Freedom demands acceptance of good and bad
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.