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Justin Trudeau's Words to the WiseJustin Trudeau's Words to the Wise

Justin Trudeau's Words to the Wise

The Prime Minister got it right the first time on the limits of free speech. His mistake was backing down in the face of vociferous criticism, Peter Stockland writes.

Peter Stockland
4 minute read

As a Westerner who’s lived in Quebec for 20 years, one of my great challenges is using the proper noun Trudeau and the adjective “correct” in the same sentence.

It was so with the father. So it is also with the son. Yet right is right. It must be said, then, that the current Prime Minister was right as rain in his recent admonition that was prompted by the gruesome violence freshly gripping France.

Free speech, Justin Trudeau properly said last Friday, has its limits. As he pointed out, such limits are self-evidently breached by the physical endangerment of “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.” But he wisely went further and emphasized they are imperilled at a social, cultural and civic level if we fail to measure our words and images for their wanton effect on others.

Indeed, if the PM said anything wrong (I must add this caveat to affirm my Western-Quebecer pedigree) it was his weakish walking back of that message following roiling criticism from free speech purists, libertarian mainliners, and cagey opportunists such as Quebec Premier François Legault. Being in the right, he should have stood his ground. His father, it must be said, would have done no less.

Indeed, his father did no less than present Canadians a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that, in its first clause, makes clear the liberties enumerated are “subject…to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” On that basis alone, the premise of Justin Trudeau’s caution was correct both in a legal positivistic sense (the law says it’s so, ergo it’s so), and in the spirit by which Canadians as free citizens of a democracy conduct themselves. There are limits to free speech. They just have to be reasonable.

The critical purists, libertarians and opportunists I’ve read seem blind to, or deliberately swerve away from, the Prime Minister’s entirely reasonable and perfectly valid point. The French government’s response to renewed jihadist violence only risks provoking fresh bloodshed by perpetuating the bizarre idée fixe that freedom of speech trumps even reckless baiting.

Saying so does not argue for cowardly cringing in the face of violent maniacs. It certainly does not, in any way, seek to justify in some relativistic way Islamist extremism as a backlash against being provoked. Provocation is, of course, no laissez-passer for criminal reaction. But the unleashing of the unconscionable does not negate the fact of the provocation, either.

In one of the best (albeit most pitiless) critiques of Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments, for example, The National Post’s Terry Glavin meticulously documents jihadi violence within France and globally. Glavin makes the legitimate point that blood being shed in the name of Islam has precious little to do with the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons forever linked to the mayhem and murders of 2015. He also correctly points out that the caricatures of the Prophet, denounced by Muslims as provocative blasphemy, were in many cases a pretext for so-called “holy war” killings already on the drawing board.

But Glavin nimbly evades the central problem when he defends the reaction of French President Emmanuel Macron as, some might say paradoxically, a best defence for La Republique’s “moderate” Muslim individuals and groups. Really? In the southern cities of Toulouse and Montpellier, government authorities authorized shining images of the catalytic Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the outsides of prominent buildings in their public squares. Why? To demonstrate how the worship of boundless abstract “free speech” as a cornerstone of State secularism would always prevail over the live religious sensitivities of faithful Muslims.

As a young man of my acquaintance who lives in the region said to me, no such fetishization of unconstrained words and images was on display when labour activists had “the s**t beaten out of them” by police thugs for their slogans protesting the Macron government’s oppressive overhaul of working standards. Perhaps more compellingly, southern cities are facing growing crime waves involving young, jobless, and increasingly hopeless immigrant men with roots in predominantly Muslim countries. Oh, there’s a demographic to poke in the eye with sharp stick – or an illuminated blasphemous cartoon on a public building if that’s your Huckleberry. And all this in defence of Islam’s “moderate” adherents in France.

Toronto Star contributing columnist Amira Elghawaby put it succinctly yesterday: “Each… horrific crime…has been condemned by French Muslims and their organizations. Yet President Macron has launched an all-out campaign against “Islamism,” “Islamic separatism,” and also against dozens of Muslims organizations — fuelling division and undermining the very civil liberties he claims to defend.”

Elghawaby notes that French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has made clear a principal aim of the current crackdown is to “send a message” to French citizens who are Muslims that they are being watched even if they have nothing to do with jihadi, of even criminal, activity. Darmanin earlier sent another sort of message, this one focused on his contempt for kosher and halal foods in supermarkets.

“So defence of laïcité, and the French Republic, has come down to condemning kosher and halal, and defending crude cartoons. Would (President) Macron be defending, in the name of free speech, fascist anti-Semitic texts, or racist caricatures against Blacks and other minorities, or homophobic screeds?” she writes.

I’m guessing not. I’m guessing not even the shimmering allure of unbridled free speech could move any French politician outside the wackier reaches of the National Front to do that. Wisdom, prudence, not to mention basic decency and respect for the difference of fellow citizens would militate against it.

Just, it happens, as Canada’s Prime Minister so rightly warned.

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