In 2007, author Yann Martel was asked by CBC Radio to read from a banned or challenged book during Freedom to Read Week, a celebration of the freedom of expression.
Martel, Booker Prize winner and author of Life of Pi, chose Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler's rambling biography and treatise on political philosophy. It is one of the most offensive and most historically significant books of all time.
The CBC balked. A producer said Martel could discuss the book but not quote from it. The decision by a public broadcaster to celebrate freedom of expression and limit it at the same time was not lost on the literary community. David Cozac of PEN Canada, a human rights organization that advocates for writers, said it best: "It was ultimately ironic and amusing in a darkly humorous way."
I recalled the Martel incident last week after hearing that Salman Hossain, a Bangladeshi-Canadian, had been charged by Ontario Provincial Police with criminal promotion of genocide. It is the first time a charge of this kind has been laid in Canada.
For several years, Hossain has openly advocated the extermination of Jews on his website, Filthy Jewish Terrorists. In one recent post quoted in the National Post, Hossain wrote: "Yes, I am a fanatic. I am ready to kill millions... We must never cease in our efforts to eliminate the Jewish people from the face of the Earth. Their permanent liquidation and destruction is the only solution."
Few people would dispute the notion that Hossain's rantings are hateful. Given the fact he was publishing this stuff for years, people might also wonder why it took so long for some sort of criminal charge to be laid. The Ontario attorney general's office repeatedly failed to act on Hossain's web rantings, even after it was asked by the OPP to lay charges. Perhaps the AG knew that based on precedent, the chances of convicting Hossain were remote at best.
The fact is that as a society, we have failed to curb hateful expression because we can't differentiate between a man reading from a hateful text who does not subscribe to its arguments, and a man publishing text advocating violence against Jews who, by all accounts, believes what he is saying.
Whether it is human rights commissions or the criminal justice system, our efforts to punish the hateful have been clumsy and ineffectual. This is a current issue because of the Internet and its ability to provide an effortless, often anonymous channel from tortured minds to the public consciousness.
Although the Internet is new technology, legal history shows us that even when someone clearly engages in hateful speech, we fail to punish.
Aboriginal leader David Ahenakew was convicted in 2005 of inciting hatred for an anti-Semitic rant. The first conviction was overturned on the basis the lower court did not adequately consider the remarks were made in the heat of an argument with a reporter. His second trial ended in an acquittal. The judge's decision captures the essence of the issue. Although Ahenakew's comments were "revolting, disgusting and untrue," they did not incite hatred. It was the clearest example to date that the legal system has no response to hate.
The heat of the moment is no excuse for hatred. While Ahenakew may not have met the legal bar for inciting hatred, we know he comforted those who hate Jews. Words are powerful and that is what makes freedom of expression such a messy and discomforting principle. It requires a willingness to tolerate some of the world's most offensive philosophies.
I have always considered Michael Douglas's angry soliloquy in the 1995 film The American President to be among the best descriptions of the essence of free speech. Douglas, as the president, explains why he defends the attacks of a hateful political opponent:
"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing centre stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms."
Judges and human rights tribunals will never be antidotes to hate. It is only our willingness to speak out against hate that can silence the hateful.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.