In this occasional feature, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue that is important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.
In October of 2006, Maclean’s magazine published an excerpt from writer Mark Steyn’s book, America Alone, which argued that demographics and the failures of liberal society were inevitably leading to the Islamization of Europe. Subsequently a group of Muslim students brought a case before the Ontario Human Rights Commission (chaired by Barbara Hall), claiming that the article was racist. The Commission dismissed the complaint, saying print was out of their jurisdiction, but used the opportunity to lambaste Steyn and Maclean’s in an official statement that supported the assertion of racism. Since then there has been considerable debate over the appropriateness of the OHRC statement.
Were the Commission’s comments justified? Read on as Torontoist wades into the controversy.
Maclean’s threw a predictable snit-fit over Barbara Hall’s remarks. This is quite possibly the best evidence that Hall’s remarks were perfectly
Let’s be clear: the complaint to the OHRC was misguided at best. The excerpt from Mark Steyn’s book America Alone was most certainly not hate speech. Maclean’s is correct to assert that s.13 (1) of the Canadian Human Rights Act has been expanded in an overly broad manner since the rise of the Internet and its importance in legislation and jurisprudence, and that as currently worded, it potentially infringes upon Canadians’ freedom of expression rights, and greatly. Finally, Hall’s statement was an unusual and likely attention-seeking step for the commissioner of the OHRC to take.
None of which actually has anything to do with Maclean’s whining. Maclean’s, and Steyn, and Rex Murphy, and the National Post, all echo the same complaint over and over again: how dare Hall say that Steyn’s piece was racist? (One sentence, incidentally, of the “four-page diatribe” about which they keep blathering.)
Well, how about because it was racist? Remember that the central argument of Steyn’s remarkably stupid book from whence the excerpt is taken is that Europe’s twenty-million Muslims will breed their way to 200 million in less than thirty years, and that this nonexistent demographic surge will sweep away White Europe (and Steyn’s book, and the excerpt, take care to always divide the demographics into White Europe and the Muslims).
Steyn knows how to avoid having his tripe be called hate speech, and his contempt for the necessities of polite discourse is evident when he trots out what he calls “the obligatory ‘of courses'”—of course all Muslims aren’t evil, it’s just that the non-evil ones give the evil ones cover! It’s insulting to our collective intelligence: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Racism.
And that’s fine. Part of living in a free society is that sometimes total shitheads like Mark Steyn, a guy who used artificially inflated Regnery book sales to claim one week’s residence on the New York Times best-seller list and who has never let his lack of anything resembling an education stop him from expounding ignorantly about any topic, get to say
stupid racist crap. Hate speech has rightfully high standards to meet, because it’s a crime and we should take infringement upon our freedom of expression very seriously indeed, and because simply being a bigot shouldn’t be a crime in and of itself.
None of that prevents Hall from pointing out that, hey, just because Steyn’s column isn’t hate speech doesn’t mean it’s not racist. The hand-fluttering from certain quarters of the media that Hall improperly issued judgement in a backhanded manner is insane. Have these people ever read jurisprudence? Judges condemn parties acting in an egregious manner all the time. Yes, even innocent parties, if said innocent parties are acting to deserve such a smackdown.
And the accusations of “stifling” speech? Really? Hall’s statement doesn’t seem to have stopped anybody from saying what they think about this issue and many others. Besides, there’s a simple rule of thumb for people who are worried about being accused of publishing bigotry: don’t publish bigotry.
Barbara Hall is self-important, yes. But she’s not wrong.
So what exactly did Barbara Hall and her band of merry zealots say about Steyn and Maclean’s, after acknowledging that the OHRC had no jurisdiction in the case? And was it ethical?
The Commission statement begins by stating, “Islamophobic attitudes are becoming more prevalent in society and Muslims are increasingly the target of intolerance.” This assertion, uncorroborated by evidence, is a quick jab to lead into the knockout punch, the equally unsupported declaration that Maclean’s is “contributing to Islamophobia and promoting societal intolerance towards Muslim, Arab and South Asian Canadians,” not to say guilty of “the dissemination of destructive, xenophobic opinions.” Really?
Steyn’s article is inflammatory, as intended, and it reflects a particular point of view. However, the validity of the central premise, that demographic shifts can and do result in societal changes, can be attested to by Canada’s First Nations peoples, among others.
While not complimentary to moderate Muslims, whom Steyn appears to consider broadly as “good Germans” tacitly abetting more bloodthirsty militant elements, neither is the piece racist, or religionist, or whatever the appropriate term is. Steyn clearly, if rather grudgingly, acknowledges that it makes no sense to tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush.
The code of ethics for Ontario Human Rights Commission states that “Commissioners shall be neutral and unbiased in their…decisions and judgments.” Their role isn’t to enforce their political and social views, but to uncover and mediate genuine cases of discrimination or other human rights violations. Deny me a job because of my religion? Human rights issue. Hurt my feelings by writing an article that presents elements of my religion in a negative light? Not a human rights issue.
And while it’s true that real judges, in real courts, have been known to hand a dressing-down even to innocent parties, that usually comes in the context of an enquiry or a trial. In this case, Hall has made her judgment without considering witnesses, evidence, intent, or any of the things we normally associate with jurisprudence.
Of course, a more quantifiable issue with the HRC assumption of guilt is that the Maclean’s case has yet to be heard before the British Columbia and Federal Humans Rights bodies. It’s here that we get into some deeply unprincipled behaviour—unable to convict the defendants due to what Hall and her minions appear to view as a technicality, they make no bones about signalling to the other commissions and the world at large what the outcome of the upcoming hearings should be.
Essentially what we have here is a standard spat between two pompous ideologues from opposite fringes of the political spectrum, except that in this case one of the parties has the seal of official approval stamped on her particular bias. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem. Hall is seeking to make the subject untouchable, and to do it by invoking the implied threat of governmental authority and expensive, time-consuming legal action.
I’ll leave the last words to Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, who said that for the Commission “to refer to Maclean’s magazine and journalists as contributing to racism is bullshit, if you can use that word.” Yes, Mr. Fatah, I think we can.
Illustration by Marc Lostracco.