& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Self-critical expression, censorship, freedom of speech & hate speech

Self-critical expression lends a moderate hue to any issue under debate. It can and does have a positive impact on artists and journalists. Both artists and journalists have to necessarily walk the tightrope between freedom of expression as enshrined by the law, and hate speech, which is prohibited by the law. And there is a thin line that divides these two concepts. Self-critical expression rather than censorship is the key to a democratic society. Self-critical expression is self regulated; censorship is imposed by an extraneous authority.

Self-critical expression is inherent to any conversation where more than one view is being debated or discussed. An individual develops and comes to hold views and opinions over several years, and through borrowed or lived experiences. These often turn into dogmas and are justified as ideology. 

The easiest way to test them is to put them through the test of a sincere discourse. When one hears another side of a fiercely or a dearly held opinion in a debate, one begins to comprehend another dimension to that opinion. And that, in an individual who is open minded, results in a better understanding of any issue. Significantly, even if the person doesn’t change her views on the subject, this exchange of views is important because it provides her with a wider perspective.

For a journalist, self-criticism is not always necessary. For a reporter, it is easy to overcome an inherent bias by actively seeking a view or views that are diametrically opposed to her views. This is prima facie of paramount importance to ensure balance in reportage.

However, one must draw a line in being fair. Fairness should not automatically mean that two opposite views are considered and included in a news report to make it balanced. On some occasions, it is not at all necessary to appear to be fair, especially when one is reporting about hate crimes, police brutality, sexual abuse of minors, gender-based inequality.

Also, columnists are read, and are popular and controversial mainly because they hold a point of view which is biased and almost never self-critical. The most recent example is of Don Cherry, the sports broadcaster, who was fired in 2019 because he made unguarded comments about immigrants not wearing poppies for Remembrance Day.

Censorship in the media is as old as media itself. There are multiple reasons for censorship in the media, but the main reason is to earn revenue. The other is to adhere to socio-cultural and political moorings of the society within which the media operates.

The media in the West cannot stop finding fault (justifiably) with autocratic societies, where religious or political ideologies, determine societal debate. But the same media doesn’t see anything wrong with the inherent fault lines in Western societies.

For instance, in Canadian media, there isn’t enough exploration and dissection of the continuing absence of adequate reportage of issues pertaining to Canada’s indigenous population, and their right over Canada’s lands and resources.    

I don’t think there is anything wrong in criticizing religion or an ideology objectively. However, almost always such criticism is based on prejudice and is motivated by hate.

The government, the establishment plays an important role in this debate. In his essay The Etymology of Terror, published in New York Review of Books, Matt Seaton says, “We have reached, then, a point in the etymology of terror at which governments have assumed the right to designate any specific person or group, literally anyone they don’t like, as terrorists. By one new standard for terrorism, it can apply to human rights lawyers and researchers who irritate government officials, because to decry state violence has become itself a terrorist crime. By the other new standard, it can apply to anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—the time and place being lethally adjacent to wherever the US is hunting “war on terror” adversaries.”

Prejudice can only be combatted through objectivity. Such objectivity must necessarily include self-critical expression. Lee Marcle, the eminent Metis author, who recently passed away, narrated a poignant incident to the CBC when her book I am Woman was published in 1988. She asked to be included in the Vancouver Writers Festival to launch her book of essays, but was denied an invitation. “So I went there and got up on stage and grabbed the mic and I did a reading,” she said. “I said, ‘Right now you are in my village, this is my original village and I am going to read here.’”

The situation has changed today, but not much. I think, it is important for the non-mainstream artist to create a parallel mainstream that promotes their respective culture within the Canadian milieu, and context. We can only fight neglect and hate by creating an alternative space that promotes an alternative interpretation of a Canada that we want to create. This requires proactive intervention, and not blaming.

In his essay Canadian multiculturalism and national identity – a 50-year relationship, Varun Uberoi of Brunel University, London, England, says, “…if people’s conceptions of their political community include cultural minorities as normal and equal members of it, these conceptions help a culturally diverse citizenry to visualize themselves as a group. But those with such inclusive conceptions are also less likely to exclude and discriminate against minorities as minority cultural differences are not seen as something to fear or to avoid.” (Published in Multiculturalism at 50 and the promise of a just society, CITC Canadian Issues).

There isn’t adequate concern over the general ignorance of the Canadian mainstream to the rich diversity that has been (and is being) created in Canada politically. Multiculturalism is 50 years old. And while it has achieved much, it is in essence an empty slogan. 

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