Censorship is patronizing. Always has been, always will be: Neil Macdonald

The censor never accepts the notion that his or her own values are damaged by reviewing offensive material. Rather, the censor believes he or she is acting to protect those with feebler, more gullible minds.

From trying to silence Holocaust deniers to shouting down Richard Spencer: censorship never changes

Richard Spencer recently announced that he is suspending his efforts to tour and speak at American university campuses. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the early '90s, long before the very nature of the internet had mooted the question, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre was pushing the Canadian government to regulate Holocaust denial online.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Centre's public voice in Los Angeles, laid out a compelling case, at least on the face of it:

Holocaust denial is meant to encourage hatred of Jews. Canada had already made hate speech a crime. Ernst Zundel, perhaps the world's best known Holocaust denier at the time, had in fact been charged in Canada with hate speech for publishing a tract titled "Did Six Million Really Die?"

Why then, asked Cooper, should Holocaust deniers be allowed to preach into Canada via the internet? Holocaust denial, he argued, works. It constitutes a clear threat to Jews.

By then, I'd had considerable exposure to Nazi doctrine. I'd covered SS reunions in Germany, I'd covered Canada's Deschenes Commission, which investigated the presence of Nazi war criminals in Canada, I'd explored the links between neo-Nazis and real Nazis, I'd even spent a day with Simon Wiesenthal himself in Vienna. 

I had heard just about every argument made by Holocaust deniers, and yet none of it had had the slightest impact: I still believed, as I do now, that the Holocaust happened.

If denial is so poisonous that it requires official suppression, I asked Rabbi Cooper, why had it not poisoned me? Or Cooper himself?

Well, Mr. Macdonald, he said, we are educated men. I replied I had never finished high school. And yet . .

Seeing where I was going, he shrugged and returned to his talking points.

Protection through censorship

Cooper's argument is hardly unique. It is at the very core of censorship: the censor never accepts the notion that his or her own values are damaged by reviewing offensive material; rather, the censor believes he or she is acting to protect those with feebler, more gullible minds.

It is immensely patronizing, when distilled to its essence.

I once put that to Mary Brown, who ran the Ontario Censor Board during the '80s, a woman who screened a steady diet of the hardest-core pornography. She refused (of course) to even engage on the point.

And nowadays, decades later, the social justice activists on Western university campuses are using more or less the same rationale.

Whenever a conservative speaker shows up, they revolt, protesting and demanding a ban, all, of course, for the greater good. The somewhat loopy far-right author Ann Coulter, at the University of Ottawa a few years ago. The even loopier former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, all over America just last year. And white nationalist Richard Spencer, in the here and now.

Milo Yiannopoulos has faced protests on multiple university campuses across the U.S. (Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera/Associated Press)

Spencer recently announced, to the immense satisfaction of so-called "anti-fascist" groups (popularly known as "antifa") that, after protests of his speeches turned violent, that he is suspending his efforts to tour and speak at American university campuses.

So great was the uproar over his imminent appearance at the University of Michigan that National Public Radio convened a public debate last month on the campus, inviting faculty, social-justice advocates and free-speechers to joust over the matter.

The debate re-trod some well-trodden ground. The free-speechers contended that universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, and that students needed to be exposed to a range of views and decide for themselves.

This is ridiculous; Richard Spencer, like those who preach humans coexisted with dinosaurs, talks utter drivel. If he belongs in a marketplace, it's the one that caters to cretins, not students pursuing higher education.

The antifa response to the free-speechers was just as woolly.

One woman wrote in demanding to know why the "cognitive safety of white males" trumps the emotional distress that Spencer's very presence causes people of colour. As though the U.S. Constitution guarantees, along with freedom of expression, the right not to be offended.

There was the old words-are-weapons logic, leavened with rhetoric about patriarchal hegemony. 

These modern censors do paint with a broader brush than their forebears last century. With morally absolute certitude, they would unhesitatingly suppress not only Spencer, but pretty much anyone else they disagree with, right up to Prof. Jordan Peterson, the conservative academic at the University of Toronto who has made a name for himself challenging things like genderless pronouns.

All of it, to them, is of a piece, and constitutes a vicious attack on the rights, prerogatives and even safety of the non-white, non-heteronormative, non-male, non-cisgender population.

No one at the town hall, though, asked them whether Spencer's rhetoric had affected their thinking, and if it hadn't, then why it is so urgently in need of suppressing.

The answer is they are really trying to protect not themselves, but the rest of us, who just don't see as clearly as they do.

The single most interesting fact raised was that no one had actually invited Spencer to speak at the U of M; Spencer himself had asked to use one of the university's public spaces, and in the United States, public universities, governed by the First Amendment, are not allowed to refuse a speaker access based on his or her viewpoint.

That presents a particularly American dilemma, one Spencer naturally exploits, knowing a mob of helpful idiots will erupt, and magnify his fame. One suspects he's delighted when protests turn violent, and was absolutely thrilled when Florida's governor declared a state of emergency in anticipation of one of his university speeches there last October.

Feeding speakers' celebrity

In that sense, Spencer is a latter-day version of Ernst Zundel. When I first met Zundel, in the early '80s, he was a nobody – a neo-Nazi crank in a hardhat who protested outside the trials of real Nazis being deported for wartime crimes.

Then Canadian prosecutors and human rights commissars decided to suppress Zundel. It didn't work – he was acquitted on appeal by the Supreme Court of Canada on grounds of freedom of expression – but it did turn him into a celebrity on the extreme right, and a well-paid speaker on the neo-Nazi cocktail circuit.

Similarly, Spencer would be about as significant as a cockroach, were it not for the determined efforts of his enemies on the left.

Ignoring Spencer, or, better, calmly fighting back with facts, would be the ideal solution. That's the route Jewish groups eventually took to deal with Holocaust deniers, funding good research like the Nizkor Project, and it appears to have worked. Holocaust denial hasn't exactly caught on.

But among the antifa bunch, the First Amendment and what it stands for is in bad odour. They clearly believe there is far too much of this damned free speech, and that the speech they don't like must be stamped out, forcefully if necessary, because the revolution is now, etc.

Again, hardly a new idea. But just as tiresome, and patronizing, as it ever was.   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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