuss the main organizations that have been active in the fights against progressive minority rights. Such organizations as REAL Women Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Catholic Civil Rights League and Focus on the Family Canada. At the very least, a brief perusal through the comprehensive index will identify the organizations that routinely come up in church-state separation debates.

Overall, Losing Control is a well-researched book that covers the history of social conservatives in Canada and the battles that have been fought and progress that has been made since the introduction of various Bills of Rights and the Charter. While not an outright replacement for The Armageddon Factor, it does make a good supplement for anyone who wants to dig a bit deeper into these issues.

Draw Mohammed tomorrow

The rule seems to be that all protests these days form on Facebook from someone’s random idea. There was prorogation, then boobquake and now “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Each has its merits and deserved criticisms, but each is also responsible for getting thousands of people thinking about something they hadn’t previously considered.

Tomorrow’s Draw Mohammed Day may have started out as a response to the threats against the creators of South Park for (almost) depicting the claimed prophet in a bear suit, but it is now a defence of free speech and a collective resistance to the bullying of Islamic fundamentalists.

Such bullying can be seen in the murder of Theo Van Gogh or the fatwa’s against Salman Rushdie or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The latest example is the rallies that has caused Pakistan to block Facebook until the end of the month so their apparently overly sensitive Muslim population won’t have to be subject to seeing pictures of their prophet (that is if they go to the effort to look for them).

So tomorrow isn’t about being offensive or racist or derogatory, but rather standing together for our rights because they can’t kill all of us.

Here’s a sample of my artistic skills and the Mohammed I will be drawing:


It is racism

I’ve been somewhat torn over the French (both France and Quebec) laws that are being moved in to ban Niqabs and Burqas in public settings.

On the one hand I think it’s a symbol of a repressive society and that no one should have to wear such clothing. But on the other hand, I support a free society where no one has the right to tell you what you can’t wear.

The Humanist Association of Ottawa comes down on the side that as an issue of secularism – “separation of church and state made clear and simple” – the Niqab ought to be banned from being worn on government property.

Now I have to part ways with the HAO author Ricky here, as a secular issue you can argue that no religious symbols ought to be promoted by the government, it is wrong to argue that (1) no religious symbols can be displayed, and (2) that private citizens who are at government buildings ought to be suppressed from displaying their symbols. And here’s why

  1. My argument is that a secular state should not promote any one religion. This is best phrased in the First Amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While Canadian law is not directly equivalent, I believe most Canadian legal scholars would agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, a secular state. To argue that the government cannot display religious symbols would be to suggest that state sponsored museums, art galleries or zoos can’t deal with religion in any form. Imagine a museum exhibit on the middle ages that was prevented from displaying a cross – it’s absurd.
  2. As a private citizen in a free country, I ought to be allowed to wear a cross, star-and-crescent, Star of David, or a scarlet A into a government building and still receive services.

So in the end, I have to side with the Muslim women. Many have chosen (whether coerced or not is another discussion) to wear a veil in public, despite public ridicule and discrimination, and no laws ought to control that clothing. As for government employees, I use similar reasoning goes to Christians pharmacists who want the right to refuse prescribing contraceptives in that you leave your faith at home or find a line of work that fits your worldview. Pacifists don’t sign up for the army and complain they have to carry guns.

I’ll add one note about the Sikh Kirpan ceremonial daggers – if we are going to exempt one segment of the population the right to carry weapons in public, we have no reason not to let everyone. My personal preference is for everyone to leave their knives at home, regardless of their value to you. Similar logic applies to most religious accommodations to our laws – our laws either apply to everyone equally or they are useful.

It seems to me that most of the arguments for selectively banning Muslim garments stem purely from the newest forms of racism and xenophobia.

A lawsuit that goes too far

Suing people to shut them up doesn’t work in the age of the internet. Faster than you can say libel things will get mirrored and reprinted and will get more exposure by attempting to censor it than would have if you ignored it.

Now, that doesn’t mean libel doesn’t exist or have a place in our laws today, although I’m no expert in libel law, so I’ll leave it at that.

So we have Dr. Andrew Weaver, climate scientist from University of Victoria, who is suing the National Post and everything they have touched (up to and including the entire internet) for libel in a number of articles they published about him.

Well that’s fine to me. If you publish lies about someone, you can be held responsible. I’m more a responsible speech advocate than an all out free-for-all shouting match (which the National Post would win over you or me). When I mostly figure out my position on this I’ll get around to writing it up.

But what rubs me wrong, and is likely doomed to fail, is Dr. Weaver’s attempt to have the lawsuit extend to force the National Post to track down and remove the offending articles from not just its print and web editions but from any “other site where they have been re-posted.”

Dr. Weaver, you are providing fuel to the denialists who claim scientists like you are out to suppress them. While I may support your suit against the Post, I see the all out attack on the internet as fool-hearted and unintentionally malicious if it succeeds (based purely on the precedent it could set for any future libel suits).