“Substantive” Apparently Means “Incoherent”: A Response To Stuart Chambers

September 2017

In “Free Expression: A Means to Substantive Speech”, published in the April 2017 SAFS Newsletter, Stuart Chambers begins with an incoherent attempt at a definition of “genuine” debate: it is a “three-step process”, he says, then describes each step—the second step states in full that “one is open to debate surrounding the assertion”, whatever that means. The lack of clarity doesn’t matter, however, because he never again uses the word “debate”, genuine or otherwise, anywhere in his article. Furthermore, he makes no use of the three steps.

Piling confusion on confusion, Chambers then goes on to tell us that “new tactics” are being employed—“shouting down”, “censoring deliberations”, “dismissing rival commentary”—so that “free expression never realizes its full potential as substantive speech”. But he does not tell us how “substantive speech” relates to “genuine debate” and “free expression”, not to mention “dialogical exercise”, which turns up later. Nor does he explain what he means by “censoring deliberations”—whose deliberations, who censors? The phrase is not used again. And what does he imagine is “new” about these tactics? —has he never heard of Hitler’s Brown Shirts, Mussolini’s Black Shirts, Stalin’s purges? Does he think no “shouting down” occurred in Athens and the hundreds of other poleis of ancient Greece? There is nothing whatever “new” in attempts to silence opposition by those seeking power or those already in power, whether in democracies or not.

However, more worrying than all this muddle is the disparity among his list of tactics, and the disingenuous use he makes of it. On the one hand, the “shouting down” that, as he observes, occurred recently at various universities—Ottawa (2014), McMaster and UC Berkeley (2017)—, is serious, a significant affront to the values of our society, variously involving violence, denial of free speech, destruction of property. (Two articles in the May 2017 SAFS Newsletter discuss the McMaster incident, pointing out the pusillanimous ineffectiveness of the administration. See W. F. Smyth’s article and John Carpay’s.)

On the other hand, the same cannot be said of “demonizing rival commentary”. Wouldn’t it be loverly (or perhaps boring) if we could always engage in calm dispassionate debate about issues on which there is violent, passionate disagreement? But that is simply not the nature of the beast: argument will inevitably become heated, personal, nasty, especially on matters seen to involve fundamental principles of our lives and our society. In fact, sometimes, perhaps not infrequently, the passion with which a view is expressed will induce a listener to consider changing his position. Certainly, unless any of violence, physical intimidation, libel, slander are involved, there is nothing illegal about such behaviour. (Or rather, there should be nothing illegal: in Canada “Human Rights” Tribunals routinely criminalize speech, as Ezra Levant and many others know to their cost.)

By equating these two tactics—“shouting down” and “dismissing rival commentary”—, Chambers’ article pretends to be even-handed, criticizing the political left and right alike. It is no such thing. All the examples he gives of “shouting down” are of left-wing mobs violating the law by shouting down speakers—and one of these mobs, the worst one, he makes excuses for, on the grounds that at some point in the past the speaker engaged in “mean-spirited” rhetoric! On the other hand, every example of “dismissing rival commentary” by those on the political right involves no infraction of the law: they are simply vigorous expressions of opinion, often merely responding, though Chambers does not point this out, to equally fervent statements from their left-wing opponents.

Indeed, Chambers himself is repeatedly guilty of the contempt for opposing views that he deplores in others. He speaks of the “entrenched positions” of the “alt-right”—as if only those people, whoever they are, hold firm views. For example, they dare to support the “illegal” invasion of Iraq, they are guilty of “caricatures” of Islam and “attacks” on multiculturalism. Horrors! If such views are not illegal, surely they should be! He even criticizes as “evasive” a writer who says “Islamophobia is a myth”—apparently ignorant of an instructive article on this subject, hopefully in accordance with the law, in the September 2016 SAFS Newsletter. (Not to mention Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, in her most recent book, Heretic (2015), pointedly states, with good reason to know, “Islam is not a religion of peace.”) Providing no relevant evidence or argument whatever, he tells us that Ezra Levant’s views, and for good measure “those of other far-right pundits”, are “void of any real substance”.

Thus it is difficult to conceive of Chambers’ article as anything other than a rant posing as a plea for calm; equally difficult to avoid the conclusion that he has deliberately chosen his examples in order to establish a false equivalence between “shouting down” by the left and “dismissing rival commentary” by the right.

Whatever the truth of these assertions, it is surely not possible to imagine that these incoherent unsubstantiated maunderings constitute an example of “substantive speech”, however defined.