Tuesday, January 22, 2008

'Freedom of Speech' and the Mark Steyn's of the world

In case you don't know Mark Steyn: Well, basically Mr Steyn is a rightwing lunatic. He raves on the web and right-wing papers like MacLean's the Chicago Sun-Times (courtesy of convicted rightwing fraudster Conrad Black), the Washington Times (owned by the Moonies), the New York Sun (courtesy of convicted rightwing fraudster Conrad Black) among others, against gays, Muslims and most other folks that are not like him. No doubt his hysterics are partially a marketing ploy (nobody reasonable would beat up minorities as he does without hoping for a public outcry). After all, in this day and age, the more aggressively you wave your hands and shout 'fire', the more likely you are to get the attention that you probably didn't get from your parents while you were younger. Certainly Mr Steyn, by now, should have more than overcompensated for parental failings and should be very much in the clear.

So, currently the Canadian Human Rights Commission is investigating MacLean's for republishing an excerpt from a book in which Mr Steyn attacks Islam and Muslims. I am not a great friend of this ideology or most of its followers either (just as I think any other monotheistic religion is likely to cause more harm than good), but Mr Steyn being Mr Steyn, he manages to mess up occasionally sensible arguments by means of going after the person (the believer) rather than the cause of the evil, namely the ideology. No doubt there is a correlation between crimes committed in the name of Islam and the ideology which doesn't seem to forbid its followers clearly to commit such crimes.

Having said that, one should be concerned about the Canadian Human Rights Commission going after Mr Steyn and Maclean's on the grounds that his views caused offense to Muslims. Mr Steyn is right to point out that what constitutes offense is very much in the eyes of the beholder. No doubt there is a direct correlation between the views one holds and what one considers offensive. Ie, the more fanatical my views are the more likely I am to take offense at even the slightest criticism of my opinions. To be also fair to Mr Steyn, due to his mostly repulsive agitprop style writings he is constantly under attack by legions of people. For instance, he would almost certainly never attack Christian fundamentalists firebombing reproductive health clinics in the USA, no, his targets would rather be gay people being discriminated against by right-wing Christians. To his credit, to the best of my knowledge he has never resorted to the courts to stop them from having their say about him.

But herein also lies the problem: One of the reasons for why we don't have absolute freedom of speech is precisely to protect weaker groups of people (let's call them lunatics favourite targets or LFTs) from attacks like Mr Steyn's.

Mr Steyn, a darling of the political right, arguably would be unknown without Mr Black and his wife's interventions, which gave him access to many of the papers controlled at one point or other by the Black media empire. So, civil rights protections of LFTs(and Muslims in liberal societies are still just that) are a means of leveling the playing field to some extent. It's all nice and well to say that there should be absolute freedom of speech for us all when only some of us (say, those with the right (!) connections) have convenient access to mass media outlets in order to vent their spleen, while most others of us are relegated to the letters pages. Limitations on freedom of speech are also designed to prevent unnecessary inflammations of the relations between different communities making up a given society. In other words, they're precisely designed to stop people addicted to generating public attention for themselves, consequences be damned, from getting away with conduct not conducive to living peacefully together. This also applies, of course, to radical Muslims going over the top. Not a bad deal in the end, I would think. So, I would not really mind if Mr Steyn and MacLean's were held to account, provided the Human Rights Commission consistently applied the same standard to fanatics of any other ideological conviction.


  1. Your hatred makes you sick individual. I feel sorry for your students.

  2. um, hatred of whom? i don't certainly hate mr steyn... why should i? my concern is with the question of what are acceptable limitations on the freedom of expression that people like him abuse to preach hate against a whole range of minority groups in society.

  3. I suggest that if you had to grade your own piece in one of your courses you would give it a failing grade. Your unsupported ad hominem assumptions serve as the basis for your conclusions concerning Mr. Steyn's situation. I am offended.I believe you have unjustly attacked a journalist and writer who was exercising his right to say whatever he bloody well pleases. What if I were to complain about you to several HRC's? ( I am a US resident so I cannot, nevertheless...) My legal fees would be paid, but yours would not. I believe you would rethink your position if that were to happen. If you believe that ethics as a discipline is meant as a way of defending unpopular groups, you have seriously misunderstood the area in which you are supposed to be an expert.Shame on you!

  4. "Consistently applied the same standard". Ah, there lies the rub. Who decides what the standard is? Who measures compliance, and announces the scores? If you actually try this exercise yourself, it is amazingly thorny. It is very difficult not to end up with some form of tyranny of the majority.

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  6. So, first anonymous 'Andrew' calls me a 'sick individual' in lieu of an argument. Now anonymous 'Anonymous' begs the question at hand by stating that I have 'unjustly' attacked someone 'who was exercising his right to say whatever he bloody well pleases'. This right as a legal entitlement ONLY exists in the USA today, so, if you think that all other countries on this planet should reconsider their attitude to the question at hand, you might have to do a tad bit better...

