By Michael Bonner, February 1, 2024
Are we living through an illiberal or anti-liberal moment? Observers on both poles of the political spectrum say that we are. They cite things like pulling down statues, cancel culture, contests about pronouns, online or in-person mobs, campus social justice crusades, and so on. Leftists are “woke authoritarians”, and the Right are all inspired by Hitler. Both sides assert their positions are nothing more than a defence of fundamental freedoms and accuses the other of trying to crush it. Words like “fascist”, “communist”, and “Nazi” are thrown about without clarity or precision, and each side accuses the other of undermining liberal democracy.
Now, each side in this contest is right that liberalism is under strain, but not in the way they think. Or at least, not always. Most of the strife that we have been witnessing for the past decade is not a barbarian horde hammering away at the outer defences of the liberal empire, but a civil war unfolding within it. Those on the Left who demand “safe spaces”, trigger warnings, deplatforming speakers, or cancelling of opponents with views deemed offensive often do so in the name of protecting of individual freedom or autonomy, as they understand them. And their antagonists do not oppose those things because they reject individual freedom. Far from it. Their opposition amounts to asserting other liberal values, most especially free speech and academic freedom. The outcome is a conflict between antithetical visions of liberal freedoms.
Ideally, the liberal civil war could be ended easily. Everybody would accept some reasonable limit on his or her own personal freedoms, and respect those of everybody else. Those reasonable limits used to be determined by inherited custom and habit — what some people still vestigially refer to as “norms”. You should be able to say and do what you want, but there were things that you ought not to want to say or do. Consensus held that deliberate obscenity, blasphemy, insult, and so forth, should be avoided. Such things did not always need to be outlawed; but, if they were, it was simply because law aligned with custom.
Now, it is doubtful whether any such consensual norms still exist in the postmodern West where so much emphasis is placed on individual preferences to the detriment of a harmonious society. Or, if norms still obtain, their power to shape public morality and behaviour seems greatly diminished. In the absence of shared norms, the purpose of the law becomes simply to punish the infringement of a code of conduct which a society, or a part thereof, is incapable of understanding or doesn’t see any valuing in adhering to, and this is a serious problem.
We have a symbol of this problem in the reaction to Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 last year. Governments, police, and university authorities have struggled to differentiate between antithetical, but equally permissible, political views and expressions of hatred or efforts to intimidate others. Former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, was asked at an American congressional hearing whether a hypothetical call for the genocide of Jews would be a violation of Harvard’s code of conduct. “It can be, depending on the context” was her answer, and this can be taken as the high-water mark of the confusion — especially in contrast with Harvard’s iron-fisted policy on “sizeism,” “fatphobia”, “cisheterosexism,” and Hallowe’en costumes. An ever-expanding list of new crimes that no one had heard of a few years ago must always be punished severely, but a demand for mass-murder may be allowed in certain contexts, apparently.
In Canada, we have seen many emotive reactions both to the attack of October 7 and Israel’s campaign against Hamas. The death of civilians has provoked disgust and condemnation, and there have been many public protests. But some of these seem to have less to do with sympathy for victims than hatred for the other side, and their form and venue are wholly inappropriate. Ostensibly pro-Gazan demonstrations have been directed at Jewish community centres, schools, and restaurants which have no connection with Israeli military policy. A protest on the overpass at Avenue Road and the 401 in Toronto was effectively a blockade of a predominately Jewish neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Senate recently released a report alleging a substantial rise in incidents of Islamophobia. A mosque in Toronto was vandalised, and faeces was smeared on an Islamic centre in Ottawa — two institutions that have no connection with Hamas.
Observers unsurprisingly demand moderation. Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has called for “reasonable limits” to public protest, so as to exclude deliberate intimidation. Israel’s ambassador to Canada has warned of a “fine line” between freedom of speech and what he calls “freedom of hate.” And Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s federal Anti-Islamophobia Envoy, seems to encourage a renewed commitment to free speech, which seems to have been stifled, since “Canada’s Muslim, Arab and Palestinian communities right now do not feel fully safe to share their views on what’s happening in Gaza”.
Unfortunately, such exhortations, well-meaning and reasonable though they may be, will probably not have any beneficial effect. No moderation or limitation will be possible unless people can agree on where that “fine line” is, what it means to be “fully safe”, what public protest ought to look like, and where it should take place. In the absence of public consensus on those matters, governments may be forced to legislate. Karamveer Lalh has argued that spontaneous protest could be restricted to areas around government buildings and possibly forbidden elsewhere without a permit. Such a policy would not be above criticism, but it would at least attempt a balance between civil liberties and the state’s duty to protect its citizens. But if this failed, as it very well could, more draconian measures would surely follow.
Increasingly rigorous guidance and crackdowns on the location of public protests, though, would not address the other questions. Where is the “fine line” between free speech and offence or hatred and what does it mean not to feel safe sharing an opinion? Society cannot define and punish mere offence by relying on the subjective experience of individuals, as there is no form of speech that will not potentially offend someone.
Hate speech is a different matter. But the bar for hate speech is already so high that it is not even clear where it is. Our present law is directed against very extreme expressions of vilification and detestation, not mere disliking or antipathy. Obviously, it would be bad to find oneself on the wrong side of this law, but that happens rarely. Nevertheless, the fear that political opinions could potentially be construed as support for mass-murder has been enough to get some people fired or censured. Amira Elghawaby’s implication that one should feel safe to utter an opinion seems reasonable in principle, but this cannot mean that there should no prospect of objection or reaction.
And so, we find ourselves back in the middle of the liberal civil war. Though it is tempting to assert that the main solution to the problem is a renewed commitment to liberal freedoms, this cannot be right. Everyone already seems to believe in one vision or another of those freedoms, even —perhaps especially — when they conflict. The law may succeed in punishing people, and it may even reimpose order for a time. But can it teach us to be civil and to disagree peacefully? We are going to find out soon.
Dr Michael Bonner is a political consultant and former Director of Policy within the Government of Ontario. He is also a historian of ancient Iran and is the author of the new book In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present.