Earlier today, a motion by Conservative members of Parliament Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel to condemn the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ movement against Israel was debated in the House of Commons. The motion states “That, given Canada and Israel share a long history of friendship as well as economic and diplomatic relations, the House reject the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which promotes the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and call upon the government to condemn any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movement, both here at home and abroad.”

Setting aside the barbaric and criminal lack of an Oxford comma separating “divestment” and “sanctions,” I’ll save the commentary on the substance of the movement, and the motion to condemn it, for others. With the strained support of the Liberal Party, the motion is likely to pass — as would a motion condemning a movement to change our national anthem to the ‘Log Rider’s Waltz’ (probably). The point being that for federal politicians, this is a tough motion to vote against, despite the intention of the NDP to do just that (I’d imagine being the third party in Parliament matters here).

Instead, what I’m interested in is the patently hypocritical response to this motion by some MPs and onlookers who cling dearly to the principles of free speech when convenient, but quickly let them go when it’s expedient to do so. (If only Cicero had followed this model, he might have kept his head and his right hand firmly attached to his body.)

My immediate concern isn’t that House of Commons is likely to pass the motion condemning BDS. Such a motion is not only perfectly within the boundaries of a reasonable conception of the role of Parliament in a free and democratic Canada, it’s also within the mandate of individual MPs who are free to exercise their judgment to send a message that they, as free-thinking humans or as representatives or both, find some movement distasteful. In a free society, one’s freedom to say or do something doesn’t preclude another from condemning them for saying or doing it, and that includes the state. Keep in mind that the right to condemn goes both ways; and, moreover, voters can punish elected officials who support the motion by voting against them — or reward them by voting for them — in the next election.

What is most troubling, and thus my immediate concern, is that some zealous interlocutors in this debate have taken things a step too far. As Buzzfeed’s Paul McLeod reported on Twitter, Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu called on the government to “disallow” the BDS movement. Another, McLeod noted, wanted to know what the government was going to do to “crack down” on the movement. While the House of Commons debated the motion, plenty of BDS critics outside of Parliament emerged from under their bridges (who remained to collect the tolls?) to demand government intervention against the movement. The term « hate speech » was soon cavalierly tossed around, at which point I poured myself a glass of whiskey* and decided to write this.

By the time a motion of condemnation had yielded to calls for suppression, it was all too much. Condemnation is one thing, active suppression is another — especially given the ideological profile of many of those calling for the government to intervene in this affair (that is, to become more interventionist, if you pick up my meaning). Indeed, one might imagine these same individuals, or their analogs, just days ago standing up for basic freedoms against the Government of Alberta who amateurishly and unwisely refused Ezra Levant’s The Rebel access to the provincial legislature.

In that case, the government’s decision played an immediate, active, and unreasonable role in limiting or constraining speech by creating barriers to expression for a media organization (or an organization that is, as one says, « close enough for jazz »). Absent some decisively extenuating circumstance — for instance, a credible threat of criminal harm — I hardly see how it’s the government’s business to decide what is and what isn’t acceptable speech by suppressing that which it finds odious. Those who are committed to free speech ought to hang on tight to this point.

When it comes to these debates, I try to keep my expectations of the capacities of rabid or partisan participants, let’s say, reasonable. At the very least, I expect a basic consistency of first principles. In the absence of that foundational necessity, political debates become craven exchanges, strategic and zero-sum games. My expectation here isn’t arbitrary, nor is it a luxury: we need such consistency in order to have constructive exchanges. Of course, I cannot prevent anyone from being inconsistent when arguing, but I certainly can condemn them for it.

*Two glasses and some leftover red wine.

Lucy / Shutterstock.com

David Moscrop
David Moscrop is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, the author of Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, a columnist with the Washington Post, and the host of the current affairs podcast Open To Debate. He is also a political commentator and a frequent contributor to print, television, and radio.

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