24 May 2020

In front of your nose #nlpoli

Orwell, c. 1940
Colourised by Cassowary Colurization
A truly free and democratic society must be based on fundamental rights and freedoms that individuals may enjoy and that are restricted rarely and only to the extent necessary to protect other rights.

In Canada, 38 years after the proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this should be well understood.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador, these rights are foreign ideas not well understood or generally accepted.

The latest example of how easily fundamental rights can be denied with popular support is the decision, supposedly taken by Brian Jones alone, to stop writing a column for his employer The Telegram.

He did so in the midst of a controversy over a column that appeared on May 20.  There was nothing remarkable about this column compared to the thousands of others he has written in his long career as a journalist and editor, except that this time, Jones aimed his characteristically malodorous vowel movements at public sector workers. 

Is it fair, he wondered, that they are sitting home, doing nothing, collecting full pay, and fattening their pension while private sector workers in the tens of thousands are out of work and living on one form or another of federal hand-out?

The merits or demerits of the column do not matter. 

What does matter is the attitude toward freedom of expression by the folks who wanted Jones fired or his ability to write a column taken away for nothing more than expressing an opinion with which they disagreed or saying some things that upset them.

That’s really all Jones did.  His critics accused him of a great many things, but aside from writing claims based on stuff he made up, Jones was guilty of none of them. 

The question Jones raised is worth discussing if only to run through the list of reasons why it makes no sense to lay off thousands of people who are actually at work providing essential services.  Raising the question did no harm to the community as a whole nor did it threaten anybody in particular.  Had people debated and discussed different answers to Jones' question, much good could have come of achieving a general agreement on the answer based on facts.  That is how democratic societies are supposed to work.

That isn’t what happened in this case. The mob howled and the Telegram editors cowered.

One of the most common arguments used by people happy that Jones wouldn’t be writing any more is that free speech is not free of consequences. Not surprisingly, proponents of this view are taking cues from the use of that idea in the increasingly polarized American political scene.  On the political right, some politicians and commentators want to stifle the political left by claiming their rights are infringed if the left takes up a contrary position.  In the Trumpian world, the mere act of asking questions of or commenting negatively on Trump’s views is wrong.  And on the left, the reply is that freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

In the United States, they are speaking of reaction. But in Newfoundland and Labrador, and very obviously in this example, consequences takes on a more sinister meaning.  Proponents of the idea defend themselves by saying that Jones still has a job and can still express his opinion in other ways.
All of that is irrelevant. Under pressure, the Telegram and Jones took away his public platform for no reason other than some people didn’t like what he said or how he said it.

Once we allow people to suffer retribution for merely voicing an opinion, once we allow people who disagree with an opinion to punish someone for the act of writing a column or a letter to the editor or a blog, we cannot have free speech and a democratic society worthy of the name.  

This time, it was merely taking away Jones' ability to write a column.  Change the context.  Make Jones someone with dark skin or an accent or simply someone not originally from Newfoundland.  Make the issue about something people might take more seriously, something with significant financial implications for the whole province. 

There is no limit on what may happen the next time, in a different context.  All you have to do is accept the simple rationalization that it is only fair that opinions come with consequences.

The fundamental rights in the Charter – religious expression, assembly, mobility, speech and the others – are not merely limited to protection from the actions by government.  They are fundamental rights that should be free of infringement by our fellow citizens.

Except that they aren’t really. 

George Orwell understood that a great many injustices may occur in small ways, excused or rationalized by the majority utterly unaware that each of the people who now make up a majority may find themselves in another context in the minority.

As Orwell wrote in Freedom of the Park, “the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion.”
Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.
Persecuted by authorities or by people acting on their own.

In a nation where Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are a minority, they should be far more concerned than they are about what happens when minorities become inconvenient to the majority.

The answer is in front of their nose.


[Edited for typos 30 Oct 20]