Last week, David Ahenakew, a former head of the Assembly of First Nations, was found not guilty of willfully promoting hatred. The judge noted that although his comments were disgusting, revolting, hateful, and racist, they didn’t willfully promote hatred.
This was a good judgment. Ahenakew might have spoken hateful words, but the legal persecution of him strikes me as being just as hateful.
In 2002, Ahenakew wound up a semi-coherent speech at a native health conference with a series of slurs at immigrants. When interviewed to confirm his speech he accused Jews of starting the Second World War, and then claimed we’d “be owned by the Jew right now,” if it weren’t for Hitler who apparently “cleaned up a hell of a lot of things.”
Whew, you can’t get much uglier than that. But actually, you can. Hate speech and racism surround us. It’s hard to figure how a native elder could promote racism, considering the racist abuse that native people have historically endured. That’s easy. Racism is a human disease, not restricted to Jews or whites or Japanese or Chinese or native people. And it doesn’t go away easily.
Only a year ago, Dick Pound, a major executive for the Canadian Olympic organization, pointed out that China was a 5,000-year-old dignified civilization, whereas “400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European origin”- the Europeans presumably intent on ‘civilizing’ the complex cultures they and Pound considered savage, even though our modern form of democracy is a native invention.
Pound did not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself and lose his job. He got a slap on his naughty white wrist. Ahenakew was hounded in the courts for six years, lost his position in the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and had his Order of Canada revoked. He probably deserved the last two, but no one deserves to be threatened with jail for stupid, even hateful speech.
Speech is what made civilization. Those who speak meanly deserve the rotten tomatoes and the contempt of their community, but as soon as we make it illegal we make education illegal, and education is all that will save our species.
Perhaps that’s why the Republicans in the American Senate, politicians who have shown a shocking ignorance of other cultures and a complete disregard for the poor and unfortunate of their own country, demanded tax cuts for the wealthy and education cuts for the poor when debating President Obama’s recent rescue budget.
They understand very well that intelligent, educated debate could accidentally lead to real democracy.
It’s especially interesting that Ahenakew’s acquittal arrived on Freedom To Read Week – when the media are asked to remind the public of the dangers of oppression and dictatorship under government censorship.
The Jewish people have an honoured history of fighting oppression and tyranny, so it’s a shame to see the Canadian Jewish Congress demanding the increased criminalization of free speech. You can only win an argument by exposing its stupidity and inaccuracy, not by driving it underground and making martyrs out of ignorant fools.
Now other cultural groups are demanding increased harassment for hateful speech (usually that means speech they disagree with). Western Standard magazine was prosecuted for publishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons. It cost the publisher $100,000 in legal fees before the charge was dropped. Then Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine were dragged before the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, which wisely decided in favour of free speech, though the article was certainly anti-Muslim.
Freedom of speech is becoming increasingly restricted in Europe, especially England, with its brutal libel laws. As for the Third World, well forget it. Journalists have never been murdered at such a rate as the last 10 years; 70 journalists were assassinated last year alone.
Only Canada and the US still allow some freedom of speech, though the restrictions are increasing. In 2002, the illustrious Oxford University Press refused to send a book to Canada because it discusses child pornography laws in relation to an innocent picture of a naked child wandering across the floor of an art studio. Thus, a book against censorship was censored by its own fearful publisher who feared charges under Canadian censorship law.
The interesting thing about censorship is that everyone believes that everyone else should be censored but not themselves. Christians believe books or magazines about homosexuality should be banned but are outraged when Christian tracts are charged with homophobia.
Here are a few examples of books that people have attempted to censor in Canada during the last 10 years:
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; this novel about the sexual degradation of women was accused of sexual degradation.
Ann Alma’s Something To Tell, a children’s book warning about inappropriate touching, because naturally, it was about inappropriate touching. Catholic Insight, for promoting hatred against gays and lesbians. Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, because the Turkish government denies it killed one million Armenians. The acclaimed children’s writer Deborah Ellis’ Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, because the Canadian Jewish Congress insisted the Palestinian children’s views were toxic. It didn’t object to the views of the Jewish children.
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and John Ball’s In The Heat Of The Night. All these legendary novels about the mistreatment of coloured people have been accused of mistreating coloured people.
The Golden Compass because it’s anti-Christian, the Harry Potter books because they’re about witchcraft, and The New York City Bartender’s Joke Book because it makes jokes at just about everybody’s expense.
And here’s my favourite – Greasy, Grimy, Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Children. Now there’s a book I’d like to read.
The most hateful speech is that which attempts to block debate, to hide information, to prevent knowledge in all its beautiful and terrible variety. It’s the censors who are the real hate speakers.
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.