Michael's Essay: Defending Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan has been criticized for many things, including questioning jail for those convicted of viewing child pornography. Photo: CBC.

Tom Flanagan has been criticized for many things, including questioning jail for those convicted of viewing child pornography. Photo: CBC.

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Tom Flanagan is one of those confounding  academics who likes to throw out intellectual spitballs in order to get people thinking and talking. If you happen to be in the way, the result can be unpleasant. Marshall McLuhan did the same thing. He called them his probes.

The point of them, I think, is to unhinge people's comfort levels and push them toward what British thinker Harold Laski called "the subversiveness of thought."

Some of the things Flanagan puts forward run from the inane to the outrageous. Most are fascinating.

He has offended many and intrigued many more. As a political mentor to Stephen Harper and the organized right wing, he has often gob-smacked the establishment Left.

In a number of interviews over the years, I can't think of more than one or two things on which I agree with Professor Flanagan. Personally, he is the soul of Irish charm.

Now he has done it again. During a question and answer period in Lethbridge, at what was supposedly an academic forum on aboriginal matters, he relieved himself of an issue touching on child pornography.

He wondered aloud if people who watch child pornography should lose their liberty, that is, be sent to prison.

After all, depriving a person of his or her liberty is the ultimate criminal sanction. It is not something to be taken lightly.

The current minimum penalty for accessing child pornography is 14 days in jail.

When his remark went public and viral, the gates of hell opened up and Professor Flanagan fell everlastingly into a fire pit deeper than a Florida sinkhole. 

Wave after wave of public opprobrium moved across the land. Outrage flooded the media.

Journalists whose mythological lore  trumpets that we applaud controversy and the freedom to express it, were shocked and appalled.

Professor Flanagan was dropped as a commentator on CBC Television's Power and Politics program. A columnist for the country's largest newspaper mounted a febrile attack on child pornography, which was not the point. The only balanced accounts given the man that I could find were in Maclean's Magazine and in some National Post columns.

The distortions of what he said grew faster and spread wider than ironweed and were  just as difficult to uproot. 

Flanagan was in favour of child pornographers. He was soft on criminals who destroy children. Despite his denials, he might even be a user himself. Or worse.

It really didn't matter that he apologized  for his callous remarks which were, he said, perhaps ill-conceived. His reputation was in tatters. He was academic road-kill.

The issue which should have been the question he raised -- should we jail people for watching child pornography -- became, ludicrously, child pornography is a horrible thing. No kidding.

There were a few defenders of Professor Flanagan. One of them was a Toronto law professor named Brenda Cossman.

In an opinion piece, she wrote that discussion of Canada's child pornography law is perfectly valid. She went on:

"But the moral panic around it (the law) has insulated the child pornography law from any and all criticism. Nothing can be said. And if it is, the speaker is denounced as a pedophile."

University settings are supposed to be venues where any and all questions can raised.

For example, we have hate laws in this country to which many people object on the grounds of free expression.

To question the validity of such laws or their application does not mean that the questioner favours spreading hate .

As Flanagan explained to Maclean's, if he were teaching a class about the importance of a social safety net and asked -- rhetorically -- why shouldn't we let the poor starve in the street, the next day's headlines would be "Flanagan says let poor people starve in the streets."

The Flanagan fiasco broke out in the same week that the Supreme Court found that an anti-gay crusader in Saskatchewan was guilty of hate speech.

The court ruled that two of the four pamphlets he was distributing  were hateful and not protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Taken together -- the hysterical pillorying of Tom Flanagan and the Supreme Court decision -- they do not bode well for a healthy climate of free speech in this country. 

If a university  professor can't raise uncomfortable questions, there will follow a chilling effect which could have devastating consequences for academic freedom.

If an anti-gay demonstrator can't give voice to his peculiar views, no matter how repugnant, it has devastating consequences for all of us.

Freedom of expression is not supposed to defend the views we support.

It's to protect the ones we hate.
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