In recent weeks, political purveyors of “common sense” would have us believe that free speech itself is under threat by M-103, the Liberal parliamentary motion to “condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” There is a hard line, Conservatives suggest, between free speech and hate speech, and while they denounce the latter, Liberals claim that they nevertheless cross that line by refusing to condemn Islamophobia. Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has said that “by not denouncing Islamophobia, they are actually contributing to the problem.” Conservatives have countered that the Liberal motion would muzzle free speech and an individual’s right to “criticize” Islam.
Despite politicking from both camps, there is a more fundamental contest here over what speech is, what it does, and who is responsible for its effects. Is speech solely a matter of individual freedoms or is there something “systemic” in the ways speech acts within a society, when our words circulate? Is criticism of Islam necessarily Islamophobic? Or is criticism of Israel necessarily anti-Semitic, for that matter? Not necessarily. Indeed, within Islam and Judaism, as within Christianity, we find robust traditions of interpretation and critique.
Presiding at the funeral of three of the men killed at La Grande mosquée de Québec, Imam Hassan Guillet shocked some mourners on February 3 by counting Alexandre Bissonnette amongst the victims. “Before he was a killer, he was a victim,” Guillet said. “Before he shot our brothers, words more dangerous than bullets were planted in him.” The Imam’s own words neither excuse nor exonerate the young man charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder. Nor do they simply betoken a religious gesture of compassion or forgiveness. Rather, they constitute criticism that is both timely and courageous.
Words are not merely descriptive: they do things, sometimes hurtful and hateful things, and sometimes wonderful things, too. With speech, the lines of cause-and-effect are almost never horizontal or rectilinear. “Certain politicians, certain media,” Guillet continued, “have poisoned the country and Alexandre Bissonnette with their words.” And, sadly, it is not difficult to find public speech that cultivates xenophobia and racism, even if it is not explicitly a call to arms. Such speech is often banal or innocuous in tone, yet it informs what passes as “common sense”; meanwhile, it is often uninformed, based in fear rather than critical reason, or fallaciously generalizes from particular and extreme cases.
Québec society has in the wake of the shooting embarked on some serious soul-searching, and ordinary people have emerged in critical numbers to stand in solidarity and support of the victims, their families, and communities. There has been fresh criticism of certain local radio stations known for their incendiary discourse. I listened to one broadcast dating back just a few months in which the announcer averred that Islam is “fundamentally incompatible” with “our” way of life. These are spoken as “our” words, in “our” name, defending “our” way of life. The words are hostile to all criticism and to truth in any meaningful sense, and yet they hold the power to galvanize the identity of some listeners and to settle on a common enemy.
Meanwhile, and more broadly, debates have raged for many years over the “neutrality” or “secularism” of the state, and whether conspicuous (ostentatoire) religious symbols—such as the hijab—ought to be banned for those who work in the public sector. Ironically, the crucifix and other Christian symbols are often considered “neutral” on the grounds of “cultural heritage.” But let’s not forget that this iconography also constitutes public speech. The philosopher Charles Taylor has recently reversed his earlier position on secular dress codes: “The debate had the effect of attenuating or eliminating … inhibitions, along with thickening the clouds of suspicion and concern around newcomers.” The debate itself proved toxic.
On the national stage, we might recall Stephen Harper’s legal contortions to ban the veil from the citizenship ceremony, or the hotline to report “Barbaric Cultural Practices” proposed by Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander—“for victims,” they said helpfully, “as well as for citizens” (a troubling binary). This was callous and strategic fear-mongering of the highest order by our parliamentary representatives, speaking in our name. And to what effects?
Together, this odious rhetoric fosters a climate—thick clouds of suspicion—in which fear and ignorance are naturalized, and hate becomes a permissible, ostensibly innate, response. We note the marked rise in anti-immigrant sentiments and petty hate crimes. And we bear witness, among others, to Donald Trump’s racist invectives and executive orders in the United States, and Marine Le Pen’s efforts in France—both of whom where followed, and “liked,” by Alexandre Bissonnette on social media. As Guillet remarked, Bissonnette was not born into a rhetorical vacuum. There are no Lone Wolves in society.
And so there is something dangerous and disingenuous, we might say, when we are so quick to identify and disown the “Lone Wolf,” to morally distance ourselves from him, as if we and our words were innocent and apart. Our silence also speaks. Guillet’s statement was, then, a call of conscience—for us to imagine that every life is in a relation of care and entrusted to others, and that we share a responsibility not just for what we say but for what our words do. To resolutely condemn hate crimes and violence, as we must, is not incompatible with owning, in small part, those words that aggrieve us, and the terrors that they propagate.
Stuart J. Murray
Professor and Canada Research Chair in Rhetoric and Ethics
“Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.