Tom Flanagan & The Consequences Of Free Speech
“Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
– Potter Stewart
I have come to appreciate through the course of my life that life, in fact, has a somewhat perverse sense of humour at times. As I was finishing yesterday’s article on free speech, a well-known Canadian television personality and university professor was making comments about child pornography that would test my belief in my own words.
Dr. Tom Flanagan was speaking at the University of Lethbridge when he made this comment among others.
“I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures,”
He went on to suggest that merely viewing child pornography was basically a victimless crime which we all know is not true.
Children do not volunteer to participate in the production of child porn. They are forced or coerced into it, often kidnapped from their families or sometimes sold by them and subjected to horrendous and degrading abuse. There is no defense for child pornography – none – and Dr. Flanagan’s remarks were properly criticized and condemned.
But while I will not defend Dr. Flanagan or his remarks, I will defend his right to speak them.
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.”-Noam Chomsky
I seldom agree with anything Mr. Chomsky says or writes but we are in unison on this. It isn’t possible to be a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. It is the same things with freedom of speech. We cannot have the right to speak our opinions freely if we are only prepared to grant that right to those who don’t offend us.
In the interest of disclosure, I was sexually molested by two different sexual predators as a child. As a result, I have no tolerance for anything that harms a child and a considerable personal understanding of the damage that is done by pedophiles. I found Dr. Flanagan’s remarks ill-considered and repugnant.
But in Canada, we have the right to voice our opinions, no matter how despicable or poorly thought out. We do not have the right not to be offended.
Pro-life student groups have ignored the rights of pro-life groups to voice their opinion through the formation of organizations and rallies because they find the pro life position morally offensive. That is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the right of free speech and assembly to “everyone”, not just those with whom we agree or who don’t annoy us.
Activist groups like Occupy routinely mobbed meetings and assemblies being held by government departments and other groups with which they disagreed, often disrupting the meeting to the point that it had to be suspended. That too is a violation of everyone’s guaranteed rights. No amount of rationalization about how wrong the participants in that meeting might be on an issue legitimizes the violation of their fundamental charter rights.
The suppression of fundamental rights in others that we demand for ourselves is not democracy – it is fascism and I would rather live in a society where some people sometimes speak ignorantly than one in which some people are randomly oppressed.
Tom Flanagan said things that were ridiculously naïve at best and callously reprehensible at worst. He has rightly been criticized for his remarks and fired from the CBC and his association with the Wildrose Party in Alberta. His own university has issued a statement condemning his remarks as have former colleagues in the Conservative Party.
While I defend his right to have said what he said, I applaud the consequences of his remarks. It is our right to speak freely but there is no right that guarantees avoiding the consequences of what we say.
And that, my friends, is the entire point.
Tom Flanagan said repugnant things although I believe he spoke carelessly rather than deliberately. But because we live in a society where freedom of speech is a right for all, his remarks are out in the open where we can assess them and where they can be criticized and Mr. Flanagan forced to face the consequences of his words. There are some now suggesting that people have overreacted to his comments but that’s free speech in action. As Dr. Flanagan is entitled to his opinion so to are those who disagree with him. Free speech isn’t always a tidy, polite business.
“Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.” ― Jim C. Hines
Censoring those who speak despicable, stupid and politically incorrect opinions drives their thoughts and their words into the shadows where we cannot see them and that prevents us from confronting and combating them.
We are safer when we can hear what is being said, no matter how provocative or disgusting, than we are when we have no idea what is being said.
Restricting free speech is oppression and oppression of one idea or comment today can just as easily be the oppression or censorship of another tomorrow. Oppression is like anything, it gets easier the more it is done.
In the end, we have a choice between respecting the fundamental right of free speech or allowing ever-more censorship to provide us with the delusion that somehow we have rooted out and are safe from stupid, hurtful speech.
For me, the choice is clear. I would rather live in a society where some people say stupid and hurtful things than one in which what people can or cannot say is censored because I would rather have to deal with being offended than oppressed.
“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.”– Benjamin Franklin
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