Friday, March 26, 2010

All About Ann Coulter, Or, Free Speech according to the Sound and Fury of the Left and Right

So, Ann Coulter has gone home to the United States after her eventful Canadian campus tour where the conservative commentator made stops in Ontario and Alberta.

She got the most press from her engagement with the University of Ottawa, which was canceled by Coulter's own security detail because of concerns over her safety amid an overflow crowd. After the non-event Coulter pulled out some of her nastiest invective for the university and its students, calling the school, "bush league" and remarking that she's never received this kind of treatment from Ivy League universities in the United States.

Now I'm not interested in defending Ann Coulter, and I won't. I find her views cartoonish and absurd - her intent is to get a rise out of her viewers, to offend, to shock. I guess this keeps her in demand on the lecture circuit where she reportedly earns $ 10,000 per speaking engagement. I'm not going to quote her, but check out this highlight reel of Ann on YouTube. Coulter makes her living by being offensive, contributes nothing constructive to public debates, and should not be taken seriously. But she is an excellent self promoter. The CBC's Neil Macdonald has some interesting insights on Coulter and her self-driven publicity machine.

So Coulter crosses the border for her speaking events and the University of Ottawa event is canceled. The stage was already set for a showdown after Francois Houle, the university's vice-president academic and provost, sent Coulter a letter asking her to educate herself on Canada's hate crime laws. That's the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull. Coulter would have been provocative and offensive anyway; one just has to look at her books or website.

I wonder why the U of O students bothered protesting Coulter's visit. That's giving her the kind of attention she seeks. Her views should certainly be heard, and then met with deafening silence by the university, various student interest groups, and the media alike. Without anyone to feed the flames of controversy, this one-trick pony doesn't have a trick anymore. And, like a fire that's exhausted its fuel source, she would promptly disappear from the public's radar (maybe to return as, gasp, a Converted Liberal)

The point I really want to make isn't about Ann Coulter, it's about prevalent attitudes at Canadian universities about what should and should not be said, and this country's penchant for political correctness. Retired law professor Ian Hunter wrote a scathing opinion piece in The Globe and Mail attacking this attitude, and the knee jerk reaction of the University of Ottawa's administration to Coulter. She didn't even have to say anything for them to wring their hands in fear that she might offend.

Canadians shouldn't be so delicate as to be offended by this sort of thing. People step on each others' toes all the time with rude or unintentionally rude comments, annoying habits or general insensitivity. This is partly because we're imperfect with a mean side to our nature. I firmly believe that every human being has a 'dark side,' aspects of our personalities that we're privately ashamed of. This has been used to great effect in popular culture - the 'good magic' versus the 'Dark Arts' in Harry Potter is a great metaphor for this topic - but that's for another post.

I personally believe that we should respect diversity in its many forms, which Canada's Charter of Rights does a pretty good job of. At the same time, we shouldn't censor someone who has a point of view that runs contrary to the majority's. When someone is wrong their opinions don't have any traction or influence, which is what pundits like Coulter crave. We can pay attention to what they're saying, then politely ignore them. Especially if what is said promotes bigotry or hatred. By censoring these individuals or protesting them we give them more power.

Contrast Ian Hunter's opinion piece with Susan G. Cole's, an editor at Toronto's NOW Magazine, interview with FOX News. She argues that Coulter shouldn't have been invited precisely because her opinions are offensive to minorities and many ethnic groups. Is what Coulter has to say offensive ? Yes (though some may disagree) Does that mean she shouldn't be allowed to speak ? No. In fact, the argument that says Coulter shouldn't have been allowed to speak goes against the concept of free speech itself.

In 2010 few people in Canada would accept being told how to dress on their own time, or what books they should read, or what music they should listen to. So why should we be told whose opinions we should (and shouldn't) hear ? If Canada wants to remain a free society, the answer to my last question is obvious.

It can't be 'Free speech for me, but not for thee.' The same rule must apply to everyone, in every situation.

On a more uplifting note, I've found a lovely version of the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 on YouTube. Enjoy, and have a good weekend all.

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