  7. Your argument here would have been stronger if you had given specific examples of Steyn's "attacks" on Muslims, gays, etc - remembering that most ethicists distinguish self-defence from "attack". Your use of the term "lunatics['] favourite targets" shows that you consider that anyone who holds views like Steyn's (which are different from your caricature of them) is either insane, or hate-filled. Finally, while it can be useful to distinguish a demographic minority from a majority in certain contexts (eg, a white person calling a black person the "N-word" carries baggage of insult and threat that are simply not there if a black person calls a white person a "cracker"), it is not relevant when we are talking about immediate, personal, physical violence. You can be a white-skinned hetero Christian male with loads of money, but if a black-skinned Muslim lesbian of Jewish ancestry shoots you dead in an alleyway, you're the victim. Muslims may be only 2-10% of the population in most Western countries, but if it's almost always Muslims who are issuing (or carrying out) death threats, planting bombs, etc, then we have a problem "around" (not "with") Muslims and we need to talk openly, and bluntly, about that problem. No cure without an accurate diagnosis.

  8. Rod, thanks for this thoughtful comment. The link to the MacLean's excerpt that's part of the original posting actually demonstrates that point quite nicely as far as Muslims are concerned. Steyn concedes as much himself in his response to critics of his attempt to sneak Islam into the rioting that took place in Paris and other large French cities awhile ago. Someone who wasn't hate-filled, to use your terminology, would surely have more carefully distinguished between people that engage in acts of violence because of their religion and people that engage in acts of violence irrespective of their religion. Well, as to homophobia, here's one example: http://marksteynwatch.blogspot.com/2007/01/baaaa.html

  9. Harry PalmerJanuary 22, 2008

    Well, i've just checked your 'steynwatch' like to Mark Steyns alleged homphobia to find an article by Mark Steyn decrying abortion and the knots some people tie themselves in to justify abortion generally but not where a hypothetical 'gay' gene could be found.

    That was a clear attack on abortion and on hypocrisy, warning of a potential 'eugenic' slippery slope. It most certainly was not an attack on homosexuals. I can only assume that you misread his article in your zeal to find something to critic.

    In addition, your comment that only the USA values free speech is deeply concerning. I would remind you that people in other parts of the world also care about such basic human rights as free speech and expression, in fact a lot of people have suffered and are suffering greatly in defence of those values, which have a deep history in western civilisation predating the existence of the USA.

    You talk of a balance being struck and the need for the HRCs to 'protect' people from opinions of those you deem too powerful. Yet you don't suggest any way in which such a balance can be decided upon let alone enforced. The clear implication is that all media outlets need state control to regulate everything they state to protect whichever group you deem worthy of protection. Perhaps you need to think a little more deeply about the implications of that?

    Rather than calling for state control of opinions to 'protect' minority groups you could simply use your freedom of expression to refute those opinions. That would be much more effective and frankly the whine that there isn't 'real' free speech because nasty people like Conrad Black own(ed) newspapers doesn't cut it. After all, look where we are having this discussion.

  10. The purpose of the government is to make sure everyone is "living peacefully together"? If you really believe that, maybe you should go to North Korea. They're really big on the whole "living peacefully together" thing, much more so than Canada with all its messy free speech that so irks you. I'm sure The Great Leader would welcome a professional ethicist who can explain why togetherness is more important than freedom.

  11. actually, Ted S. there's plenty of functions government has, the one I mentioned is almost certainly one of them. That, in fact, is one of the reasons why all Western liberal democracies except the USA have put limitations on the freedom of speech. Naturally, I do appreciate your near-Steynian hyperbole by way of bringing North Korea into the equation. Well executed.

  12. Harry, thanks for yours. I did not say that freedom of speech was unimportant. Not at all, what I suggested is there are legitimate limits on freedom of speech. I pointed out that with the exception of the USA all countries have some such limits. That doesn't mean people there don't care about freedom of expression. It just happens to be the case that many people do think that there are other important values hat are worthy of our protection, even if that means limiting freedom of expression to some extent.
    There is nothing in principle wrong with the idea that an independent judiciary in liberal democracies can look at relevant cases. Happens all the time, not just in Canada, but across Europe. It's not perfect, but it certainly works.

  13. ps, Harry, I forgot to address the 'look how great freedom of speech works, so we don't need to level the playing field, just watch our discussion'. Surely there's a difference between you and I having a 'public discussion', possibly read by a few hundred people vs someone having access to a large number of mass media outlets and being able to continuously rant against particular minority groups. Steyn in fact repaid Black in kind with his deeply courageous defense of Black in any medium prepared to publish his 'Black is my hero' type 'reporting' (just check his blog on the Black trial on MacLean's).

  14. Sorry, I looked at the links provided to 'prove' Steyn's now a gay hater as well and... well, I see no hate.

    Maybe I need some 're-education'.

  15. I don't know how you define proof obviously, and I won't grace your 're-education' with a comment, but I am re-posting another link, the second of those posted earlier, i hope this time round it doesn't get cut off again by the blogger software...


