Civil Liberties: Idea vs Reality.

Posted on October 24, 2010

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We all love to pay lip-service to the idea of civil liberties. Anybody who publicly opposes free speech or free association is probably also opposed to democracy, and therefore irrelevant to modern politics. This is all well and good, and is a nice theoretical point of agreement between people who are otherwise bitter political opponents. Unfortunately, the agreement frequently stops short of any effective real-world application. There are large groups in the mainstream of both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum that are more than happy to squelch the free expression and assembly of their political opponents.

An obvious case in point: The G20 summit. It isn’t hard to find a conservative blogger who will rush to the defense of the police’s actions during the summit. Example: Take Back Your School, a blog which claims to be standing up for Canadian students against of liberal intolerance, indoctrination and bottled water bans on campus. The blog sets itself strongly against the CFS, so it is no surprise that free speech comes up quite a bit. He states his position quite clearly in a post about Ann Coulter’s visit to the University of Ottawa:

“You see thats the thing about free speech – you either support it, or you don’t. If you ever hear someone saying ‘I’m all for free speech, BUT….’, you should cut them off and punch them in the face.”

If you forget the hyperbolic endorsement of physical violence, this is a fairly straightforward endorsement of free speech with which I generally agree. As is proved in TBYS’s coverage of the G20, however, this theoretical commitment to opposing violations of civil liberties is conditional on the victims’ agreement with TBYS’s politics. When leftist activists are being harassed, abused and arbitrarily arrested, TBYS has this to say:

“The police may or may not have acted inappropriately in a few isolated cases. But the fact remains that you made the conscious decision to be involved in these obviously harmful and dangerous protests, well after the violent narrative of the protests was entrenched. You knew exactly what you were getting into. For that, you will get zero sympathy from the average Canadian. Kudos to the police officers involved. We are but a small group of bloggers, but I am sure we speak for many, many Canadians when we thank you for the good work you did this past weekend. As for the campus leftists that attended these protests, we repeat what is in our mission statement: you don’t speak for us.”

So TBYS (whose writer chooses to remain anonymous) is against civil liberties in what he considers to be extreme circumstances. All was well and good until police cars started burning, at which point the situation was too dire for civil liberties. By associating all the protesters with a handful of violent anarchists, he suggests that the police were justified in their crackdown. To summarize his viewpoint, “I’m all for civil liberties, but sometimes if shit has hit the fan, you need to accept that the police have a difficult job to do”. The problem with this is that it constitutes exactly the kind of “BUT…” statement that TBYS had earlier suggested to be deserving of a sucker-punch. If the Toronto police were rounding up conservative protesters, you can bet that he would take a different opinion.

Most leftists will take this to be nothing new. The conservative tendency to support civil liberties only when it’s politically expedient extends way beyond bloggers. Conservatives (including TBYS) will likely contend that I’m leveling the accusation in the wrong direction, and that it leftists are selective about civil liberties. Unfortunately for a hippie like myself, they’re often right on the latter assertion. Example: on October 4 of this year, a handful of Carleton students set up some signs on campus to protest abortion in Canada. These signs were taken from the Genocide Awareness Project, which seeks to criticize abortion by making graphic visual comparisons between it and the holocaust. I won’t link to their website, but if you go there you will see that it’s pretty disgusting stuff. Apparently the Carleton administration agrees with my position on the posters they were holding, because they didn’t last very long. The police were called, and by 10:00 AM, the protesters had all been arrested:

Despite my contempt for their message, I find it very unfortunate that they were arrested. TBYS (showing his selective love for civil liberties) agrees, as do most conservative and pro-life bloggers. It isn’t hard, however, to find somebody on the left who thinks that the arrests were warranted. I did a quick google search for “anti-choice* arrests Carleton”, and found this blog entry. In it, the writer commends the Carleton administration for having these peaceful protesters arrested.

“I will quote from a letter I just sent to Carleton, congratulating them on having these students arrested.’The ‘Genocide Awareness Project’ creates fear. It succeeds in creating fear because the implied violence of the display is supported by the actual violence perpetrated by sympathizers of this position, specifically the people who murder doctors. Like school yard bullies who need only throw one punch to solidify their position as a credible threat, this group depends on this actual violence to create its climate of fear.’

These students are not engaged in a ‘peaceful protest.’ This is not an ‘educational campaign.’ It is a campaign that creates fear, is intended to intimidate and succeeds in intimidating because their sympathizers kill doctors.” (Emphasis hers)

Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Regardless of the offensiveness of their message, these people were, in fact, engaged in peaceful protest. There is no evidence that they were threatening violence against abortion doctors, and there is therefore no reason to associate them with those who do. Like the majority of the protesters in Toronto over the G20 weekend, they were stating an unpopular opinion in an extreme way, but refraining from anything that could be construed as physical violence. These people did not pose a threat to anybody on Carleton campus, and were therefore entitled to free assembly as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and further articulated with regards to university campuses in the Students’ Rights and Responsibilities Act. The administration had no basis on which to have them arrested, and the blogger quoted above has no basis on which to commend the actions of said administration.

What is remarkable about the post I found is that it almost exactly mirrors TBYS’ defense of the Toronto Police. A violation of civil liberties is supposed to be okay, because the victims were doing more than simply exercising their rights. The arrested parties in both cases are supposed by their detractors to have been engaging in something beyond simple assembly, which legitimizes their arrest. A common rhetorical strategy, as seen in both of the aforementioned examples, is to associate the victimized protesters with the violent acts of others who happen to have similar opinions. This kind of rationalization is seen again and again on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservative activists support Ann Coulter’s speaking engagement, but are happy to see George Galloway excluded from the country. They will defend Ezra Levant, but not Alex Hundert. Activists on the left have been known to simply invert the same inconsistencies. The list goes on.

It is easy to defend the pure idea of free speech, because in most peoples’ minds (mine included), the idea of free speech involves your beliefs winning out in the marketplace of ideas. It is much harder to defend the reality of free speech, because in the real world your ideas do not always win. Even if they do, you will still have to face dissenters who, having lost, may have become more offensive in their desperation. It is immature and short-sighted to appeal to the law to muzzle those with whom you disagree. Free speech is central to any functioning democracy and like democracy, it necessitates compromises and a willingness to lose the battle on an even playing field, rather than try to legislatively stack the odds in your favour. No matter who you are, you are biased. Accordingly, you cannot know that your ideas are valid until you have given those with an opposite bias an opportunity to speak their piece. Activists all over the political landscape would do well to remember that.

*”Anti-choice” is a good Google marker for pro-choice activists writing about pro-life activists, but I’ve never liked it as a term. Political movements should be allowed to define themselves, rather than have identities imposed on them by their opponents.

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Posted in: Civil Rights, G20