Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The freedom and art of speech

Rights and freedoms have been the topic du jour of late.

First, we had the controversial cancellation of a speech that American right-wing pundit Ann Coulter was to give at the University of Ottawa. Even detractors of Coulter admitted this was a defeat of the right to free speech.

I have to agree. Universities are supposed to be places where all forms of ideas can collide. They are to intellectual debate what the UFC octagon is to physical confrontation. Settle your fight in the ring because brawling in the parking lot proves nothing.

I'm noticing a worrisome trend in Canada, wherein student protesters are more interested in displaying self-righteous rage than debating errant ideas.

I recently watched a talk online given by conservative commentator Michael Coren at Queen's University. The topic was abortion.

Certainly you'd expect it would be contentious. But the campus had to have security officers inside the lecture hall as several pro-choice students marched in with signs looking to disrupt his talk.

Coren, no pacifist when it comes to debating, asked only that he be allowed to give his speech uninterrupted and then he would gladly take their questions.

The students barely afforded him this courtesy as they repeatedly giggled and interjected at points.

When they did get a chance to ask questions, they used the opportunity to grandstand rather than enter a dialogue with any insights.

Coren later referred to them as "rebels without a clue." It was a perfect description, as they did not come to that lecture for honest debate. They came looking to disrupt someone from professing a different worldview than their own.

It's an interesting strategy for students to take: rather than risk losing the debate, they refused to participate in it. They tapped out before the fight even began.

As for Coulter, after viewing more of her interviews, I have come to this conclusion: she is a performance artist in the tradition of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) or the late Andy Kaufman.

In every interview, she deliberately looks for a point where she can say something outrageous and inflammatory – yet does so with a very convincing air of sincerity.

It's brilliant acting (or complete psychosis). I'm convinced she is actually curious to see how far she can push the envelope – to see if there is a line she cannot cross. So far, the line keeps moving for her.

Truth be told, she shouldn't have been invited to Canada by the U of O, she should have been invited by Yuk Yuk's. The sooner we all stop taking her act seriously (especially conservatives), the better.

The other freedom on trial last week was that of Quebec Muslim women to wear the full-face veil, the niqab. The Charest government has ruled that if a person wants to access government services, one must present their full face for view.

That's really asking for the moon, isn't it, to be able to properly identify someone before handing over a health card or driver's license?

Apart from that practical application there is the issue of the niqab being a display of gender inequality, something the secular state does not allow.

The conservative Muslim lobby counters that the Quebec ruling is an infringement of their religious rights. But as other Muslims have pointed out, the niqab is not required by Islamic law; it is strictly a custom, specific to culture.

Here's my suggestion to help the niqab-wearing women win back their rights. Ask your husbands to wear it too. That way it is no longer a gender equality issue.

Surely the lads would be willing to sacrifice their faces for the good of the cause? We could at least put it up for debate – just not at the University of Ottawa.

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