Monday, March 10, 2008

Censorship: One More Time

CBC’s Cross Country Check Up this Sunday featured a discussion of human rights cases launched against the media. I did not listen to the discussion -- at least not in any great detail -- because so much of it seemed to repeat what struck me as a very unproductive line of consideration. The problem with human rights cases against the media, some argued, is that they amount to a form of censorship and should not be allowed. Such cases should not be allowed is the explicit logic of this argument. Going along with this is a concern about recent government efforts to deny tax credits -- issued to tv and movie production in Canada -- if, in the view of the state, those productions contain something that is objectionable, say graphic sex or gratuitous violence. This, too, is an example of a rising storm of censorship in Canada that, key individuals in the media argue, needs to be resisted and avoided.

There are a number of problems with this argument, not the least of which is that the two issues -- human rights charges brought against specific journals and a post-hoc denial of production tax credits -- are not the same thing. Let’s start with the human rights issue, but first let’s get a couple of things clear. The things we need to get clear are, as I have said before, the whole censorship versus free speech issue is a dead end. It is an interesting academic argument and has a place in intro ethics classes at universities but beyond that, it does not have a great deal to recommend it. It does not have a great deal to recommend it because it is completely detached from reality. No one is for censorship. There is not secret gang of lefties or neo-cons waiting somewhere to impose censorship on Canadians. All legitimate political perspectives (from social democratic to conservative and everything in the middle) recognize that censorship is antithetical to democracy. You can’t have democracy if the state imposes a strict regime of what can be reported, written, acted, etc. Why? Because the media constitute and important aspect of communications. It is not direct communication, to be sure. It is a mediated form of communications in which messages move through third parties: journalists, actors, novelists, photographers, etc. But, it is a form of communication and communication is essential for there to be sustained critique of government policies and governments. Without communications, citizens cannot engage in the type of reasoned and on-going debate about policy matters that is necessary to: (1) impose those policies, and (2) constitute alternatives to government that make elections free and fair. For instance, communications were required to unite the CA and PCs in a new Conservative Party of Canada. To censor those communications would have meant that an alternative to the Liberals -- that is, a viable alternative government -- could not have been created. My blog, by the way, takes advantage of this right of free commentary: it is what I am doing as I write this.

With this in mind, however, it is also true that no one supports a “say what you will without any repercussions” approach. Civil societies support rights, such as the right of free speech, but also recognize that there need to responsibilities for society to “work.” As well. I have the right to medical care at my hospital, for example, by virtue of my citizenship but I have to pay the taxes that maintain that right. Speech is the same way. We have the inherent right to free speech. It is not a privilege given us by someone, but we also have the responsibility to use that privilege in a mature way.

What do I mean? This: Canadian society correctly outlaws the use of free speech for things like criminal activities. If I use my right to free speech to get together with a group of people and plan, say, a murder, I am breaking the law. If I use my right to free speech to encourage a crowd of slightly intoxicated people leaving a bar to fire bomb a building, I am breaking the law. To defend these actions by reference to free speech is actually to pervert the concept and mobilize something that is good in the service of something that is intensely problematic. All societies impose these limits on their members because, to do otherwise, would endanger the lives, homes, businesses, of the people living within our borders. These are reasonable limits to free speech. JS Mill -- I think -- once said made the point that you can’t yell fire in a crowded building if there is no fire as a joke. The rush to the doors would endanger the lives of the people in that building. To do so, even if in jest, is a criminal act because one is not considering the lives and well being of others. Mature people -- responsible adults -- do this: they think about the implications of their actions.

The problem with not letting people bring human rights cases against the media for what they print or show or air falls into this type of category. Do these cases endanger the right to criticize government policy? Do they endanger the right to suggest better policies? Do they endanger the right to organize in opposition to the government and constitute another government? I honestly can’t see how they do. Moreover, to eliminate the right to bring human rights cases against the media is to suggest that the media are above the law. Think about that: if we eliminated the right of individuals to bring cases against the media, we would be saying that anyone who constitutes themselves as a journalist does not have to obey the reasonable limits that the rest of the population must follow. They are above the law and not subject to it. They have rights but not responsibilities. Another important hallmark of democracy is that no one is above the law. Yet, those journalists who defend free speech and a free press often do so in the name of democracy. This creates an irony: in the name of democracy, journalists are saying they are no subject to the laws of society. They do not need to consider the implications of their actions. Something that would be a crime for, say, me; does not become a crime for them. Is this democratic? Is this equal?

Lest anyone think I am arguing for a state run media, let me make it clear that I am not. I am arguing that journalists need to take responsibility for their actions, the same thing I argue that every adult must do. I am arguing that they must obey the law, the same thing that everyone else must do. They have every right to criticize the government (or, me in the performance of my job, as another example), they have every right to organize in opposition to government (federal, provincial, local). They do not have the right to say or print whatever they happen to please just because they call themselves a journalist. Making journalists subject to human rights law is not a special imposition on them. It means only that they must obey the same laws the rest of us must obey and must accept the responsibilities that come from citizenship. They are not a higher power, exempt from the normal operation of the law.

I’d even go further: the media is unusually important to today’s society. Someone needs to watch them to make sure that their power is not abused. Who should watch them? The state. It does already through the CRTC among other things. I think it is democratic, however, if citizens themselves can watch over the media and deploy their rights as citizens to keep the media in line, to ensure that they act responsibly and in keeping with the idea of a democratic society, that they do not abuse their power. What could be more democratic, in fact, then having citizens serve as ‘watch dogs’? Is that not the highest ideal of a democracy? Yet, those who oppose the use of human rights commissions -- in the name of democracy -- argue against this. I urge them to take their commitment to democracy seriously: accept that we are all equal under the law, they are not a higher power immune to the normal operation of the law, and willing to accept that ordinary citizens can and should play a role in guarding the values of their society. Let’s keep the law as it is.

I’ve now written too much. I’ll have to address the other issue in a future post.
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