How much hate should we tolerate?

If you read the news in whatever format you prefer you cannot escape the reality that there are a lot of hateful people out there. Online (so-called Internet shaming), offline, it doesn’t matter.  Some people just get off on spewing venom and trying to get  a rise out of everyone else.

We know of course that terrorist groups like Islamic State are really good at spreading hate.  Hell, IS even told us in a recent edition of their e-zine Dabiq WHY they hate us.  At least we now know I suppose.

In the face of this very open and very dangerous campaign we expect our governments to take these messages down before they can poison more minds.  I have not seen a lot of hue and cry about how IS engages in freedom of speech and should be allowed to continue to saturate the Internet with their brand of invective.

So, what should a society do about an equally potentially dangerous type of hatred distributed in our midst?  Great question and one that came up in Edmonton recently.  The so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its ?leader? Pamela Geller, who by the way says that US President Barack Obama is a Muslim and, wait for it, the “secret love child” of Malcolm X, wanted to put ads on city buses that said, in part, “is there a fatwa on your head?”.  The group had lobbied successfully to do so in New York but an Alberta judge says that they do not have the right to do so in his province.

What?  Is this another example of the nanny state telling us what we can and cannot do?  Why shouldn’t an individual or a group have the right to express an opinion, no matter how much it might offend?  Haven’t Canadians fought and died to protect these freedoms against states – i.e. Nazi Germany – that would take away our rights?

On the other hand what is hate?  Is it in the eye of the beholder?  Can the state act as arbiter and does it have the ability to decide what is offensive?

These are all good, and very difficult, questions.  I am not a fan of “slippery slope” argumentation and am loath to enter into it here, but one example might suffice.

Would it have been ok for a right wing group to buy advertising space on an Edmonton bus saying something along the lines of “the Holocaust was fake”, or perhaps of more sting in Western Canada “the Holodomor didn’t happen” (a reference to Stalin’s policy of mass collectivisation in Ukraine in the 1930s that caused the death by starvation of tens of millions)?  Hmm, interesting question eh?

On the other hand I am against the trend in “trigger warnings” that seem to be all the rage these days.  These are well-intended but unnecessary attempts to prepare students in universities for material they are about to discuss in class which may contain bits that offend (scenes of slavery or sexual assault in literature for example).  We really need to stop coddling our citizens and allow debate and critical thinking skills to develop, don’t we?

In the end I am torn.  I am pretty sure that were someone to try to put an image from an IS beheading video on the side of a bus there would be universal condemnation – as there should be.  But is what the AFDI is doing qualitatively different?

To my mind what that organisation is trying to achieve is not debate and not legitimate challenge but rather shallow bigotry and ignorance.  Yet, as noted above, I am not comfortable rejecting it solely on the grounds that the ad MIGHT lead some loser to then firebomb a mosque or assault a woman in a hijab.

What if we looked at this as an opportunity to educate?  We will always have idiots and bigots in our midst – and I put Pamela Geller squarely in both camps – but rather than banish them from the public stage why not allow them to demonstrate their bile so it can be seen for the garbage it is?  It is often said that the best way to beat the darkness is to shed a little light.  I am confident that the glare of attention and reason will defeat the juvenile words of the Gellers of this world.

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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