  16. Aren't you stacking the deck a bit, professor? Despite the fact that Ken Whyte is currently the publisher of Macleans, I suspect that Paul Wells and Scott Feschuk would bristle at the right wing adjective.

    You also don't follow the news all that carefully either. Black no longer own the Chicago Sun-Times, nor does Steyn contribute to that paper anymore.

    Steyn was and is a well respected musical theater and film critic and obituarist before being featured on the op-ed pages of The Daily Telegraph; genuine talent, and not a vast right wing conspiracy is the key to Steyn's success.

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  18. dunno, i was in touch months ago with chicago sun-times journalists who told me how the blacks pushed him into the papers pages, much to the chagrin of its regular contributors. he also managed to get a foothold at melbourne's age at a time when black had influence at the paper due to a stake he held there. guess i'll be taking your claim with a grain of salt if you don't mind. and maclean's, well, i would have great difficulty describing the magazine as anything other than a rightwing news outlet. barbara amiel, black's wife is a regular columnist, next to black apologist steyn. nice crowd they've gathered there.

  19. ps: i nearly forgot to mention the obvious... black also owned the telegraph at one point or other...

  20. here's a new york times piece about maclean's, black, amiel and steyn.


  21. I don't know, I think you just define right-wing as whoever happens to disagree with you. Three former Black employees at Macleans hardly make it a right wing rag - that's just guilt by association. As I recall, Chantal Hebert is also a columnist at Macleans, and if you think she is right wing, that puts you somewhat to the left of Chairman Mao. Is The Atlantic Monthly a Republican news outlet because it has run columns by Mark Steyn and P.J. O'Rourke in the past?

  22. You say Mark Steyn is a hateful lunatic.
    Well, you look like a not entirely loving and overly rational individual to me.
    You say Mark Steyn offends members of minorities.
    I say, you offend me. And I am a member of not just one but several minorities, as defined by the Charter.
    I wonder, if I lodged a complaint, how happily would you shell out a few thousand dollars to defend yourself and another few thousands to pay the fine if found guilty (as the commissions find quite habitually), how good would you feel when ordered to apologize? Would you be equally philosofical about the issue if the shoe was on your foot?
    Well, true, you don't need to worry about me. I won't launch a complaint, and the HRCs are unlikely accept one from me.
    But re-read your article and try to take a look at it from a pious Muslim's point of view. Are you sure, it provides no opportunity whatsoever to take offence?
    That's not to say you need to worry. Not now. Not yet. They're dealing with Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, at this time.
    But if and when successfully done with them ...

  23. After reading your blog, I find myself worrying for my oldest daughter who is about to go to university to obtain a liberal/arts education. I've already sent her news of the Pope being prevented from speaking at the University of Rome and now I will tell her to visit your site in order to dissuade her further from taking such a route. You are either a very poor reader or you deliberately set out to misrepresent Mr. Steyn while referring to his articles. In either case,it distresses me that people who think like you are in the lecture hall "re-educating" young minds.
    John form Prague

  24. Actually, Udo S., I think you just identified the major problem, but don't realize it. That "there's plenty of functions government has" is exactly the problem. The more functions government has, the fewer the citizenry have, and the more dependent on the government the citizenry become.

    When freedom becomes just another endlessly negotiable government function alongside enforcing togetherness and delivering healthcare, it is only a matter of time before nettlesome freedom gets discarded in favor of supposedly desirable ends such as togetherness and healthcare.

    This, in fact, is one of the reasons why all Western liberal democracies except the USA are becoming less liberal and less democratic. Far from being hyperbole, North Korea does us the favor of showing us where prioritizing supposed social needs over freedom eventually leads. Good luck with your "not a bad deal in the end."

  25. Harry PalmerJanuary 23, 2008

    You state that you do think freedom of speech is important. Ok, we've got a point of agrement. But, then you don't give any form of coherent explanation of the limits you want to apply to that freedom in defence of other values.

    Simply stating that an 'independent judicary' (indpendent of what?) should have the right to examine individual cases gives rise to a horrendous prospect. You haven't bothered to define what limits you consider acceptable or how you would reasonably calculate and explain them. Instead you advocate a system in which any opinion could, quite subjectively, be considered unacceptable, with no clear basis and in which truth is no defence.

    Your entire argument gives the impression of muddleheadness from begining to end. It seems (correct me if i am wrong) that you have started from the premise that you don't like Mark Steyns opinions, therefore you will invent a justification for censoring him.

    As for your cheap dig at him being 'courageous' for continuing to defend Conrad Black, you presumably know that Steyn is no longer in the employ of Black and is not receiving any money or benefit for that defence. And yet you choose to imply that somehow Steyn is in someway corrupted by his past association with Black. I can only say that reflects poorly on your integrity, not upon Steyns.

    Professor, if you were one of my students i'm afraid i would give you your work back with the instructions to actually consider the guiding principals needed to decide such a matter and to avoid ad hominen slurs.

    Sloppy thinking, motivated by personal animosity. Do again.

  26. I'd thrown in the tu quoque fallacy along with the ad hominem attacks.


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