3 Cheers for the First Amendment

Go ahead. Say what you want.

Of all of the people with whom I would want to sit down and break bread, William Whatcott is at the bottom of my list. He is a Canadian who thinks that homosexuals are sodomites, that they should be kept out of the public schools, and that the Bible teaches that the gay lifestyle is one of “sin and depravity.” Second on my not-wanted-at-table list is the Canadian pastor Stephen Boissoin, who compares gay activists to pedophiles, drug dealers, and pimps.

But should the state shut them up? In Canada, it does. Whatcott has been fined $17,500 after four people complained that they were offended by his words and actions (he stuffs mail boxes with pamphlets). Boissoin was fined $5,000 and made to write a letter of apology to a University of Calgary professor who complained that Boisson’s words offended him.

Obviously Canada has a very different attitude to that of the US when it comes to freedom of speech. Neither country will let you yell “fire” in a crowded cinema, but in America you can say and do some very offensive things and remain within the law. I still remember when the American Nazis were allowed to march through Skokie, the suburb of Chicago with many Jews and still then at the time with a considerable number of Holocaust survivors.

In Canada, you cannot do these sorts of things, although I am not sure how far the limits extend. For many years when teaching in Canada, as a protest against the laws, I strove unsuccessfully to get into trouble for being mean about the Scots – starting with calling them “Scotch,” which they loathe. In mitigation I should say that the Scots run higher education in Anglophone Canada and in my opinion all is fair when talking about administrators. I did once get thumped when on going into the men’s lavatory and finding a chap in a kilt I remarked: “Oops, sorry. I didn’t realize this was the ladies.”

I should say that the difference between the two countries is not an isolated phenomenon. It reflects the fact that America is far more individualistic whereas Canada is more communitarian. The former stresses the rights of the individual whereas the latter stresses the needs of the group. In part this is history, but it is also geography. You cannot have just thirty million people in the world’s second largest country, under snow from September to June, and not care about each other. Canada has had socialized medicine for 50 years and no one – especially not the present Conservative government –is about to change that one bit.

Basically my philosophy is communitarian. I think that society is an organic whole and that we have obligations as a group to our members, especially those in need of help or protection. I think individualism is too often a cover for rich people to have the goodies at the expense of the rest of us. And don’t give me bull about the rich deserving it through effort or whatever. I am not arguing for uniform salaries or possessions. Simply saying that no man is an island and the rich and powerful get what they want because they are part of the group – a group which unlike the late 18th-century French does not turn around and kill them on the spot because it doesn’t like them.

But I detest laws that restrict freedom of speech. Apart from anything else, like banning drugs they only exacerbate the problem. For many years, until he was finally deported to his native Germany (which is even more restrictive than Canada), there was a vile individual by the name of Ernst Zündel who got masses of coverage for his anti Semitism. Simply huge amounts of coverage – more than hockey even. Let him speak and ignore him, I say. Show your contempt by saying nothing.

I think the First Ammendment is one of the greatest things about America, I really do. I know it is easy for me to say all of this because I am not gay, nor black, nor Jewish, nor female – nor, thank God, Scotch. But I would say that the Ammendment is for gays and blacks and Jews and women and Scots because it shows they are above the scumbags who denigrate. And once you start restricting speech in one area, where does it end? With a change in administration or culture, am I not to be allowed to speak in favor of abortion or homosexuals or (thinking of the present regime in Florida) of anthropologists?

At the moment the free speech issue is up before the Supreme Court of Canada. I hope the ruling is in the direction of the American practice and that Canada shows that it is sufficiently self confident to let the foul bigots say what they want while the rest of the world goes about its business. If it does, I promise I will eat haggis next January 25.

Return to Top