Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is one of those things pundits like to cry foul on for hypocrisy, partly because it’s so easy, partly because there’s so often some truth to it. Some truth being the operative, and highly misleading watch phrase.
In the forthcoming issue of Convivium Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Dr. Andrew Bennett, gets the question put to him in Turkey when calling, very frankly, for the restoration of both civil and ecclesiastical properties to Jewish and Christian communities. In response, one of the people talking with him said: “Well, thank you, Ambassador Bennett, for engaging with us on these questions and raising these issues with us. Perhaps we could come and help you with Quebec.”
Foreign affairs always runs a hypocrite’s gamble: pressuring and encouraging the virtues that Canadians hold dear abroad, when our practice at home is far from perfect. The launch of the Office of Religious Freedom in 2013 dovetailed a little too conveniently for some with the (defeated) Charter of Quebec Values, raising the now often repeated charge to ‘get our own house in order’ before going abroad. This argument makes two very important political mistakes.
First, it intentionally ignores the spectrum on which political and social problems take place, falsely presuming that scale and severity does not matter. To say that the Charter of Quebec Values would have been a violation of religious freedom of the same kind as Turkey’s seizure of places of worship is to say Canada is a lawless society of the same kind as, say, Somalia and its infamous offshore piracy because there is jay walking in Montreal during rush hour. Both are lawless acts, but prudential politics recognizes degree matters.
The second major mistake in this argument is the expectation that Canadian society will have worked out to a nearly perfect degree the fullest expression of its most cherished virtues before preaching them. Obviously this will never be true. Canada’s most cherished virtues are aspirational. We aspire to be people of generosity, of fairness, of tolerance, of justice, and of genuine pluralism. Societies and people do not arrive at these things. They aspire to them. And it is, after all, what we love, what we aspire to, that is the best definition of a people and of a country.
The same basic mistakes are scrawled across editorial pages after the terrible events of Paris. We are not all Charlie, of course, and that I choose not to use my freedom of speech to post satirical cartoons of other’s faiths does not somehow make me complicit in this terrible violence. I can defend the right of those who do without joining in. I can defend the virtues of freedom even wishing we used those virtues different ways. Degree – how and why I disagree – and intent – what I am aiming for – matter.
Every liberal society worthy of its name treasures freedom of speech, just like freedom of religion. And every society on opening its mouth to say so is a hypocrite. That’s not a reason to stay close mouthed. But it is a good reason to try harder.