Free­dom de­mands ac­cep­tance of good and bad

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Jim Vib­ert Jim Vib­ert, a jour­nal­ist and writer for longer than he cares to ad­mit, con­sulted or worked for five Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ments. He now keeps a close and crit­i­cal eye on pro­vin­cial and re­gional pow­ers.

An un­apolo­getic op­po­nent of cen­sor­ship, I’m con­flicted these days by the reach and in­flu­ence of the dan­ger­ous de­cep­tions and ma­li­cious lies that con­tam­i­nate mal­leable and pre­dis­posed minds.

Some sources at­tribute the quote to Lenin, oth­ers to Goebbels, re­gard­less both be­lieved that a “lie told of­ten enough be­comes the truth.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler pur­port­edly coined and in­dis­putably de­fined the “big lie” as one so “colos­sal” that it is ac­cepted be­cause no one could “dis­tort the truth so in­fa­mously.”

The fa­nat­i­cal Fuhrer came to mind last fall when some gullible gomer stormed a pizza joint in DC, af­ter his daily bile con­vinced him that the true pur­pose of the place was to front Hil­lary Clin­ton’s child sex ring.

This while Face­book, that re­li­able con­necter of friends sep­a­rated or vaguely re­called, joy­fully con­verted rubles to green­backs as their cher­ished plat­form ex­pertly tar­geted ma­lig­nant mes­sages to au­di­ences that fall in the “pre­dis­posed” cat­e­gory.

The power and reach of the in­ter­net is light years be­yond any so­cial con­struct to mod­er­ate or ame­lio­rate its toxic ef­fects. The vex­ing ques­tion is, should we even try?

The in­ter­net of­fers a vast store­house of aca­demic and his­tor­i­cal bril­liance; a ware­house of the great works of rock, blues, coun­try and lesser gen­res, to name but a few fa­vorite places.

It hosts a near equal vol­ume of un­mit­i­gated tripe and hos­til­ity so lowly as to re­quire a fire lad­der just to glimpse the bootheels of the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.

Therein lies the con­flict of the free speech ad­vo­cate.

Civ­i­lized so­ci­ety has de­cided that free­dom of ex­pres­sion does not ex­tend to that which is in­tended to arouse or ex­cite hate. A rea­son­able limit.

Ex­pres­sion whose sole pur­pose is to in­flict harm, while re­pug­nant, is dif­fi­cult to de­fine and there­fore harder to cor­ral. Hate speech is not pro­tected by the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms, but the courts have ex­tended le­gal pro­tec­tion to most all other forms of ex­pres­sion.

As a re­sult, the Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment is try­ing to pro­tect vic­tims of cy­ber-bul­ly­ing through ex­ten­sion of civil law. (Crim­i­nal law is within fed­eral purview). It’s a le­git­i­mate, good faith ef­fort to re­cover from the pro­vin­cial Supreme Court’s re­jec­tion, as a vi­o­la­tion of Char­ter rights, the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment’s more far-reach­ing law.

Some, par­tic­u­larly those who have been harmed or whose chil­dren have been in­jured, even ha­rassed to death by on­line bul­lies – “bul­lies” is in­suf­fi­cient to the of­fense – may see the pro­vin­cial law as in­ad­e­quate. It is. But it is also the vi­able op­tion left to the gov­ern­ment.

The bill would trig­ger var­i­ous reme­dies for vic­tims of on­line ma­te­rial distributed with ma­li­cious in­tent or by reck­less be­hav­iour.

The pro­vin­cial bill il­lu­mi­nates the strug­gle civil so­ci­ety faces, first just in try­ing to catch up to tech­nol­ogy that’s ex­plod­ing at a rate be­yond the abil­ity of creaky old in­sti­tu­tions to re­act; and sec­ond to come to grips with the na­ture and ubiq­uity of the new me­dia.

In­evitably, the de­bate lands on the cor­rup­tion of this most pow­er­ful tool.

Tit­il­lat­ing gos­sip lack­ing foun­da­tion, ir­re­spon­si­ble spec­u­la­tion, and out­right lies flour­ish and fly be­yond the wa­ter cooler and, with a key stroke, to bil­lions of hu­mans who are as per­ni­cious as pure.

The cloak of anonymity turns in­sult to abuse, “news” sites mo­ti­vated by mal­ice and dogma are free to trade in out­right lies, and the prop­a­ga­tion of dan­ger­ous delu­sions are all be­yond the reach of civil con­tain­ment.

As they must be.

The ex­ten­sion of the first amend­ment in Amer­ica and Char­ter rights in Canada were not ex­pres­sions of faith in those who ex­er­cise those rights. The au­thors of those pro­tec­tions did not limit ex­pres­sion to ver­i­fi­able or le­git­i­mate. Pub­lic rights take the bad with the good be­cause that is the char­ac­ter of the pub­lic.

The pro­po­nents of free ex­pres­sion, then as now, placed their faith in the wis­dom of the peo­ple, most of whom, by virtue of lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion, would ex­er­cise dis­cern­ing judg­ment.

By many in­di­ca­tors, there is a fail­ure in that re­gard, more vis­i­ble in Amer­ica but present in Canada. There may be a flimsy ex­cuse for me­dia il­lit­er­acy among gen­er­a­tions whose ed­u­ca­tion pre­ceded the ad­vent of the in­ter­net.

And, the first gen­er­a­tion to grow up on the web, now of age, seems to have nat­u­rally ac­quired in­oc­u­la­tion from gulli­bil­ity.

But the breadth of in­ter­net con­tent merely re­flects that of hu­man na­ture. So, un­til and un­less there is an un­ex­pected evo­lu­tion in the lat­ter, we have to live with the for­mer.

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