There should be a word for the phenomenon where an individual comes to mass public attention only when their reputations are imploding due to impolitic remarks on social media. Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor of the far-right Breitbart news, was just cresting his 15 minutes of fame as a flamboyant right-wing provocateur when he discovered that words can still get one in hot water. Only as his credibility, such as it was, flamed out did his name become anything close to a household word.
Likewise, a Canadian figure few of our readers had probably heard of until he melted down in an online video is Gavin McInnes. A comedian, online commentator, co-founder of Vice Magazine and – here’s that term again – right-wing provocateur, McInnes is also a contributor to Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media.
On a trip to Israel with other members of the Rebel outfit, McInnes posted a lengthy spiel about his reaction to a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance centre. He apparently felt the visit was an exercise in Jewish propaganda and declared that, far from making him sympathetic to Jewish history, it had the opposite effect.
The Israelis he met, he said, “assume we’re going to listen to all this s–t we get fed.… That’s having the reverse effect on me: I’m becoming antisemitic.”
He added: “I felt myself defending the super far-right Nazis just because I was sick of so much brainwashing.”
Israelis, he said, have “a whiny, paranoid fear of Nazis,” and “it’s a Jewish thing” to dwell on the past.
“This whole nation-state is talking about ‘Seventy-five years ago, my people were killed,’” McInnes said. “Always the Jews, always killing us, we are the scapegoats.… God, they’re so obsessed with the Holocaust. Yes, I know it was bad – don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro-Holocaust.”
He went on to accuse Jews of perpetrating the Holodomor, Stalin’s deliberate Ukrainian famine that killed between seven and 10 million people in the 1930s.
As McInnes was getting more than his share of attention, another Canadian was receiving a mixed reception from campus crowds in Ontario.
Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, gained some notoriety last fall when he posted video reflections on aspects of human rights law that he said could potentially infringe on free speech. Most notably, he refuses to use non-gendered pronouns (such as zhe, instead of he or she) in his classroom. Peterson is a critic of what he calls “compelled speech.”
Peterson is hardly as inflammatory as Yiannopoulos or McInnes. Agree or disagree, his positions are intellectually rooted and debatable, not beyond the pale of civil discourse. Yet he never really got a chance to speak at McMaster University because he was drowned out by a chanting group of students who shut down his event. That his message was one of free speech is an irony, though one apparently lost on some university students these days.
In any event, he was met with a far more amenable crowd the next day at the University of Western Ontario. According to media reports, even some who came to protest were pleasantly surprised to find themselves agreeing with Peterson once they heard what he had to say.
Regardless of what these men had to say, though, the idea that their ideas should be silenced, rather than contested, is a societal problem in itself. Things would be different if we did not have a diffuse media universe; if every individual did not have more access than ever before to express themselves; if, as some conspiracists allege, the channels of communication were truly limited to a powerful few. But they’re not.
Every Canadian can participate in the national discussion. First, we can listen, like the students at Western and unlike those at McMaster last week. Second, we can express our own views when we hear ideas that challenge ours. (We have a right to do this as vociferously as we wish, but we have a complementary responsibility to do so civilly.) Third, we can defend the right of those with whom we disagree to speak and be heard – within the limitations Canadians have broadly consented to acknowledge as appropriate to peace, order and good government.
These three steps are about as simple a description of civil discourse as can be distilled. While there is much discussion about free speech, it is valuable to bear in mind that we, as Canadians, have it. This should not be taken for granted, of course, because these freedoms were hard won and should be defended. But rights must also be exercised to be valuable.
The response to disagreeable ideas is not less speech, but more speech. Listen, express, defend. Never in history has an individual had more accessible avenues to sharing their opinions and ideas. Free speech has never been freer. Please use it for good.