Janet Keeping's false moral equivalence
I have to say I was surprised by Janet Keeping's latest Op-Ed in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and in a few other newspapers. Keeping is the boss of the Sheldon Chumir Ethics Foundation, and she has been one of Alberta's leading advocates to repeal the "hate speech" provision of that province's human rights act -- the provision under which I was charged.
Keeping has been an excellent ally, in part due to her impeccable liberal credentials. She was even kind enough to invite me to speak at a conference last year in Halifax, on censorship and the media. We had a chance to chat a bit that day, and she impressed me deeply, especially when she said she always visits the museum in which the Magna Carta is displayed in London, England. I bet you Jennifer Lynch, the chief commissar of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, hasn't even read that document, and if she did, she'd regard it as some bigoted "dead white man's law".
The precise title of that Halifax conference was actually about the media's "right to offend". I don't think that I or any of the other presenters actually got around to dealing with "should" the media be obnoxious -- we were all talking about the media's right to be obnoxious -- that is, the immorality of the government being the arbiter of obnoxiousness. I think we were all focused on the present peril -- censorship -- so we didn't have a debate on rudeness and its remedies, a debate which is a luxury in a time of censorship.
As I have argued before, obnoxiousness (or offensiveness, to use a term preferred by HRCs) is something that the free market deals with almost instantly. First off, the marketplace of ideas is far less politically correct than government bureaucrats -- and certainly less so than the media. When the Western Standard published the Danish cartoons of Mohammed back in February of 2006, the media went into Michael Jackson mode. Our readers? Not so much. They loved it. Going from memory, we had over 1,200 new subscriptions, and only a few dozen cancellations, all of which happened before people actually received the magazine. In other words, those objectors thought the cartoons were so outrageous and so pornographic before they even read it -- that's what the media frenzy led them to believe -- so they quit the magazine pre-emptively.
People are interested in controversy. That's part of what makes news newsy. They're interested in the weather and tasty recipes too, of course. But they want to know about the clash of ideas. A degree of offensiveness -- that is, ideas that offend other ideas, other dogmas -- is one definition of news, and certainly it's the definition of politics. It's also the definition of "progressive" ideas -- ideas that naturally replace, challenge or offend the status quo. Liberal ideas like equality for minorities were naturally obnoxious, rude and offensive to the status quo -- that was the point, they wanted to change things.
The free market of ideas approved of our publication of the cartoons, overwhelmingly. And, if it didn't, we would have paid a quick and just price: the loss of subscribers and advertisers, perhaps the quitting of staff, and, as a result, my termination as publisher at the hands of our shareholders and directors. All of which would have happened without the intervention of the state (and a lot quicker than the 900-day proseuction by the Alberta HRC).
But back to Janet Keeping's article. She briefly mentions the HRC debate, but then says this:
...It's not ethically OK to be obnoxious.
...Rule No. 1: It is nearly always wrong to personally attack those who hold opinions different from yours. When done deliberately, attacking your opponents instead of their views is dishonest because it purports to be about one thing -- the public policy in question -- but is actually about something else, the destruction of your opponents' credibility or integrity. It can also be self-defeating. When seen for what it is -- basically, character assassination -- it can undermine whatever validity there is in your policy position.
Regardless, the strategy is often employed, most notoriously at present, by Ezra Levant, lawyer, writer and blogger on human rights commission issues, in his campaign against Jennifer Lynch, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Here is a small sampling of the things Levant has written recently about her: "Jennifer Lynch is a damned liar" and "an execrable woman," he has said. "What an odious woman. When she accosted me ... I didn't recognize her ... She is much more haggard and old than her ancient publicity picture."
This kind of personal attack, while not illegal unless false and thus defamatory (which some of this stuff might be), violates the ethics of debate because it targets a person, not the policy under scrutiny -- whether the Canadian Human Rights Commission should have the power to regulate speech. And while Levant's comments, taken cumulatively, may be intimidating, they have literally nothing to do with the law reform issue at hand.
