I have felt a little helpless lately. Helpless in relation to world events that seem beyond my control. There were the terrorist attacks in Paris over a month ago and the response attacks on Muslims and mosques in Canada and abroad. ISIS seems to have stretched its tentacles everywhere and once again we have a monstrous opponent that seems to have no beginning or ending. And so in response to most perceived menacing threats the demagogues slide out from under their rocks to mix up their concoction of fear and hate. I come from a family that is very watchful of those who begin to drum up hateful frenzies as we have seen this fear mongering as a symptom of Fascism. My grandfather heard Hitler speak long ago and felt that something unsettling was about to happen. And he was put in a labour camp reduced to skin and bones upon his return to Denmark a few years later.
So some people laugh at Donald Trump but I see a bravado mixed with a tender time in history that has the potential to get out of hand. So I was glad to see a recent posting by Michael Moore on Facebook that asked readers to report Donald Trump’s Facebook page for hate speech of ethnic minorities. Finally, I had found something tangible that I could do to push back against the hate. So I reported Trump’s blog dutifully and posted a comment under Michael Moore’s request. I thought my comment was innocent but I soon realized in an American forum that I was actually being quite radical. I typed, “Can he be tried for Hate Speech in America. In Canada it is a hate crime. He should be prosecuted.” Expecting one or two responses I was shocked when my phone was lighting up with constant notifications that people were liking and replying to my comment.
Through over 1000 likes and 150 replies I was told to, “Jump in a lake,” and “Go to Canada. ” Others called me stupid and one person said that only cowards would try to shut down something that they disagreed with. Another person said, “To prosecute blasphemy or political in correctness is to abandon the principles of freedom that we hold dear.” Suddenly, I became aware that this comment thread had opened a window for me into the American ideal of freedom and how virulently many Americans support the first Amendment without any consideration of the violence that hate speech causes.
I realized that the concepts of inclusivity, diversity and multiculturalism that I had studied were not the first things on these people’s minds. I began to think that these concepts didn’t figure into their equation at all. I realize that hate speech is a tricky thing to prosecute but in a recent Globe and Mail article it was stated that Canadian law considers charging people for hate speech if it is public, severe and targets an identifiable group. Where in the US there have been several cases where the hateful speech of the Klu Klux Klan(Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969), Nazis(National Socialist Party v. Skokie 1977) and the Westboro Baptist Church(Snyder v. Phelps 2011) have finally been allowed due to the First Amendment. Also, in court, a ban on placing burning crosses on lawns(Virginia v. Black 2003) was said to be in violation of the first amendment.
I believe in protecting free speech but don’t see the concept as black and white. I see that some things must be regulated to prevent harm to others. One commentator on the Facebook thread raised concerns that Trump was already inciting violence as he supported the beating up of an African American protestor at one of his speeches. Trump’s speech also reminds me that genocide starts with the classification of groups and the dehumanizing of them. He is not necessarily planning a genocide but he is planning to forcefully move certain cultural groups out of America. Another commentator said that racists and bigots are hiding behind the first amendment. Trump is hiding too. Hiding from the responsibility to solve the incompatibility of post revolution freedoms and the reality of including all Americans respectfully in national debate. Canadians think that we have trouble figuring out who we are but Americans need to re-evaluate some basic tenets in their identity if they are to help the most vulnerable people survive in their country or if they are to help the country itself survive in these divisive times.