Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Right to be Offensive

One evening last February, French fashion designer John Galliano, in a drunken, drug-driven stupor, shouted racist and anti-Semitic insults at a couple in a Parisian restaurant. He lost his job at the Dior fashion house, and was charged with the crime of rendering "public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity." Yes, that's actually a crime in France. He faced six months in prison and a $30,000 fine. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a suspended fine.

Feel-good laws override basic rights, in this case, the right to be offensive. They attack freedom of expression. Galliano's confrontation was non-violent. The only harm done was hurt feelings -- a matter better settled in civil court.

In a different context, Salman Rushdie advised, "It's better that even the worst things be expressed. Evil doesn't disappear by being obscured."

From a Globe and Mail editorial of November 6, 2010 -- "This newspaper has argued that offensive and disgusting opinions, including deeply racist ones, should not be criminalized under anti-hate laws, because those laws may silence legitimate debate and because the best way to deal with offensive views is to trounce them in the public square. But we draw the line at expression that promotes violence."

The post you are now reading was influenced by our family's experiences in downtown Toronto in the 1930s and 1940s. Some neighbours regularly shouted across George Street, "dirty Catholics," "dirty Germans" and other terms of endearment.. My parents were German-speaking Austrians. Our reaction was that those neighbours had a problem, not us. This harassment in no way diminished our self-confidence, as is too often now alleged by "victims" in similar circumstances. Our neighbours, all of whom later became good friends, had the right to be offensive, the right to be wrong.

Had there been a human rights commission at the time, my parents would have avoided it. Had they done so, and the neighbours forced to give us a bag of money, as is the incentive today, would we ever have become friends?

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