...And it is no answer to claim that some human rights commission officials carry out their duties in an oppressive, even harassing, manner. If true, this should be remedied, but not through reverse bullying: Just as our mothers told us, two wrongs really don't make a right.
I was surprised by this letter. Here is a brief response I had in the Star-Phoenix today:
In Personal attacks have no place in ethical debate (SP, July 30), Janet Keeping writes that I was unethical to call Jennifer Lynch, the head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, a "damned liar."
But Keeping left out something important: I have, in fact, caught Lynch in a damnable lie. On July 11, she told the National Post that her staff members have never published hateful comments on neo-Nazi websites. But that's not true, as Lynch knows.
At a March 25, 2008, hearing and elsewhere, her staff confessed under oath to making countless hateful remarks, including calling Jews "scum," gays a "cancer" on society and for white police to discriminate against blacks and be loyal to "their race."
Dean Steacy, who works for Lynch, even testified that he and six other CHRC employees have memberships in neo-Nazi organizations like Stormfront. Just to be clear here: These are people who are supposed to be fighting against Nazis.
It might be unethical to call her a damned liar if she hadn't lied. It might be unethical to call her "execrable" if she were lying about a trifle, instead of covering up a systemic corruption of human rights.
Keeping also writes that it was unethical of me to note that, when I bumped into Lynch on Parliament Hill, she looked haggard. If I had seven Nazi members working for me, and had been investigated by the RCMP, the Privacy Commissioner and Parliament all in the last year, I'd look pretty haggard, too.
For me, exposing bigotry within our government is a higher ethical calling than staying silent so I don't hurt some politician's feelings.
The first thing that surprised me about Keeping's letter was its false moral equivalence. She equates me using critical words on my blog to the corrupt and abusive prosecutions engaged in, in violation of our Constitutional rights and the rule of law, by Jennifer Lynch.
No; actually she doesn't even equate them, for if she equated them, she'd give equal criticism to Lynch's abuses. She criticizes only my words, and actually calls them bullying and intimidating -- but remains silent on Lynch's false prosecutions, entrapment, and the neo-Nazi memberships of seven of Lynch's employees.
My noisy objections as a victim are more offensive to Keeping than Lynch's violations of civil liberties, using the machinery of the state.
That's just weird and it's not very liberal. I think sometimes people are tempted to take a shot at me -- to blame the victim -- because I don't really fit the profile of what the left thinks a victim should look like or act like. I haven't decided to roll over and take a beating. I'm fighting back -- speaking truth to power, as a lefty would say. Keeping doesn't like the fact that I used obscure words like "odious" and "execrable", I guess.
It's also weird to say that critical words are "intimidating". Huh? I know what intimidating means. It sounds like this: "if you keep publishing those cartoons, I'm going to prosecute you" or "I have a staff of 200 bureaucrats who will hunt you down using unethical behaviour, will prosecute you, and even if you win, you'll be financially destroyed".
That's what intimidation sounds like. Mere disagreement and criticism isn't intimidating, at least to people who have graduated from grade school.
But there's a much bigger point here. Jennifer Lynch is a politician. She's a very visible public personality, who has voluntarily decided to enter the public fray even moreso than her position would normally entail. She has engaged pollsters like EKOS and spin doctors like Hill and Knowlton to help craft her public campaign. She has created public spectacles, like her backfiring retainer of Prof. Richard Moon, and her latest unsolicited memo to Parliament. She has courted controversy, and done a media tour. She is not a private person; and she is not merely a bureaucrat. She is a crusading censor, who actually demands that Canada remove truth as a legal defence to the criminal prosecution of hate speech.
But yet, when someone merely criticizes her, she whines "intimidation" and "bullying".
But it's worse still. Keeping particularly doesn't like my use of the phrase "damned liar" to describe Lynch. Now, I agree, if I was merely using "damned liar" as an insult without any basis, it would be questionable, though the damage would be chiefly to my own credibility. But I called Lynch a damned liar after painstaking, meticulous research, including reading many pages of Canadian Human Rights Tribunal transcripts (including a transcript, for example, that the CHRC tried to suppress, and then tried to redact). Oh, and the CHRC tried to close that hearing to the media, too.
