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Encountering Online HatredEncountering Online Hatred

Encountering Online Hatred

Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Institute for Religious Freedom, told the House of Commons Standing Committee and Human Rights today legal sanctions to combat “diabolical” internet hatred must be matched by a social “climate of encounter” based on every Canadian’s inherent dignity as a child of God.

Andrew P.W. Bennett
6 minute read

It is a pleasure for me to appear before the Committee this morning as you continue to consider how we as a society should address the growing scourge of online hate.

Let me say that as a Catholic, I believe that the government has a necessary and essential role in upholding public order, dispensing justice, protecting citizens, and ultimately promoting the common good, which has as its end human flourishing. And so it is right and appropriate to have criminal penalties against those in society who would advocate measurable objective harm against others, including through openly advocating hatred. Additionally, the government must respect and uphold fundamental freedoms including freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of expression so as to ensure Canadians might exercise their inherent freedoms to the maximum extent, all subject to such limits that are demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. 

The reach of online hate is extensive and its pernicious effects on targeted communities seem to increase day by day. The dissemination of online hate, whether it has its origin inside or outside of Canada, must be arrested and its capacity to incite dramatically curtailed so as to prevent further hate-inspired, violent acts. Government, and all of us as citizens, must be able to recognize genuine hatred in which the dignity of the human person is grossly debased and physical violence is promoted. Yet, at the same time, such measures must bear in mind the role of government in defending and upholding genuine freedom of expression where such expression does not advocate or incite violent acts. Government must work together with communities to ensure an environment in which genuinely expressed and often profound differences in belief and opinion are countenanced and respected. 

I am aware that the Committee has already heard from many expert witnesses, including those from communities who are often the target of online hate, and has received specific recommendations on how both the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code could be amended in response to the deeply worrying trends we are witnessing. There are other witnesses more qualified than me to offer detailed recommendations on legislative changes, and so with your permission Mr. Chair, I would like to focus my remarks to the Committee today on how we as a society might understand online hate and on what needs to change at the level of our common life if we are to effectively check its pernicious spread.

Having said that, to assist the committee in its deliberations I will make a general comment that the Criminal Code should be updated and strengthened in specifically addressing new technology and how the Internet is employed to disseminate hatred. I would cite the brief provided by Mr. David Matas, honorary senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, who quite rightly argues that the law should set out for internet providers the defence of innocent dissemination while continuing to penalize willful incitement to hatred. 

The only specific recommendation I would make is to maintain in the Criminal Code the protection in s. 319, ss. 3b by which a person cannot be convicted under s. 319, ss.2 “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.” However, I would suggest adding some appropriate text whereby the person in establishing the “opinion on a religious subject or an opinion on a belief in a religious text” must not incite physical violence against any identifiable group. We must be able as a society to distinguish between genuine hatred and those beliefs and opinions with which we profoundly disagree, but which are expressed by our fellow Canadians in good faith and without any intent to violently target a particular group. 

Last evening, I enjoyed some wonderful conversation with my good friend Rabbi Mendel Blum over some single malt. I profoundly disagree with Rabbi Blum’s rejection as a faithful Orthodox Jew of the Christian theology of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. And Rabbi Blum disagrees with me. My Christian belief is so fundamental to my entire life, it is the lens through which I see all things, and this leads me to disagree profoundly with my non-Christian neighbours. 

But I don’t hate them – quite the contrary – I love them, and I will defend until the end of my days their freedom to reject what I believe and to say so publicly, including online. So how then do we continue to foster such a climate of encounter in the midst of the violent hate we see?

I would like to use the rest of my time today to move beyond what are necessary discussions around statutory amendments to speak in a more direct manner about online hate and why it is especially to be combatted. Hate in the Internet age is especially diabolical because the hate is expressed and disseminated in an utterly dehumanizing and depersonalizing manner. Let me expand.

What is hate? Hate has been around since humanity’s origins. Hate is prideful anger. Hate is the absence of truth. Hate is the absence of love.  As a Christian, I believe that humanity fell from grace when through that first sin described in the Book of Genesis we, in our pride, put ourselves above God and debased our human nature leading to sin, corruption, and death. I also believe as a Christian that through the message of salvation brought by Jesus Christ and through His life-giving passion, death, and resurrection, sin, corruption, and death were conquered, and we were restored to our true nature in Jesus Christ. 

As a Christian, I believe with all of the fabric of my being that every person is created, lives on this earth, and dies bearing the image and likeness of God. This image and likeness, this imago Dei, is the source of our universal and objective human dignity. At the very centre of our vocation in the world is the mission we bear to see in all people that image and likeness and to love what we encounter there, to love the human person we behold before us. That dignity is intrinsic, and not about external propriety. That dignity is borne by all, even, and one might say most especially, by those with whom we profoundly disagree. We must see that dignity. This dignity demands a response of love. 

So, what then is at the root of online hate? How do we attack the source of this hate while at the same time employing sufficient measures through the criminal justice system to thwart it? In our Internet age, we are seeing the breakdown of genuine human community where we are less and less in each other’s physical presence and where online debates are characterized by such vitriol and language that, please God, we would never use if we were face to face with the other person. Online we encounter text, not a person. Online hate is an especially virulent form of hate that exacerbates this dehumanization which rejects the inherent dignity of the other.

Beyond the necessary measures in the Criminal Code government needs to find ways to enable and support attempts being undertaken by Canadians to build genuine community. As a society, we need to be able to distinguish between genuine disagreement in belief and opinion, which can be profound yet where no measurable objective harm is intended. In accepting that genuine disagreement will exist, we must give it a broad range in the public square and at the same time reject hate that incites physical violence, objectively harms another person, and fundamentally violates their dignity.

In countering online hate it is absolutely imperative to ensure there is robust public dialogue between persons who hold fundamentally different beliefs and that this dialogue be a personal dialogue where we encounter each other face to face. Government must make a greater effort through an all-of-government approach to promote and encourage public dialogue between different world views and belief systems thereby advancing the common good and promoting human flourishing. 

The Government of Canada must lead by example through greater cooperation with faith communities and other belief communities encouraging us to meet each other in the public square, to encounter one another as citizens with diverse beliefs and thereby develop a deep pluralism. The public square must not be a gated community where we push out certain genuinely-held, non-violent beliefs and opinions that seemingly do not conform to the secular orthodoxy of the day. 

Government must absolutely refrain from any action that would marginalize people for their peacefully held and exercised beliefs. In this context, state-sponsored legislation and measures such as Bill 21 currently before the Quebec National Assembly are diametrically opposed to a deep and robust pluralism where difference is respected and recognized in the public square. Efforts to privatize religious belief and which actively suppress difference and genuinely expressed public faith counteract the efforts to promote human dignity which I spoke of above. 

In conclusion, government must exercise both its roles in combatting online hate through robust criminal prosecution and at the same facilitating open public debate and engagement between different beliefs and opinions, thereby championing human dignity and advancing justice.

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