Security and dignity, new pretexts for censorship

January 17, 2023

Patrick Moreau is a professor of literature in Montreal, editor-in-chief of the journal Argument and essayist. His publications include “Ces mots qui pensent à notre place” (These words that think for usLiber, 2017) and “La prose d’Alain Grandbois, ou lire et relire Les voyages de Marco Polo” (Nota bene, 2019).

Le Devoir, January 14th, 2023

If I assert that the Earth is round, and then state a number of things that I believe to be proof of this roundness, I am in no way threatening the safety of those who firmly believe that it is flat, nor am I attacking their dignity. Similarly, to say that dinosaurs existed is a statement of fact, not a Christianophobic attack on those who practice a literal reading of the Bible and therefore consider that the dinosaurs in question could never have walked the earth in the Jurassic or Cretaceous periods, since the earth was created, according to them, only a little over 6000 years ago.

To equate any speech contrary to one’s thesis with aggression opens the door to the most extensive censorship possible. Yet this view is becoming more and more widespread today. It justifies the banning of certain words, whatever the context; it justifies the opposition to speakers or the heckling that is organized to prevent them from expressing their point of view, such as the transgender activists who want to prevent Professor Robert Wintemute from giving a lecture at McGill University, alleging that this English human rights specialist is peddling “hateful and trans-phobic statements” that are detrimental to their “safety” and “dignity”.

Such a confusion between violence and counter-arguments is the poisoned fruit of a double phenomenon whose effects are unfortunately still being measured: on the one hand, a relativism that sets up as an absolute principle the fact that everyone has the right to his or her ideas (a fact that is, moreover, indisputable, provided that it says nothing about the truth of these ideas); on the other hand, a therapeutic approach to social life, which, by confusing aggression with microaggression and by psychiatrizing any discomfort or discomfort, assimilated to a trauma, that comments may cause in certain individuals, tends to make the expression of all but the most trivial disagreements intolerable, or even criminalized (by assimilating them to “hateful comments” forbidden by law)

In order to counter this drift, we must learn or relearn to distinguish between what is simple disagreement, and therefore the most legitimate freedom of expression, and what is “hate speech”, which is prohibited by law. Neither the university nor society as a whole is a “safe space” where everyone is protected from anything that might offend them, nor should it become one.

This is not to say, of course, that gratuitous offenses or public insults should be legitimized, but an issue such as the definition of what it means to be a woman or a man is clearly a matter of public interest and of concern to the whole of society. Like so many other issues, it should not be left to lobbies that try to suppress all debate in order to put their own particular interests ahead of the general interest.

The communitarian narcissism that is currently triumphant hijacks the generous ideas of tolerance, respect and individual dignity that are at the heart of the ideals of democracy. But this diversion comes at the expense of these ideals and puts democracy at risk. For, contrary to what one might think, the relativism that stems from such communitarianism does not lead to greater tolerance and respect for others, but to the enclosure of each individual in a reassuring “between ourselves” and, at best, to widespread indifference towards others, i.e. one’s fellow citizens, and at worst, to a war of all against all.

A latent war

Encouraged in particular by social networks, but also by a loss of both intellectual and moral reference points, this latent war then leads to speeches that are, for real, intolerable. To write, as Sandro Grande did on Twitter, following the 2012 shooting at Metropolis: “The only mistake the shooter made last night was missing his target! Marois* !!! Next time, my man! I hope!” This sounds a lot like “hate speech” under the law.

Publicly hoping for someone’s death and calling for a “next time” is clearly incitement to murder. And I wonder why no complaint was filed against this individual at the time and how he was able to continue his soccer coaching career as if nothing had happened. Would he have had the same career over the last ten years if he had publicly rejoiced in a feminicide or the attack on the Quebec City mosque?

Beyond the double standards that are quite obvious in this case, we can also think that the repeated denunciation of so-called “hate speech” goes hand in hand with a weakening of society that allows everyone to wish for the death (real or symbolic) of adversaries who are now considered enemies. By constantly crying wolf, we lose not only our sense of nuance and distinction, but also our sense of what is tolerable and intolerable.

Translated by DeepL, validated by Michel Virard

*(TN) In 2012 Pauline Marois was elected and became the first female Prime Minister of Quebec. She barely escaped a murder attempt the very night of her election while celebrating at the Montreal famous Metropolis concert hall. More here

Michel Virard