One of the best letters to the editor I’ve ever read appeared yesterday when Arno Kilianski wrote to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the subject of the Danish cartoons:
It has been my experience — and I have, at times, learned the hard way — that there are two types of troublemakers in this world, two types of people who really ought to find more constructive things to do with their time:
There are those who toss bait, and those who take the bait; those who utter insults, and those who respond with clenched fists. The recent dust-up over the Muhammad cartoons has thrust both these types onto centre stage; the rest of us are growing tired of the spectacle already.
The kerfuffle over the allegedly anti-Islamic cartoons is being perpetuated by two sources: Islamic fanatics whose faith is so fragile that it cannot stand real or imagined attack by the weapons of pen and ink, and individuals who seem intent on baiting the fanatics in order to attack all Muslims in the guise of free speech.
Well, free speech is being able to say to the Islamic fanatics that any faith that is unable to withstand criticism — even unfair criticism and tasteless jokes — isn’t a faith worth having. This is a message that fanatical Christians, intent on cancelling television shows that offend their sensibilities and praying for hurricanes to destroy gay-tolerant Disneyworld also need to hear.
But continuing to bait these groups is simply picking a fight, and that’s less of an expression of free speech as it is the unveiling of one’s own darker agenda. We deplore the violence that has occurred in the Middle East, and we will fight that violence anywhere it manifests itself, but suggesting that counter-demonstrations should be held against Canadian Muslims whose demonstrations have remained peaceful is itself an attack on freedom of speech. One not only has the right to offend, but one also has the right to be offended, and express that offense.
I am writing this because of the not-so-subtle suggestion on the part of some bloggers and some pundits in the mainstream media, that criticizing those who republished the cartoons indiscriminately was an act of cowardice, or even “Jew-bashing”. I don’t see why. Why is it so important? When I say that those who react to pen-and-ink drawings with violence are showing a fundamental insecurity in their faith, I am exercising all the freedom of speech I need. Why should I continue to go after average Muslims who are also offended but are saying so through legitimate and peaceful means? Freedom of speech also means freedom to not speak if one so chooses. I choose not to speak. I choose to respect the sensibilities of peaceful Canadian Muslims. I am not a coward or an anti-Semite. And I think that anybody who implies that I’m so is seeking to silence my dissent by trying to force me to make noise.
Earlier this week, we sent David Irving to jail for three years because he denied that there was a Holocaust. I used to be proud that Canada had hate laws, but now I’m not so sure. It’s not just that Mr. Irving has recanted his earlier assertions; instead, I have to wonder about the ethics of forcing people to not speak, either through intimidation from the chaotic violence of mob demonstrations, or through the cold, organized violence of our police forces and prison systems.
Freedom of speech isn’t absolute. I believe you should be arrested if you shout “fire” in a crowded theatre where there is no fire, and people get hurt in the stampede, but there are laws already in place to handle things when speaking improperly results in harm. Quantifying hate is tricky, and silencing Irving’s loathesome words through hate laws strikes me as an easy way out. It doesn’t address the root problem: that we share this world and we’re going to rub shoulders with each other, and our ideas are going to come into conflict. People are going to lie to us. People going to try to shout us down. But if we as a species want to survive with a minimum of violent conflict, then the key to that survival has to be the highlighting the strength of our ideas and a respect for each other’s sensibilities. We have to acknowledge that we retain a right to offend as well as saying that we are offended, and we have to respect the fact that offence has been taken. In short, we have to respect each other, even if we don’t deserve it.
The solution to hate speech is good speech: criticism, logic, reason and, most importantly, tolerance and respect in arguing different points of view. This isn’t to say that we can’t say that a bad idea is wrong, or a lie is anything less than what it is. Yes, there are people out there who will never respect us or tolerate different points of view, but that is no reason to stoop to their level. You may not be able to argue a fanatic into silence, but by standing firm and being reasonable — and not baiting said fanatic — you may convince the people standing nearby that the fanatic is a fanatic. Then you and the bystanders can walk away, leaving the fanatic to rant to himself.
Recently, the University of Waterloo has reported an upsurge in graffiti and vandalism against Muslims as well as gays and lesbians. Our inability to see past our differences and acknowledge each other as individuals is feeding this buzz of hatred. The response from the wider UW student body, coming together to denounce these acts of hatred — with speech rather than violence and hate laws — is the way to go in building a safe and tolerant community.
Both sides in the cartoon debacle — the fanatical Muslims destroying property and those with axes-to-grind out to bait them — have abandoned the approach of reason, logic, tolerance and respect. They are offering no constructive solutions beyond more shouting. And my sense is that average Canadians are getting sick of it. We know who the fanatics are. We know how to avoid them. We know we are not under threat by people who are offended by cartoons and do nothing more than simply say so. We are appalled at the violence that is going on in the Middle East, but we are not interested in seeing the cartoons that have triggered this conflaguration. We are not interested in attacking people who do not deserve to be attacked. That does not make us cowards.
What it makes us is the type of people more likely to continue to have civil relationships with our multitude of neighbours, regardless of our sex, race or creed.
Get used to it. It’s a complicated world, and we will need both an ability to exchange our ideas freely, and a greater respect for the sensibilities of others, if we are to live in that world comfortably and free.