Christina Clark: Justin Trudeau's spineless appeasement
He's trying to play both sides; claiming to support the central value of freedom of expression, while avoiding actually defending that same value out of his fear of being labelled hateful
“Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave...The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.”
– Susan Sontag, “On Courage and Resistance” (Oscar Romero Award keynote address)
By: Christina Clark
I lost sleep over several things in the news this week, and they all somehow feel related. A security guard who was working at the Manchester arena when a bomb killed 22 people and injured 800 more in May 2017 stated during a public inquiry that he didn’t sound the alarm on the bomber out of fear of being branded a racist. Glenn Greenwald resigned from the online publication he founded because they wanted to censor a piece he wrote that was critical of Joe and Hunter Biden. A father of two, a mother of three and a 60-year-old woman were murdered in a Catholic church in Nice. This was 13 days after Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, was beheaded for showing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad to his class during a lesson about freedom of expression. And then on Friday, a tweet from human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali caught my attention: called our prime minister “spineless” for his latest comments on the terrorist attacks in France.
La Presse posted the video of Trudeau’s comments at a press conference in Ottawa on Friday, a day after Macron made his statements on the murders in Nice. Trudeau and Macron are often compared to each other, in physical appearance and manner. They both espouse progressive values. They agree on climate change. They seemingly both promote a free, liberal, democratic society. Here is where the two currently differ in their response to the terrorist attacks of the last two weeks: Macron chose to defend French values by clearly stating that publishing religious caricatures constitutes free speech. Trudeau began the press conference by stating “we will always defend freedom of expression,” and then continued with a caveat — several, actually: “But freedom of expression is not without limits. We don't have the right, for example, to shout fire in a crowded movie theatre. There are always limits.”
Below is breakdown of the statements he made following his opening salvo:
“In a pluralistic, diverse and respectful society like ours, we must be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others, especially these communities, these populations that still experience a great deal of discrimination.”
Trudeau is conflating ideas here. A plurality of viewpoints is the bedrock of freedom of speech, which in turn, is one of the core tenets of a democratic society. Pluralism is exactly the point Paty was trying to teach before he was murdered for having done so. A pluralistic, diverse and respectful society is one in which Muslims are free to practice their faith — and a teacher is free to show why a cartoon that risks offending them is a form of freedom of expression in a secular society like France.
When a journalist pressed Trudeau to clarify his position on freedom of expression, he responded:
“It is a question of respect. It’s a question of not seeking to dehumanize or deliberately hurt people. I think there is always an extremely important, extremely sensitive debate to have about possible exceptions (to freedom of expression).”
There are, indeed, exceptions to freedom of speech, especially in Canada, where we have strictures against libel and hate speech. But Paty did not abrogate them. The cartoons would not meet the standard of hate speech in Canada, much less France. And out of respect for his Muslim students, Paty invited them to either look away or leave the room when the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were being shown.
Yet we are asked to believe that showing a cartoon was more dehumanizing than decapitating a teacher in broad daylight? To debate “possible exceptions” to freedom of expression in this context is to operate from a place of fear that pretends to be rooted in principle. Fear masquerading as virtue erodes and destroys the very liberal, democratic, free society of which Justin Trudeau is the ultimate beneficiary.
Trudeau repeated that Canada wholeheartedly condemns acts of terrorism that cannot, in any way, be justified. He concluded by stating, “At the same time,” [the terrorists who committed these murders] “do not represent any religion, do not represent Muslims here in Canada or anywhere else in the world.”
This is undoubtedly true. Yet tens of thousands across the Muslim world have taken to the streets to protest not the victims’ horrific deaths but rather to denounce as Islamophobic Macron's defence of satirical blasphemy. A similar silent and peaceful demonstration took place outside the French consulate in Toronto yesterday. Watching this, I sympathized with some of the protesters. The acts of Islamic terrorists do not speak for all Muslim communities across the globe. And I have little doubt that many Muslims around the world do face discrimination — but a lesson on free speech in a secular culture is not discrimination.
To reduce Macron's views to an expression of Islamophobia is to obfuscate the true obscenity, here: the murders of Samuel Paty, Simone Baretta Silva, Nadine Devillers and Vincent Loquès. And now, an Orthodox priest in Lyon.
Trudeau's statements are appeasement. He's trying to play both sides; claiming to support this central value, while avoiding actually defending that same value out of his fear of being labelled hateful or Islamophobic. I understand that there are real reasons to be afraid to speak up. Trudeau is right to suggest this is a highly sensitive and complex matter. But an act of terrorism is not an “extremely sensitive debate.” A man was beheaded. Before that, a nail bomb was set off at a children’s pop concert. Before that, 90 people were gunned down in a French theatre. Before that, 12 people were killed when a gunman shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Before that, a novelist was hunted around the world. To remain silent is to do as France’s former prime minister Manuel Valls suggested and “learn to live with terrorism.” To speak out against inhumane acts of violence, to defend the values of a society and culture, is the act of bravery. Decapitation is a form of execution. It is an act of punishment. To minimize this in order to spare hurt feelings is, indeed, spineless.
One of the things that struck me quite forcibly watching the video was the poppy pinned onto Trudeau’s lapel as he stated that free speech is not without limits. I wondered whether our prime minister needs a refresher in history to provide some context for why he wears that poppy. I wondered how his words would land on the million Canadians who served during the Second World War and the tens of thousands who gave their lives on French soil to fight the tyrannical authoritarianism that threatened to destroy the liberal, democratic society over which Trudeau now presides.
It is pure sophistry that the current Prime Minister of Canada speaks on the limitations of free speech while offering the example of shouting “fire in a crowded movie theatre.” Trudeau doesn’t need a lesson in rhetoric. He understands how hypocritical narratives undermine inconvenient truths in the name of tolerance.
But the fire is already burning. What happens when we’re all too afraid to sound the alarm?
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