Dismissive Rant Hardly Constitutes Substantive Speech: A Response To Smyth & Walters

September 2017

By the way they responded to my article “Free Expression: A Means to Substantive Speech,” published in the April 2017 SAFS Newsletter, retired McMaster professors W. F. Smyth and Marianne Walters made it clear that they were not interested in an exchange of ideas; instead, they penned a dismissive rant to vent their frustrations over claims made in my commentary.

The main thrust of my piece was straight-forward: left-wing and right-wing extremists use similar tactics to avoid serious debate and to prevent substantive speech (higher truths) from emerging. Since truth can only be found in dialogue with others, both the hard left and hard right “limit truth telling and diminish our capacity as critical thinkers” by shouting down opponents, censoring their opinions, and rejecting their views outright. Smyth and Walters, however, remain unconvinced.

First, the authors found the idea of being “open to debate” regarding assertions (claims) difficult to process, ending their comment with “whatever that means.” Second, they appear confused about what “censoring deliberation” entails, adding “whose deliberations, who censors?” My article outlines methods of censorship in detail, as well as the players involved, but this nitpicking by Smyth and Walters serves only to distract readers from the core issue.

The authors are mainly upset by my argument that extremists on both ends of the political spectrum use similar strategies to halt deliberation. Smyth and Walters want SAFS members to believe that left-wing extremists are the real villains by way of their “illegal activities.” The authors accuse the left of shouting down opponents—an “infraction of the law”—whereas the right merely dismisses rival commentary. Left-wing protestors are lawbreakers; right-wing activists are just rude and obnoxious.

The authors neglect to mention my reference to Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s former star polemicist, who made a habit of telling his guests to “shut up,” interrupting them constantly from his bully pulpit whenever their views ran contrary to his. Ultraconservatives also employ an echo chamber of propagandist media outlets—Breitbart, Fox News, TheBlaze—as well as an abundance of strident radio screamers, insane bloggers, and fake news tweeters to drown out any opposition. The histrionics of Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh speak for themselves. That said, the far right knows a thing or two about inciting violence. At various Republican campaign rallies this past year, Donald Trump encouraged his followers to “rough up” protestors, “knock the crap out of them,” and have them “carried out in a stretcher.” (“Trump’s history of encouraging violence,” Times Video, election 2016.) The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a white nationalist killed one woman and injured nineteen others at a “Unite the Right” rally, also speak for themselves. So much for civil discourse.

Smyth and Walters do not help their cause by becoming apologists for Ezra Levant. For example, they claim that I presented “no relevant evidence or argument whatsoever” that Levant’s views were “void of any real substance.” In fact, I did offer clear and convincing evidence. Levant was found by a judge in a libel suit to be motivated by “ill will”; the judge said he “showed a reckless disregard for the truth.” (See “Ezra Levant loses libel case, must pay $80,000 to man he defamed as ‘illiberal Islamic fascist,’Nationla Post, 2014 and the court’s judgement.) By reasonable standards, pronouncements by judges constitute credible evidence. Anyone acquainted with Ezra Levant knows that slander, an “illegal activity,” has become his modus operandi. (Jonathan Kay, “The weirdest thing about Ezra Levant is he still thinks he’s right,” National Post, 2014.) It’s safe to say that slander represents a “significant affront to the values of our society,” chief among them, truth telling.

Smyth and Walters were again rattled when I mentioned how caricatures of Islam demonstrate a lack of nuance. They remarked how I was “ignorant” of a more “instructive article” in the SAFS 2016 Newsletter concerning Islamophobia. (SAFS Newsletter) Not surprisingly, they recommended their own article, even though neither author possesses any background whatsoever in Islamic or religious studies (Smyth is a mathematician and computer scientist; Walters’s expertise lies in psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences). Relying on the usual repertoire of anti-Islamic memes, Smyth and Walters label Islamophobia an “oxymoron” and come to the defense of right-wing critics who view Islamophobia as a “myth.” What they fail to discuss is how the far left and far right use the same tactic—deliberate misinformation—to spread anti-Muslim attitudes.

For instance, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, conservative columnist Mark Steyn remarked in the National Post that most Muslim immigrants in Europe support terrorist attacks, claiming they “either wish [for] or are indifferent to the death of the societies in which they live.” (Mark Steyn, “The barbarians are already inside. There’s nowhere to get away from them,” National Post, 2015.) This is patently false. The most extensive research of British Muslims ever conducted, a 2016 report titled “What Muslims Want,” found that the vast majority of British Muslims reject terrorism outright. (“What Muslims Want,ICMUnlimited (see page 529).) When asked “to what extent do you sympathise with or condemn people who commit terrorist actions as a form of political protest,” 90% condemned such actions, 5% didn’t know, and 3% neither condemned nor condoned political acts of terror. That’s hardly “most Muslims,” as Steyn asserts.

So-called principled liberals are also guilty of baseless claims against Muslims. (“Maher embodies anti-Muslim left,” Winnipeg Free Press, 2017.) For example, Bill Maher, host of Real Time, suggests that a “connecting tissue” binds 1.6 billion Muslims to terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State group (IS). Yet according to recent surveys, most people in countries with significant Muslim populations have an unfavorable view of IS, including virtually all respondents in Lebanon, 94% in Jordan, and 84% in the Palestinian territories. (It is important to note that of those interviewed in the Palestinian Territories, 10% had no opinion on ISIS.) Since these caricatures originate from prejudice, wilful ignorance, or fear, Islamophobia is undoubtedly an appropriate neologism to describe the anti-Muslim sentiments of extreme liberals and conservatives alike. Smyth and Walters are in deep denial if they think otherwise.

To reiterate, the central thrust of my piece is that that left-wing and right-wing extremists use similar tactics to prevent higher truths from being discovered through civil discourse. Dismissing my entire article as “incoherent,” Smyth and Walters made a conscious decision to use this edition of the SAFS Newsletter as a platform to rant and rave about how left-wing extremists pose a more insidious threat to free speech and truth telling than right-wing extremists. The reality is, the extreme left and right are flip sides of the same coin.