Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says that everyone has “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” This and all the other rights mentioned in the Charter are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
We now live in a society in which many people are quick to exercise their freedom of expression, but they are less adept at recognizing that they must take responsibility for how they exercise that freedom.
As a political scientist, I am the sort of policy wonk who likes to see a strong and spirited discussion about the value of a particular public policy. I even enjoy it when people express highly unpopular views on policies. This kind of debate moves the discussion about policy issues forward and frequently results in the improvement of the policy.
Of course, the debate needs to be reasonable and based on facts, but when people focus on debating policy issues, there is a certain self-correcting mechanism in the debate. If I make a statement that is not reasonable or grounded in facts, my opponents will respond by presenting a factual rebuttal to which I will need to respond and so forth. This is how reasoned debate sheds light on an issue and moves the debate forward.
Unfortunately, there is a style of debate now that focusses more on the personal characteristics of the debater than on the facts involved in the debate. Donald Trump did not initiate this style of debate, but he certainly moved it forward. One of his opponents was not to be believed because he was too short, another lacked energy, and another suffered the infamy of having an “ugly” wife.
These personal jabs make for lively television, but they do nothing to move forward the debate on a policy issue. In fact, they lead me to believe that the person who makes these types of attacks has no reasoned argument against her or his opponent and so must resort to personal attacks based on gender, ethnicity, or some other personal characteristic.
People engaging in this style of debate will cite their constitutional right to freedom of expression. However, the fact that something is legal does not automatically make it the wisest or most appropriate course of action. There are some limits on freedom of expression grounded in the preamble cited above as being “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” We have relied on this to outlaw hate speech, but this still gives people considerable latitude.
People who engage in this type of debate need to be held responsible for the hate that they create
Except in extreme cases, it is probably wise not to take legal action against people who engage in this type of debate. This only creates martyrs and allows these people to claim that they are being forcibly silenced.
I have always believed that everyone is entitled to respect, and my default assumption is to respect everyone I come in contact with. However, respect is not automatic; it must be earned. As I get to know someone, I give them respect they deserve.
This brings us back to my earlier point about making arguments based on policy issues and not personal factors. If people make policy arguments that I disagree with, I can and should engage them in debate and try to explain why my view is superior. In turn, I must accept that they will likely respond in kind and that sort of exchange could well result in an improvement in the policy under discussion. I have a great deal of respect for someone who engages in this style of debate, even if I disagree with their position.
Unfortunately, this is not always the way debate proceeds. Social media gives everyone who has access to a computer a voice. Some people use that voice to attack others on personal grounds such as gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, or whatever. These people should be given the respect that deserve, which is none.
People who engage in this type of rhetoric need to be held responsible for the hate that they create. Responsible members of society should ostracize people who engage in these tactics and make it clear to the protagonists themselves and anyone who might be drawn to them that they will not earn respect from others. I recognize that simply ignoring these attacks is small compensation for the people who are the victims of these attacks, but these “shock jocks” glory in the attention that they receive. When their oxygen is cut off, they will become tired of wandering in the wilderness (to mix several metaphors).
When people who hold respected elective offices engage with these irresponsible people, they are giving these shock jocks the credibility and the oxygen that they need to survive. It is reminiscent of what former President Lyndon Johnson supposedly said about wrestling a pig: You both end up dirty, and the pig enjoys it.
As a society, we are just learning how to deal with social media. It would be good to establish a culture that delights in debate around statements that begin with phrases like, “My policy idea is better than yours because . . . ,” and avoids destructive and irrelevant arguments based on personal attacks. ◆
David Siegel is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Brock University.