The (messy) ethics of freedom of speech

A few days ago, I took part in a very interesting panel discussion on the issue of free speech. The panel was prompted by the tragic events that took place in Paris a couple of weeks ago. One of the most interesting aspects of the panel was that despite our disagreements, none of the participants actually thought that the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo actually raise any particularly interesting issues to do with freedom of speech as it is usually understood. As far as I am able to tell, hardly anyone thinks that the cartoons that the satiric magazine has published over the years warrant censorship. Even commentators who believe that there are cases in which the state appropriately steps in to limit freedom of speech – cases in which speech promotes hatred toward an entire group, for example — acknowledged that Charlie Hebdo steered clear of the line separating ridicule directed at religion, religious symbols and religious beliefs on the one hand, and contempt or hatred directed at a group of people, on the other.… Continue reading

How to close down a discussion (before it starts)

I must say, I had been looking forward to the release of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. Not so much because I expect to agree with that much of it – if she hasn’t changed her mind about anything since her article in The Nation a while back, then I know that I disagree with much of what she has to say on the topic of climate change. But I’ve been mentally pencilling into my schedule time to read it, and then write something in response to it.

The reason I find it worthwhile to engage with Klein’s work is that the views she articulates are often widely shared on the left, but are usually the sort of thing that you hear people say – like things I hear from my students – but that you don’t often find written down anywhere. So whenever she puts these ideas down on paper, it offers a good opportunity for discussion and debate (and for me, an opportunity to point out what I think is wrong with a lot of conventional wisdom of the left).… Continue reading

Maximes pour le blogueur contemporain

Dans la quantité monstrueuse de mémoires, thèses, manuscrits et autres travaux universitaires que je dois évaluer cet été, je suis retombé sur les célèbres maximes de Grice pour une « conversation coopérative ». Je n’ai pu m’empêcher de penser que le blogueur contemporain aurait tout intérêt à respecter lesdites maximes, du moins si son but est de contribuer à améliorer la qualité de notre conversation démocratique. Le blogueur dont le but est strictement de raisonner de façon stratégique, de marquer des points, de caricaturer la position de ses adversaires idéologiques, et ainsi de suite n’a que faire des ces normes communicatives.

Paul Grice a été l’un des philosophes du langage les plus influents dans l’univers philosophique anglo-américain du XXe siècle. L’histoire s’en souviendra entre autres pour son « principe de coopération conversationnelle » et les maximes qui en découlent. Ce principe doit idéalement gouverner les discussions visant la coopération entre les locuteurs.… Continue reading

On political lying

Like many commentators, I’ve been complaining a lot about the so-called “post truth” political environment. In response, some people have been trying to enlist my support for a “truth in politics” act. The idea is pretty simple. Why not make lying illegal? Why not punish politicians for saying one thing while campaigning, then doing another?

This is something that Democracy Watch has been pushing for a long time. Perhaps the highest-profile supporter of the idea is Andrew Coyne (e.g. here), which I find in some ways rather surprising.

I do not support this idea, because I think the issue is far too complicated to be dealt with legislatively. Just to pick an obvious point, there is an important difference between telling a lie and breaking a promise, which the concept of “honesty” unfortunately obscures. I would support narrower, more targeted legislation, dealing for instance with the problem of misrepresentation in political advertising.… Continue reading

I’m Not A Real Journalist But I Play One On TV

On Sunday evening I watched 60 Minutes. One of the pieces featured the Canadian journalist Morley Safer examining new ‘drone’ technology that permits remotely controlled model aircraft to fly around neighborhoods with digital cameras. The episode was not exactly hard hitting journalism but it did raise some issues about technology and privacy. Soft as the piece was, I assumed that Safer was presenting a news story and not a piece of fictional entertainment.

Then I turned on the Netflix series House of Cards and who did I see? Morley Safer playing himself as a hard-hitting journalist from 60 Minutes pressing a fictional Vice-President of the United States about an alleged political scandal. Safer is not the only journalist who has had a cameo appearance on House of Cards. Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News, Ashleigh Banfield, CNN, Candy, Crowley, CNN, Sean Hannity, Fox News, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, Chris Matthews, MSNBC, Chris Hayes, MSNBC, Morris Jones, ABC 7, Julianna Goldman, Bloomberg News, Major Garrett, CBS News and Scott Thuman, ABC 7 have all ‘played themselves’ on the hit show.… Continue reading

Independent Oversight for the Canada Border Services Agency

A week ago the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers joined together to call for independent oversight of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The press conference was well attended, and the mainstream press ran a series of pretty good stories about it. But almost no one reported on the CBSA horror stories that those of us involved the conference thought would get the most attention.

I am still wondering about this. I just can’t bring myself to conclude that the mainstream press in Canada is not interested in salacious detail.

Here are some of the things that did not get noted in the dozen or so stories that followed the press conference:

  1. A CBSA officer handcuffed a man who had voluntarily attended a meeting and told him that during his deportation flight if he caused trouble he would be forcibly put into a diaper.
Continue reading