I called Jennifer Lynch a damned liar because she is a damned liar: she publicly denied that the CHRC staff join neo-Nazi groups and publish hundreds of bigoted comments online. But they do, and they admit to it. Only Lynch is still lying, to cover it up.
(She has also told other lies, including that the police have exonerated her staff's hacking of a private citizen's Internet account. They haven't -- they call the case "unsolved", though the CHRC are their only suspects.)
I called Lynch a damned liar because she is a damned liar. And she's lying about her outrageous conduct, done in the name of the government and the Queen.
Keeping is silent about those details -- fair enough, she hasn't bothered to educate herself about the foul deeds of the CHRC. But that's almost worse: if Keeping doesn't know the facts about the CHRC's Nazi conduct and Lynch's cover-up of them, why does she call my labeling of Lynch a liar to be unethical?
Is it really unethical to call out a politician who is lying? Is Keeping's lust for politeness so predominant that she believes we should subordinate other values like political accountability?
Really? Does Keeping think no-one should call Stephen Harper a liar? Or Ed Stelmach? Or George W. Bush? Or Richard M. Nixon? Is that unethical, too? If not, then why should Lynch get a pass?
I don't think Keeping is serious. What I think happened is what I know Lynch is doing to anyone who will listen to her. She's done trying to argue this thing on the facts -- she knows she's losing, she's been found out, using her own CHRC documents. She's done trying to argue this thing on principle -- she knows censorship is un-Canadian, and she comes across as a North Korean or Soviet buffoon.
Those aren't working for Lynch. So she's whining like a schoolboy.
Could you imagine a great woman leader like Margaret Thatcher, or Golda Meir, or Indira Gandhi, whining that the boys were being too mean to her -- because they called her a "liar"? I mean, seriously: is this woman ready for prime time, or should she go back to being Joe Clark's aide?
What an embarrassment to feminists: when the going gets tough, Lynch calls up the media -- and even her critics -- and just whines about how hard it is to cut it in the big time.
To my surprise, Keeping bought it. Out of sympathy for Lynch -- a tired, old, haggard socialist who just can't cut it in the big leagues -- Keeping replaced logic and principle with pity.
Oh, by the way: Lynch does look haggard. I was shocked when I saw her on Parliament Hill. I knew what her PR photo looked like, and the woman who presented to me was not the same as in that photo. Either she was using a very old photo or she has aged a hell of a lot in the two years.
Now, for anyone else in public life, or anyone who has ever run in a campaign, their personal appearance, including their energy level, confidence, grace under pressure, etc. -- is highly newsworthy and relevant. If a "leader" can't hack it, and starts to fall apart under stress, maybe she ought to stay out of the big leagues. If a leader won't take responsibility for her own staff, and engages in cover-ups, and then just abject begging for mercy, does that person truly have a place in a position that requires a strong personal constitution, a strong sense of right and wrong, and a strong sense of accountability to the public?
As I wrote in the Star-Phoenix, Keeping asks me to put politeness ahead of holding Lynch to public account.
Lynch didn't create all the problems at the CHRC. But when she discovered them, her reflex wasn't to root it out and fix things, but to cover it up. Her reflex in the face of public criticism hasn't been self-reflection and self-assessment, but lashing out and creating her 1,200-item enemies list. And her reflex in the face of losing the argument is to, well, do the grown-up equivalent of crying: saying it's just not fair to have to answer "bullies" who "intimidate" her by calling her a liar, even when she is a damned liar.
The damned liar should be fired -- and Keeping does Lynch, all professional women, and civil liberties, no favours by lowering the ethical bar on Lynch out of pity.
It's Jennifer Lynch who is deeply unethical, who presides over a coven of Internet Nazis and Internet hackers, and who is a human rights destroyer who doesn't even believe free speech is a Canadian concept. For Janet Keeping to make excuses for Lynch is out of character for Keeping, who knows and loves civil liberties, and should know better than enabling Canada's chief infringer of those liberties.