Monday 10 September 2012

The French Senate voted overwhelmingly (127 to 86) to criminalize any denial of the mass murder of Armenians—a decision approved by its prime minister of the time, Nicolas Sarkozy. As it happens, more than a million Armenians were slaughtered by Turks starting in 1915, only the Turkish government denies it to this day, and also gets really upset when anyone with a laptop and a readership tries to be a stickler for historical truth.

So the next thing you knew, the truly awful Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not often fan of free speech, claimed that France itself had committed genocide during the Algerian war of independence—and for good measure, recalled its ambassador to Paris “for consultations.”

Two years ago, a student conservative group at the University of Ottawa invited the right-wing and extremely blonde American columnist Ann Coulter to speak to its members, whereupon Coulter received the same kind of potential threats to her liberty, safety, and wallet as Armenian genocide-deniers in France. Only this threat came, as threats to open speech so often seem to do these days, from academia—namely the vice provost of the University of Ottawa, who wrote a letter to the columnist that included the following paragraphs:

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed.

(My own particular favorite excerpt from this letter: the vice provost’s decision to put “free speech” in quotes, as though it were a wacky, slightly amusing and utterly foreign concept in Canada. Which, I guess, at the time it was).

Not long after Coulter was threatened with incarceration and poverty, in Ottawa of all places, before she had even uttered a word, the voluble Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders was hauled into an Amsterdam court. His crime? Hate speech. Wilders is not what you might call a reasoned or thoughtful great thinker. He has compared the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He has often argued that the Netherlands is “under threat” from Islam. He is not a big fan of immigration from certain countries. Thus, it was determined, he deserved jail time.

Nothing like free speech to encourage yet more free speech. After all three nations—France, Canada, and the Netherlands—were ridiculed in the media, three events took place. France’s court allowed France’s idiots to deny the Armenian holocaust (and relations with the tyrant Erdogan, who likes to imprison Turkey’s own journalists, improved—for better or worse). Canada’s Parliament decided free speech included “hate speech.” And Wilders was acquitted in the Netherlands, a judge having decided that his “statements are acceptable within the context of public debate” because his views, although “gross,” in the judge’s opinion, didn’t “give rise to hatred.” In other words, the judge was stretching a bit to avoid further ridicule.

And now, a few words (or rather, a few excisions) from the US State Department, where there is indeed someone—his name is John M. Robinson—who holds the title Chief Diversity Officer. I don’t mean to compare Robinson’s notions entirely to those of, say, the French Parliament or Canadian universities. His word isn’t American law. Yet. But in the latest issue of the US State Department’s official magazine (it is called, quite intriguingly, State Magazine) you can find a list of those idioms Robinson finds hateful and unworthy of American diplomats.

These include “holding down the fort” (its sad origins: the rapacity and greed of 19th-century American soldiers who grabbed Indian property) as well as “rule of thumb,” which—Robinson has apparently been leafing through dusty tomes on British common law—refers to the now outmoded practice of wife-beating. Personally, I would prefer American diplomats to avoid these on other grounds: American diplomacy is to clichĂ©s what Ottawa higher education is to political correctness.

As a rule of thumb, in other words, it’s time to hold down the fort on free speech.


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