Thursday, March 19, 2009

What are the limits to putting faith in freedom of speech?

Yesterday, B'nai Brith Canada released the following press release (received via email):
B'nai Brith Canada calls on Toronto police to investigate display of flags of all banned terrorist groups

TORONTO, March 18, 2009 - B'nai Brith Canada has called on Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to expand its investigation into the display of flags belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a banned terrorist group in Canada. The Jewish human rights organization has asked Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to include in his investigation the display of other terrorist flags, notably Hamas and Hezbollah, to determine whether Canada's anti-terrorism laws have been breached.

"We commend the Toronto Police for launching an investigation into the display of the flag of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist group outlawed in this country," said Frank Dimant, Executive Vice President of B'nai Brith Canada. "However, there have been many other instances of flags of other banned terrorist entities, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that have been in full public view at rallies, most recently early this year
during the period of the Gaza conflict. The appearance of the Hamas and Hezbollah flags at public rallies has often been accompanied by chants of 'Death to Jews'.

"We call on Chief Blair to expand his police investigation to include the display on our city streets of the Hamas and Hezbollah flags as well. We hope that other jurisdictions will also take similar action.

"The display of terrorist symbolism must be recognized as the promotion of a dangerous agenda of hatred and violence. Surely, the open promotion of such hatred runs counter to Canada's values of tolerance and respect for all people, and undermin
Today, Blazing Cat Fur was kind enough to forward me the following story:
Toronto, March 19 (IANS) Toronto police late Wednesday gave its clean chit to the use of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags by Tamil protesters at a rally here Monday.

Earlier, police had said they were investigating whether their action violated Canada’s new anti-terror laws.

A police spokesman said their lawyers found “nothing illegal” about the use of LTTE flags by the protesters. “The best advice that we have from our lawyers is that it does not contravene any law,” a spokesman was quoted as saying by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The LTTE flag features a tiger jumping through a ring of fire and two crossed rifles.

The current Conservative government banned the LTTE in 2006 for using suicide bombers and child soldiers in its goal for an independent homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils.

More than 50,000 Tamils had joined in a “human chain” in the heart of the city, urging Canada to lift its ban on the LTTE and seek support for an independent Tamil Eelam.

Justifying the use of the flag, Canadian Tamil Congress spokesman David Poopalapillai told IANS: “What we waved at the rally was the national flag of a future Tamil Eelam. It is not the flag of any organisation or the LTTE.”

He said: “Under the Canadian ban on the LTTE, one is (not) allowed to raise funds. But one is free to espouse any political cause in a peaceful manner. That’s what we did Monday in a peaceful manner.”

It is not the first time that protesters in Canada have waved the flags of banned organisations.

Supporters of Hezbollah and Hamas, which are also banned in Canada, have often waved their flags at protest rallies.

In fact, B’nai Brith, the national body of Canadian Jews, Wednesday urged the city police to expand its probe into the display of LTTE flags to include Hamas and Hezbollah.
It seems to me that it's for the best, right now, that the law distinguishes between funding terrorists and waving their flags, though I would argue the Tamil Tigers are not the same kind of terrorists as are Hamas or Hezbollah: the Tigers can still be taken somewhat seriously as a movement of national liberation that strives to build a viable state that will take responsibility for its people in the community of nation-states, that would one day, if successful, negotiate its existence along with Sri Lanka's. In contrast, I see neither Hamas or Hezbollah as really wanting a responsible Palestinian (or Lebanese) state that would negotiate with the realities of Israel's existence; rather they are fundamentally motivated by a desire to destroy Israel, and also to kill Jews wherever, according to some Utopian vision of a non-national world ruled by a renewed Caliphate and universal Sharia. In other words, those who wave the Hamas or Hezbollah flags are, to my mind, advocating genocide, not national liberation, and this, I believe, is how many Canadian Jews and others experience the sight of these flag wavers on our streets. It seems to me the Tamil Tigers, however evil, nonetheless indulge in suicide bombings for somewhat less Utopian or nihilistic reasons.

But such differences aside, I find B'nai Brith's position an interesting problem for us free speech advocates because in thinking how best to defend free speech I don't think we can have any general rules or principles that should be thought always to apply in all imaginable situations. And it's not a simple question of free speech needing to come to an end where incitement to violence (or fraud, libel) is happening, because how do you know where that line is: there are always degrees of incitement, or risk of violence, we have to weigh in allowing for free speech (keeping in mind that there is often a greater risk in not allowing for the mediation of tensions and resentments that free speech provides).

