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Lazy, Hyperparanoid Journalism and How It Could Help Free Speech

Culture government Rantish

The CBC blessed us today with this gem of a story: Ottawa considering hate charges against those who boycott Israel (headline since changed).

If you’ve taken a moment to read it, I feel very sorry for the precious minutes of your life now missing thanks to me.  But I assure you, it was necessary.

The CBC is making terrible accusations against the government.  Should the government use hate speech legislation to suppress Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) supporters who object to Israel’s (insert verb), it would be a nearly fascistic move against the freedom of Canadians to express their opinions and to engage in peaceful activities to act out their convictions.

But it’s not, and that’s what has gotten the CBC in hot water.

The crux of our darling state broadcaster’s argument comes from two paragraphs (out of 47) which contain the only comments from the government on the matter:

The government’s intention was made clear in a response to inquiries from CBC News about statements by federal ministers of a “zero tolerance” approach to groups participating in a loose coalition called Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) [sic], which was begun in 2006 at the request of Palestinian non-governmental organizations.

Asked to explain what zero tolerance means, and what is being done to enforce it, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney [this turned out not to actually be true but is still in the CBC article] replied, four days later, with a detailed list of Canada’s updated hate laws, noting that Canada has one of the most comprehensive sets of such laws “anywhere in the world.”

Glenn Greenwald of Snowden fame published the email chain after what I assume is a discussion with Macdonald.  The conversation is a weird series of nonsequitors and nonanswers.  The Jackson Pollock-esque nature of the discussion is such that it says more about the conspiracy theorists who see a nefarious plot than about the government’s attitude to hate speech laws.  Macdonald turns an obvious nonanswer from a spokesperson into a Cabinet-level conspiracy to jail opponents and then says that the spokesperson “made clear” the government’s intent.

You know how I can say for sure that this was not some coded signal of maleficence?  Neil Macdonald was so sloppy that he emailed the wrong spokesperson.  The spokesperson was that of the Department, not the Minister’s Office and thus would know absolutely nothing about what might be going through Blaney’s head. So we’ve had a day of a highly-inflammatory, evidently imaginary story being lobbed about because a *star* reporter didn’t email the right office and then made the rest up.

The article has become a small embarrassment for the CBC, being neither well-written nor factually correct (the Tories did not, in fact, modify the Criminal Code to ban discrimination on national origin as stated in the article and Minister Blaney’s actual office has denounced the article as ridiculous nonsense).

More troubling than the CBC’s lacklustre journalism, however, is the ferocity with which opponents of the Harper Government pounced on this without critical thought (including Greenwald, who to his discredit fell for the same bogeyman reading of the emails as Macdonald).  The application of rudimentary critical thinking should have warned readers that an article with so little actual source material deployed in such a vague way might not actually be reliable.  It has fed the fires of righteous anger particularly amongst the “Harper Derangement Syndrome” crowd (HDS being the condition of people who do not just oppose Harper on emotional or rational grounds, but think that he is in fact the Devil come to deliver Canada to the Nazi Illuminati), who seem positively overjoyed to once again point their fingers and howl at their wicked Cabinet.  I saw about a dozen people post this article just today on Facebook.  Only one walked it back after it’s inaccuracy was pointed out.  Others blamed it on Blaney’s wording (not, you know, the journalists who are supposed to put more effort into fact-checking than a first year journalism major).

Many of those who cried foul at the CBC’s imagination of what the Conservatives might do are, ironically, those who support hate speech legislation.  They do not realize the good that might come of this ugly affair: the discrediting of hate speech laws as dangerous; allowing the government to regulate emotion and motivation.

Hate speech laws have always necessarily implied uneven and unjust enforcement.  To be used against someone, that person has to have views that fall outside of accepted norms.  There is plenty of Jew-hatred amongst the BDS crowd*, but until now they just assumed that they were “in” and anti-gay preachers were “out”.  Now they plainly see that such laws can threaten them just as much as it can threaten their opponents.  While I have little faith in the radical left to have a Damascene conversion to strident free speech, it draws out the danger of the government regulating our feelings.  Such laws do not belong on Canada’s books.  They provide a legal justification for the state to expand its role in the inner life of its citizens, a role which many people have fought against for centuries in order to make it retreat.  Boycotts are an essentially peaceful act, even when motivated by hatred.  Whatever the properties of the BDS movement, its proponents and its detractors should be free to duke it out in the marketplace of ideas instead of making the state fight their battles.

*Even under very conservative definitions of antisemitism, these people abound in the BDS movement.  In my opinion this definition should be somewhat broader to encompass those with the special pathological obsession with Israel to the neglect of other states in the region with significantly worse human rights records (which would be all of them), but that's not necessary to see my point.
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