The most recent iteration of the opposition to free speech started out as a University campus phenomenon. It has differed from previous manifestations of the urge to censor and control thought in the name of progress in that this version has been marked by an attempt to avoid judgment and valuation in the name of pure positivity—good feelings and strict acceptance of all things non-threatening, and a denouncement of anything else with ironically, some of the most vitriolic and threatening behaviour.
Politics is always downstream of culture, and we are now seeing this particular brand of censoriousness play itself out in Canadian politics. The trend has been one in which many see the Conservatives backing down in the face of pressure from the public and opposition parties, in particular the Liberals and the NDP.
Michael Cooper was recently suspended for remarks he made to a witness concerning the shootings at Christchurch and had his statement expunged from the records. Lindsay Shepherd, Mark Steyn, and John Robson were set to testify, when MP Randal Garrison decided that it should not be televised, just recorded. Conservatives also seem to be staying silent and within the realm of political correctness on a number of contentious issues—using the language of the left when it comes to climate and diversity in what seems like an attempt to play the pragmatic and conciliatory card in light of the upcoming election.
There has been a tendency among whistleblowers to treat every free speech and political correctness issue similarly, while paying less attention to the nuance that exists between cases. I want to draw attention to these differences to shed some light on the extent of the censorship problem and show that there is an element of permanence to it, which may make it less threatening, though not any less worthy of confronting.
Michael Cooper is a Conservative MP who stood on the Justice Committee until recently. During a hearing on online hate at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, various groups gave testimony and perspective on issues pertaining hate, discrimination, and terrorism. One of the witnesses—Faisal Suri of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council—drew a link between consumption of conservative media sources and hate crimes, by citing the online viewing habits of Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec Mosque shooter. This familiar move is made by lumping all conservative commentators into the “alt-right” and “far-right” category in order to besmirch the views of vast swaths of people. Michael Cooper took offence to this, calling Suri’s attempt to imply conservatism is hateful and racist ‘shameful’. He pointed out that Bissonnette was critical of conservatism, and his viewing history included many other sources, including communist, Stalinist, and Maoist videos and commentary. He crossed the line by reciting passages from Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto— the New Zealand mosque shooter. He apologized for ‘shaming’ Suri, and for reciting passages from Tarrant’s manifesto. Andrew Scheer removed him from the committee but has retained him in caucus.
This was essentially the right decision. First of all, Cooper’s statements were factually correct, and well-reasoned. He pointed out that the witness selectively chose to comment on one common variable among hateful behaviour, ignoring obvious and more salient points of consideration in an attempt to smear conservatives, and regulate speech and views that he disagrees with. It is not this that the Conservative party, nor Mr. Cooper would have apologized for.
Mr. Cooper holds a dignified rank on the Justice Committee and was dealing with an extremely sensitive issue. He used accusatory language, a certain tone, and recited lines from a horrible event that is still too fresh in the public consciousness. The tone, language, and subject matter were not commensurate with the dignity of the position, and the context of the case in question. Nothing more, nothing less. He is an MP in good standing and should be kept on.
It is still the case that examples such as these reveal—well, more like underline—a major double standard. Left-leaning politicians and commentators routinely engage in smears of anyone who does not subscribe to the pieties of their “progressive” fundamentalist worldview. A view that is constantly changing because it is rooted in an incoherent subjectivity based on the emotions of care and compassion, that are, like any emotion—ambiguous with respect to their value, given that many other factors come into play in the determination of anything as good or bad, valuable or invaluable.
The problem, of course, is the liberal desire to censor and remove speech that they deem hateful. As many have now said ad nauseam, people cannot agree on what this is, nor will they. Given the fact that this is the case, censorship is a losing proposition, as the core differences in ways of thinking that divide us will always remain, and their expression is likely to become all the more acrimonious if smothered.
The worrying thing is that Cooper’s remarks were expunged from the record after a vote by Liberal and NDP MPs.
On the one hand, we might be witnessing the development of a new status quo wherein parties capitalize on mistakes by the other side and use the public perception and attention to score points on certain issues. In this case then, the individual case is merely a stunt. If, however, it is a growing trend, then it is cause for concern.
Yet, from a higher level of abstraction, we can see the dynamic between expression and censorship as one that waxes and wanes over time, but constantly tracks majority/minority dynamics in any given society, and arena of discourse therein. Many do not see the importance of issues like those in question, when they think of the fact that so many groups have faced stronger forms of persecution and censorship in the past. This does not excuse it, but it does explain some of the apathy.
It is very important to pay attention and call out infringements, but it is wise to recognize that the tendency to censor and render taboo are permanent, and that efforts are better spent modifying existing, and cultivating new institutions and platforms when old forums dry up. This is more effective and will win people over in the long run. The boundaries of the public and the private are always shifting; it is better to swim with the tide than headlong against it.
Let us hope that the seeming Conservative acquiescence to the Cooper, and Shepherd/Steyn/Robson incidents are calculated, and prudent. Let us also hope that people will not back down in the face of calls for censorship, and that efforts to cultivate spaces for vigorous debate on the issues that matter most are continued with increasing vigour.