So it is a question of what kind of freedom can be tolerated in a given time or place, with a given assumption of risk, and thus of knowing what kind of time or place you're living in. I would imagine that when a once free nation becomes home to, say, ten or more percent of people who are committed Islamists, people who are committed to replacing the liberal constitution with Sharia law, you can't both seriously defend the existence of a free society and still admit the same freedom to wave genocidal terrorist flags, as you might have done when there was no serious threat of constitutional overthrow.

In other words, free speech may be the best way to keep a society open and to avoid conflicts stagnating and building up, with no ready way to release pressure, with none of the mediation and insight into reality that comes with free speech. In most times and places, free speech may well be the best way to avoid a social conflict ever leading a society towards civil war. But when constitutional overthrow or civil war is a clear enough possibility on the horizon, the tolerance for incitement, political or tactical organizing, and public provocations, inevitably will or should change to some degree.

In other words, the defense of free speech is not best done in abstract metaphysical language that attempts to build an all-purpose model of reality that can be applied in all times and places; rather our defense of freedom has to be tied to a way of thinking that is always modeling the reality in front of us, in the here and now. The cry of "free speech" must be tied to an understanding of the need forever to fight to maximize or reveal the yet untold uses of freedom, given that there will always be people who resent and try to limit human freedom because freedom threatens their model of reality.

What's more, while we have a high obligation to allow people freely to argue through the resentments and philosophies that have evolved within our own society - we need to allow ways to work through the conflicts that have evolved as part of our nation's history - I don't think we have the same need or obligation to import from other countries all manner of belief, especially in respect to people who would overthrow our constitutional system. I don't think the same degree of freedom of speech needs to be granted to imported revolutionary ideologies as we might grant to our home-grown would-be revolutionaries.

But to what degree, in this global village, are ideas or anyone really outside our system of democratic rule? There is now a single global economy and communications network; does that mean we are now a single global civilization? I think it probably does; but that still does not mean, it seems to me, that each and every nation has to entertain freedom for all ideologies that would overthrow the nation's constitution. It depends, not on some abstract principle, but on an ongoing engagement with reality and risk. The problem is that we live in an age when "risk" is often invoked by our control-freak elites to justify all kinds of unnecessary government strangling of our freedom. Unless we have a government that loves and respects our freedom, because it sees itself as representative of same, those of us fighting for a free society will tend to defend the freedom of all even at the risk of providing fertile ground for the kinds of Islamist movements that are actively suppressed by many states in the Islamic world. So, I think we need to learn about and dance through this reality with more than one possible move or idea in mind.

In any case, I am interested in what readers think of B'nai Brith's proposal.


Blazing Cat Fur said...

A flag is a statement, it is an individuals inalienable right to express his opinion. I am more comfortable with allowing Hamas supporters to identify themselves in public rather than have measures enacted that drive their allegiance underground. These measures, though well intenioned, may possibly furnish them an undeserved, and certainly ludicrous in the case of Hamas/Hezbollah supporters, sense of persecuted martyrdom.

Furthermore, the threat posed by Islamist terrorist supporters is real and present - best to keep them in plain sight.

Anonymous said...

I find it of significant interest that you so carefully parse this issue. Bnai Brith and the CJC have virtually the same position on these issues of free speech yet you let Bnai Brith get away with everything. Wonder why that would be?

Blazing Cat Fur said...

Yes Anon our secret can now be revealed, we are sworn to destroy the liar Bernie Farber - it is our solemn oath to Frank Dimant.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised by Bnai Brith's committment to censorship. They reiterated it afetr the Ahenakew verdict and again with this.

truepeers said...


I'm glad you find the writing careful, but the reason I focus on BB is quite simple: I'm on their press release email list and get no communications from CJC. If the CJC has a position on banning the terrorist flag, I don't know about it. In any case, my argument is not really about BB or CJC but my own thinking on how far I would go to give freedom to organized movements to overthrow freedom.

Bob Devine said...

I am with BCF on this. Let them rant and if they break an actual law let the cops deal with it or throw a pork chop at them or something. There is a lot less danger if they are not doing all their crap underground.