Lead a blameless life and communicate only via carrier pigeon.
That feels like the only way to avoid the people who are toppling reputations these days and cancelling free speech in the name of defending it.
This happened to two Toronto women recently and their stories and fates reveal just how intolerant tolerance has become.
The first tale involves Vickery Bowles, the Chief Librarian of Toronto.
Last October, Meghan Murphy booked a room at the Toronto Reference Library to give a talk on why transgender women shouldn’t be allowed in women’s spaces. Writers and politicians including John Tory railed against this violation of ….. well, of what, exactly?
I’m no fan of Ms. Murphy’s views, but if she wants to rent a room at the library to offer them, so what? Yes, the library is a city service. Yes, our taxes pay for it. But yes also, libraries have become public squares where people from all sides can speak. It’s not that the library invited Ms. Murphy to speak as part of a library-sponsored speaker series. She was a third-party renter, like you or I would be.
You’d think Vickery Bowles was advocating hate speech, which is a crime.
Despite enormous pressure to give in, she said: “I’m not going to reconsider”. This only made matters worse. So Bowles had to find her own podium, The Empire Club of Canada, to offer this primer on Voltaire’s idea that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
As she said: “What was so surprising to me in this whole debate was that we found ourselves defending free speech; while those who were opposing the library’s decision said we were undermining the rights of the transgender community, undermining their equity and inclusion rights, and putting this vulnerable community at risk of greater discrimination and even physical harm.”
It’s no fluke Bowles’ speech was entitled A Librarian’s Timeless Mission: Supporting Social Justice Through Freedom of Speech.
In fact, I would argue that one reason the Toronto Public Library is the busiest library system in the world is precisely because people of all backgrounds and values feel at home there. Not some. All.
The second woman who was flayed in public is Margaret Wente, the former Globe and Mail columnist.
Last month, she was blackballed as a junior fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto. Her crime? She was insufficiently negative in a review written in 2014 that identified race with culture.
Massey’s faculty and students were enraged. Wente was accused of being a racist and a sexist. Scores of faculty signed a petition against Wente’s nomination. Dozens threatened to resign if she were allowed to be a junior fellow. One faculty member, Alissa Trotz, did resign, claiming she was blindsided by the nomination, even though she was on the nominating committee.
So Margaret Wente withdrew her nomination, kept her mouth shut and walked off into the summer.
Until yesterday when she replied to her attackers in an article in Quillette, the platform for free thought.
The title says it all: It Wasn’t My Cancelation That Bothered Me. It Was the Cowardice of Those Who Let It Happen.
“I learned a lot,” she wrote. “I learned how easily an institution will cave to a mob. I learned how quickly the authorities will run for cover, notwithstanding the lip service they may pay to principles of free speech. After all, they’re terrified. They’re afraid that if they don’t beg forgiveness and promise to do better, they’ll be next at the guillotine.”
Now Vickery Bowles and Margaret Wente can defend themselves, and did. But not everyone has the bully pulpits they do.
So what will you do when you think the rush to reshape our history and habits and laws falls prey to its own excesses?
It feels that we’re in the early days of a revolution.
Every revolution begins by overcoming repression. But all revolutions then quickly embrace The Terror, the time following the initial exhilaration when nuance, second thought and bystanders of varying innocence and guilt are loaded into paddy wagons at night, never to be seen again.
Just look at what’s happening in Russia, China, Brazil – and America.
Here in Canada, we’re in the bush leagues when it comes to losing our freedom of speech. Margaret Wente didn’t lose her livelihood, and her Massey College kerfuffle reminds me of what Henry Kissinger said: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
But the next time you’re asked to join a march, sign a petition, or cancel someone because you don’t like what they did yesterday or wrote long ago, or their race, gender, income or position disagrees with you, please spare a thought for precisely why Canada is one of the most tolerant countries in the world.
Then say two of the hardest words in the world to say when you’re being attacked:
If you don’t get an answer, or if the answer is a flamethrower, at least you stuck to a value they didn’t.
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I’m off – as is The Plague-Ground – until I return from holidays on July 20th.