A small victory in the war against violent hate or a slippery slope to censorship?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on September 9, 2019.

We all believe that hate is on the rise. Whether it is statements made (and later denied) by presidents who shall remain nameless or an apparent increase in marches and public displays of anger by groups of (largely) white men who seem to be against just about anything (immigration, LGBTQ, Justin Trudeau…) it is hard to avoid seeing and hearing intolerance everywhere. Not very Canadian, eh?

Responses to this burgeoning bile are not so easy to propose. Those who advocate shutting down Web sites or removing offensive posts often fail to realise that doing so merely displaces the material elsewhere in an ongoing game of online ‘Whack-a-mole’. While it is true that taking away some stuff may impinge on its impact and reach it is far from obvious that it actually works. A recent study published in Nature used an excellent analogy when it stated that “hate spreads online like a diseased flea, jumping from one body to the next.”

Doing nothing, however, is not an option. Left unchecked, hate can metastasise into violence and even terrorism, as we saw in Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh and Barcelona. Hate knows no bounds and any ideology – jihadi, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and other -isms – is capable of justifying killing the Other.

A recent court decision in Toronto illustrates one possible way to limit a hate-filled Web site. The editor of a virulently bigoted and misogynistic Canadian publication, Your Ward News, has been sentenced to a year in prison for promoting hate. As hard as this may be to swallow, James Sears’ ‘newpaper’ featured articles which glorified Hitler and celebrated the past persecution of the Jews, whom they portrayed as having Satanic horns and drinking the blood of children, and the court found as well an ‘intense ire’ towards women, portrayed as lesser than men. I listened to a CBC recording on As It Happens the day the verdict was announced and it was clear that those who fought for this penalty were relieved.

One less venomous platform should be celebrated – or should it?

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee doesn’t think so. He saw the court decision as “using the criminal law to crack down on troublesome and even obnoxious views…the wrong response. It hands governments a cudgel they can easily misuse. It gives cranks and trolls the spotlight they crave… it threatens the free and unrestrained exchange of ideas that helps societies progress.” Mr. Gee believes that “one way to fight the haters is to argue back, denouncing their slurs and combatting their falsehoods.” Or to turn away.

Given these two widely separated suggestions what should we do? Complicating all this is our inability to easily define hate. The Canadian Criminal Code (section 319 ) states that it is an offence for anyone to communicate “statements in any public place, (and who thus) incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace..” But what does ‘incite hate’ mean? Does it have to actually lead to violence against the identified group? Where is that line?

Is hate in the eye/ear of the beholder? Are we destined to adopt Judge Potter’s unhelpful definition of pornography (“I know it when I see it”)? Should we just follow the US lead where that nation’s First Amendement protects pretty much everything? I am not so sure Canadians would be ok with that.

We do not have a lot of time to ponder this challenge. We will see more acts of terrorist violence that grew out of hateful views. We talk a lot about countering violent extremism and getting in at the earliest stage of extremist thought is probably the only, but not necessarily successful, way to nip these actions in the bud. Where and when we choose to intervene once intolerance makes an appearance is the tougher part.

This column strikes me as a very unsatisfactory one. I do not have answers to what is at its core a very complicated question. I wish I did.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.  His latest book, When Religions Kill, will be published by Lynne Rienner in December.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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